The Disturbing True Story Behind Martin Scorsese's "Killers of the Flower Moon"

Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese is no stranger to bringing true stories to life. His latest movie, "Killers of the Flower Moon," is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by David Grann, which details the disturbing, mysterious deaths of over 60 Osage people in Oklahoma in the 1920s, a period that was later deemed "The Reign of Terror."

The string of murders of the Osage people garnered widespread coverage across the country, and sparked an investigation by the Bureau of Investigation (BOI), a predecessor to the FBI. And yet, this brutal part of US history has rarely been explored in literature and school curriculum.

Actor JaNae Collins, who portrays the character Reta in the film, explained to Insider, "The story shows how racism and a general indifference toward Native lives allowed a genocidal land grab to happen and how a conspiracy of silence then prevented it from becoming part of our collective history."

As "Killers of the Flower Moon" hits theaters, read on to learn about the grisly true story behind the film.

Who Were The Osage Tribe?

In the late 19th century, the Osage, an Indigenous American tribe, were forced to move from their land in Kansas to territory that is now modern-day Oklahoma, as reported by History. The land was considered undesirable by many, with a rocky and hilly terrain that made it difficult to grow crops and farm. The Osage, however, knew that beneath the vast parcel of land was essentially a gold mine that contained an enormous supply of oil, according to The New York Times. The land was purchased by the Osage for roughly one million dollars in the early 1890s, and once they settled into the reservation, located in the northeastern region of Oklahoma, they also garnered everything the land had to offer, including, "oil, gas, coal [and] other minerals" (via The New York Times).

In 1897, large oil deposits were discovered on the land, but it couldn't be extracted without a cost. Per PBS, oil barons and prospectors like J. Paul Getty and Frank Phillips had to pay hundreds and even thousands of dollars to the Osage for leases and royalties, which made the tribe become the wealthiest group of people in the world at the time. By the early 1920s, the Osage were millionaires, with History reporting, "in 1923 alone, the 2,000 tribe members collectively received $30 million, the equivalent to $400 million today."

With their millions, the tribe became known for their lavish lifestyles, with many owning mansions, multiple cars, and having servants. While the Osage were reaping their deserved benefits, racism and jealousy made the tribe a target. Around this same time, Congress passed a law that deemed any full-blooded Osage person "incompetent" and required them to have a guardian to monitor their spending. To make matters worse, guardians and other legal heirs, whether Osage or not, were entitled to the royalties earned from oil production. This, of course, led to Osage persons being targeted and becoming victims of bribery, theft, and bride-buying/wife-selling arrangements.

Unfortunately, this wouldn't be the worst of the treatment, and the Osage were further victimized by a series of murders from 1921 to 1926, which the press named "The Reign of Terror."

The Osage Murders

In the early 1920s, many members of the Osage tribe were dying under mysterious circumstances, with the case of Anna Brown generating the most attention at the time. In May 1921, Brown, a wealthy Osage woman, was found dead in a ravine with a gunshot wound to the head, as reported by The National Museum of the American Indian. Brown was the sister of Mollie Burkhart, whose sister, Minnie, and mother, Lizzie Q., mysteriously died as a result of a "peculiar wasting illness," according to doctors. Burkhart was married to Ernest Burkhart, the nephew of William Hale, a cattleman known as "The King of Osage Hills." With three members of the same family dying so suspiciously close together, in addition to the deaths of nearly two dozen Osage people between 1921 and 1924, people of the tribe were terrified, and needed answers that the corrupt local law enforcement was not providing them.

According to The New York Times, the Osage requested the help of oilman Barney McBride to help solve the murders. A day after McBride arrived in Washington D.C. to bring the murders to the attention of the Bureau of Investigation (BOI), he was found dead with over 20 stab wounds to his body. After J. Edgar Hoover was appointed as the Bureau's director in 1924, he sent agents to Oklahoma to investigate the murders, some of whom were murdered during the process. As part of the BOI's investigation, Hoover established an undercover force that included Tom White, a former Texas Ranger, and John Wren, one of the Bureau's few Indigenous agents.

Throughout a two-year period, the BOI interviewed over 150 people to get to the bottom of the crime, but most of the evidence the agents collected was either rumors or unsubstantiated. By 1926, however, they hit a breakthrough.

Who Were the Killers and What Was Their Motive?

Under immense pressure during an interview by the BOI in 1926, Ernest Burkhart, husband of Mollie, revealed that his uncle, William Hale, was the mastermind behind many of the Osage murders. Per the National Museum of the American Indian, Hale orchestrated the killings with the ultimate goal of inheriting the oil rights and royalties owned by Mollie's family. He persuaded Burkhart to marry Mollie and devised a plan to murder members of Mollie's family, including her sisters, mother, brother-in-law, and cousin, and make a fortune off of their riches. Hale never did the killing himself, and instead hired locals like John Ramsey and Kelsie Morrison to carry out some of the murders.

William K. Hale, wealthy Oklahoman cattleman known as the
Everett Collection

Pictured: William Hale, 1926
Image Source: Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

What Happened to William Hale, John Ramsey, and Kelsie Morrison?

In January 1926, Hale, Burkhart, and Ramsey were taken into custody, as reported by the Oklahoma Historical Society. In April of that year, Morrison and Burkhart's brother, Byron Burkhart, were charged with the murder of Anna Brown. In June 1926, Ernest Burkhart pleaded guilty for his involvement in the murders, specifically for the murder of William Smith, and was sentenced to life in prison. He testified against Hale and Ramsey, and in January and November of 1929, they were sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Henry Roan, cousin of Anna Brown. All three men were eventually paroled, and Burkhart was fully pardoned by the governor of Oklahoma in 1966.

What Happened to Ernest Burkhart?

Ernest was initially paroled in 1937 but was sent back to jail after robbing an Osage home. He was paroled again in 1959, per Grann's reporting in "Killers of the Flower Moon," and he was initially banned from Oklahoma, so he worked on a sheep farm in New Mexico. He applied for a pardon because he wished to return to Oklahoma, and when it was granted he moved back to Osage County. According to Grann, his son Cowboy would sometimes visit him, though his daughter Elizabeth did not. Ernest died in 1986.

What Happened to Mollie Burkhart

Mollie divorced Ernest and married John Cobb. Grann reports in his book that Mollie's descendants said that this was a good marriage and a happy time for Mollie. She ultimately passed away in 1937 but her death was not considered suspicious. Margie Burkhardt, Cowboy's daughter, told Grann that it was particularly painful for her father and aunt Elizabeth to grow up in Osage County given the actions of their father and the deaths of most of their extended family.

How Many Osage Were Murdered?

Once Hale and his coconspirators were sent to prison, the FBI considered the case closed but they hadn't actually linked Hale to all of the Osage deaths. Officially, the Reign of Terror took place between 1921 and 1926, but Grann found in his research that there had been other Osage murdered for their head rights both before and after those dates. He noted that many of these murders were never investigated by law enforcement. So while the FBI puts the total number of murders at around 24, Grann told NPR in 2017, "What you begin to realize, the deeper you dig, is that this was not a crime about who did it as much as who didn't do it — that there was a culture of killing taking place during this period and that there were scores if not hundreds of murders."

"Killers of the Flower Moon" is in theaters now.