The True Story and Crimes Behind New Film ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

Martin Scorsese’s new film “Killers of the Flower Moon” is getting rave reviews from audiences for its artistic portrayal of a real-life tragedy: a string of murders committed against the Osage Indians in the 1920’s. 

Adapted from David Grann’s bestselling book, the film presents a close look at the events through the relationship between Ernest Burkhart, a war veteran, and Mollie Burkhart, an Osage Indian woman. Their emotional interactions on screen engage viewers, yet the genuine accounts behind the cinematic adaptation prove even more intriguing.

The Osage Indian murders is one of the most sinister crimes in American history.
– David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon

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Taking place in the formative years of what ultimately became the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Osage murders were instrumental in shaping American history. If watching the movie has stoked your curiosity and you want to delve deeper into the details of these grisly murders, read below as we unravel the realities that inspired this compelling silver-screen recounting.


What is the True Crime Story Behind Killers of the Flower Moon?

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Facts at a glance

  • Who: Osage Indians and wealthy, power-hungry business men. 
  • What: A string of murderous acts, which involved shootings, poisonings, and bombings.
  • Where: Osage County, Oklahoma
  • When: Early 1920s, specifically during the period of these brutal murders called the ‘Reign of Terror,’ between 1921 and 1926.
  • Why: The victims were members of the wealthy Osage Nation who became targets due to the discovery of oil on their land.


The Osage Indian murders were a series of killings that took place in the early 1920s in Osage County, Oklahoma. The victims were members of the Osage Nation, a Native American tribe that had become incredibly wealthy due to the discovery of oil on their land. This newfound wealth made them targets for greed and violence.

The specific details of the murders involved a range of methods, including shootings, poisonings, and bombings. The perpetrators often targeted family members of the Osage victims in order to inherit their wealth. These crimes were not isolated incidents but rather a systematic campaign to eliminate the Osage and take control of their valuable assets.

This string of brutal murders became known as the ‘Reign of Terror,’ and took place between 1921 and 1926. The death toll of the Osage murders reached at least 24, although some think the number could have been as high as 60. The methods of murder were varied and calculated – from suspicious illnesses and seemingly accidental deaths to outright and brazen assassinations. 


The Motive Behind the Killings

The Osage murders involved conspiracy, greed, and corruption.

The early 20th century brought an unexpected twist of fortune for the Osage Nation in Oklahoma—the discovery of vast oil reserves beneath their land. This valuable natural resource transformed them into some of the wealthiest people per capita in the world. As part of the arrangement they had with the U.S. government, each enrolled tribal member, around 2,229 in total, received a headright, a share in the proceeds from oil and other mineral revenues. However, due to prejudiced laws and regulations, the Osage needed a white guardian to access and manage their wealth, even if the Osage individuals were competent adults. 

Meanwhile, this newfound wealth attracted the attention of outsiders who saw an opportunity to exploit the Osage people and their resources. The motive behind the killings was to gain control over the Osage’s oil wealth by eliminating the rightful owners and beneficiaries of the oil revenues.


How the Murders and Investigation Began

One of the most notorious cases within the Osage murders was that of Anna Brown, an Osage woman who was found dead in her home in 1921. Her death was initially ruled as natural causes, but suspicions arose when her sister, Minnie, also died under similar circumstances. It was later discovered that both women had been poisoned with a lethal dose of strychnine. This revelation led to a deeper investigation into the deaths of other Osage individuals, revealing a pattern of murder and conspiracy.


The Involvement and Significance of the FBI

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In the face of the mounting crisis and a growing demand for justice, the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) took on the case. The Osage murders became one of the FBI’s first major homicide cases. Led by young J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI began its inquiry into these cold-blooded murders. Their investigation arrested multiple individuals, including prominent local figures, culminating in the groundbreaking trials of the 1920s. 

While confronting the chilling layers of conspiracy against the Osage tribe, the FBI experienced numerous uphill battles. They were emerging into the world of law enforcement at a time where forensic science was yet to be adopted comprehensively, making the resolution of the case rather challenging. Local jurisdictions, dominated by corruption and prejudice, posed a significant hurdle as well. 

The Investigation Process 

Dispatching experienced agents and undercover operatives to the Osage County, Hoover pursued an aggressive approach towards the investigation. Agents disguised as cattle ranchers, insurance salesmen, and oil prospectors infiltrated the local communities and collected information. Their aim was to penetrate the veiled conspiracy and gather evidence against the killers. 

One of the key figures during this investigation was Tom White, a former Texas Ranger. His experience in combative frontier situations and the ability to deal with outlaw behavior made him the ideal case Agent-in-Charge. White assembled a team of undercover agents and began a covert operation that dug deep into the layers of intricately designed criminal conspiracy.

Unmasking the Killers 

In their effective probe, the FBI was able to uncover the murderers. Evidence led them directly to a powerful, seemingly respectable local businessman, William Hale who was also known as the “King of Osage Hills”. William Hale, along with his nephews Ernest Burkhart and Bryan Burkhart, executed the sinister plot. 

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The series of murders were not arbitrary acts of violence but a systematic and organized crime. The motive was clear – to gain control over the victims’ wealth, which was tied up in the oil-rich land they had inherited. In a twisted plot, the murderers not only assassinated their victims but also, in some cases, married into their families to inherit the oil wealth. 

In the end, the tireless efforts of the FBI brought the perpetrators to justice, ending the criminal conspiracy that had befallen the Osage tribe.


What Impact Did the Osage Murders Have?

The impact of the Osage murders on the nation was instrumental in shaping the future of law enforcement and the justice system. The investigation into the murders highlighted the need for federal intervention, as local authorities were unable or unwilling to effectively address the crimes. This led to the establishment of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the appointment of J. Edgar Hoover as its director. The Osage murders served as a catalyst for the development of modern investigative techniques and the professionalization of law enforcement. The case also brought attention to the importance of preserving and respecting the rights of Native American communities, leading to reforms in federal policies and legislation aimed at protecting their interests.


The Film vs. The True Story

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Indeed, comparisons between Scorsese’s adaptation, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” and the real incidents that inspired it offer fascinating insights. Primarily, the film paints a horrific picture of the events that transpired in Oklahoma. Scorsese decisively pivots the story’s perspective from Tom White, an agent, to the Osage family caught in the vortex of the early 1920s oil lease rights murders. 

The film, though derived from a true story,  takes a more creative angle, illustrating the core narrative through the lens of Mollie and Ernest Burkhart’s relationship. When members of Mollie’s family, who also held lucrative headrights died mysteriously, the ownership went to her, making her a prime target during the ‘Reign of Terror.’. Meanwhile, Ernest is implicated as an accomplice to the series of murders. The film explores the impact on their relationship as suspiciions and emotions rise. 

Despite the cinematic liberties taken, the movie seems to stays true to its source material, the real-life murders of Osage Nation members. Audiences are thus given a riveting yet tragic depiction of these events, from Mollie’s rise to wealth through inherited oil rights, her plagued health, to the shocking revelation about her husband’s betrayal. 


Final Thoughts

The ramifications of the Osage murders were multi-faceted. The immediate impact was a significant blow to the prosperity and well-being of the Osage tribe. On a broader spectrum, the murders exposed huge faults in the American criminal justice system and led to much-needed reforms. Furthermore, the profound effect it had on Osage cultural heritage was far-reaching and continues to resonate even today. 

This is likely precisely why “Killers of the Flower Moon” is resonating with audiences. The Osage Murders serve as a stark reminder of the oft-repeated expression never to forget our past, for it is doomed to repeat itself.

Lou Nightingale
Author: Lou Nightingale

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