The True Story of ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ Explained

Pradeep
11 Min Read
  • The Osage people acquired wealth from oil-rich land, leading some white men to conspire in the murders of wealthy Osage individuals.
  • The FBI stepped in to investigate the series of murders and uncovered a widespread conspiracy involving corrupt guardians, judges, lawyers, doctors, and businessmen.
  • The trial of William Hale, one of the conspirators, revealed corruption and resulted in his conviction and a retrial, ultimately bringing justice for the victims.


Martin Scorsese’s movie, Killers of the Flower Moon, is adapted from a non-fiction novel written by David Grann, which delves into the killings of numerous Osage individuals in Oklahoma during the 1920s. This expansive narrative not only examines the murders, but also delves into themes of avarice, affluence, collusion, discrimination, and the formative years of the FBI. As we uncover the astonishing truths behind this account, as chronicled in Grann’s book, we comprehend why Scorsese’s latest film is considered one of his finest works.

Mollie and Ernest Burkhart, portrayed by Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio in Grann’s book and Scorsese’s film, were a married couple residing in Oklahoma during the time of the murders. Mollie, an Osage woman, and Ernest, a white man, were deeply affected by the killings, particularly the mysterious death of Mollie’s sister, which became a focal point in the elaborate plot to eliminate wealthy Osage individuals. Before delving into the unraveling of the conspiracy, it is important to comprehend the underlying reasons for the occurrences of these tragic deaths.

Killers of the Flower Moon

When oil is discovered in 1920s Oklahoma under Osage Nation land, the Osage people are murdered one by one – until the FBI steps in to unravel the mystery.

Release Date October 20, 2023

Director Martin Scorsese

Rating R

Runtime 206 minutes

The Osage people showed great wisdom in obtaining their wealth. They were aware long before the major oil companies in America that their territory was abundant in oil. They also understood that the land they owned was not attractive to white men. As a result, they obtained large areas of land that would keep them isolated from white men and ultimately lead to a huge financial gain once the presence of oil became widely known.

The Osage people had carefully planned their wealth, but some white men believed that it was unfair for the Indian Americans to have such riches. They contended that the federal government had given the Osage valuable land through sheer luck, and felt that something drastic needed to be done to redistribute the wealth back to white men. William Hale (portrayed by Robert De Niro) was one of those who resented the Osage’s wealth.

Hale was a gruff but well-connected Oklahoman who ensured that many local politicians owed their electoral success to him. He was also Ernest Burkhart’s uncle. Hale was ostensibly an ally to the Osage, befriending some of them and even defending them from certain Draconian government policies. He also participated in murder investigations when Osage people were shot dead, with their bodies discarded in ditches. From all outward appearances, Hale seemed to be a compassionate ally to the Osage. But the reality was far more sinister.

What Was Oklahoma Like in the 1920s?

JaNae Collins, Lily Gladstone, Cara Jade Myers, and Jillian Dion as Reta, Mollie, Anna, and Minnie in Killers of the Flower Moon
Image via App TV+

The government exerted significant pressure to integrate the Osage people into American culture. Osage children were compelled to attend American schools, use English, and embrace Christianity, which was a widespread practice for numerous Native tribes. The government also regulated the Osage’s financial decisions, with congressional members closely monitoring their expenses. Wealthy Native Americans were assigned “guardians” to manage their finances.

During this period of American history, many local police departments lacked sufficient staff and funding, or did not exist at all. As a result, the responsibility of investigating murders often fell to inexperienced individuals within the community who took it upon themselves to gather evidence and interrogate suspects. Those who were wealthy had the option to hire private detectives like the Pinkertons. These detectives were committed and persistent, sometimes crossing the boundaries between legal and illegal investigative methods in their quest to uncover hidden truths beneath layers of deceit and corruption.

The Osage Hired Pinkertons and Found Investigators To Look Into the Murders

Jesse Plemons in Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)
Image via Paramount Pictures

The Osage tribe enlisted Pinkerton agents to look into the concerning string of deaths among their members. As the investigations unfolded, it became evident that a significant conspiracy might be behind the violence. When an Osage delegate traveled to Washington D.C. to urge the federal government to investigate, he was tragically killed. It was believed that his assailants had followed him from Oklahoma to Washington, eliminating him as a message to anyone delving too deeply into the Osage murder cases.

In response to a horrific bombing that destroyed the home of an Osage resident and resulted in the deaths of three people, the governor of Oklahoma dispatched his chief investigator to the Osage territory. However, the investigator was soon discovered to be collaborating with local criminals and taking bribes, making him ineffective in solving the murders.

At last, Agent Tom White (portrayed by Jesse Plemons) from the recently established Federal Bureau of Investigation arrived in Oklahoma with the goal of being a fair and honest investigator, empowered to override local influential figures and resolve the string of violent killings. White put together a group of agents, which included an American Indian, to solve the case after a prolonged period of inactivity and unsuccessful leads.

How Did Agent White Uncover the Truth Behind the Osage County Murders?

Pete Yorn as Ace in Killers of the Flower Moon
Image via Apple TV+

In just a few months, Agent White’s skilled team of investigators started to uncover the plot behind the Osage deaths. They discovered that many of the supposed “guardians” responsible for overseeing wealthy Osage individuals were deeply corrupt. These guardians devised various methods to deceive the Osage, ultimately stealing at least $8 million from their charges. However, it wasn’t just the guardians involved in this extensive corruption, but also judges, lawyers, doctors, and businessmen across Oklahoma. A number of the most influential figures in society, to varying extents, were complicit in the embezzlement of funds from the Osage.

William Hale appeared to be one of the main beneficiaries of the murders. He gained $25,000 from the life insurance policy of a murdered Osage man and fraudulently claimed $6,000 from another deceased Osage man’s estate using a forged creditor’s note. Agent White realized that the orchestrated deaths of the Osage victims were intended to transfer land rights to Mollie Burkhart, the wife of William Hale’s nephew Ernest. The victims were specifically targeted to ensure that as much oil-rich land as possible would end up in Mollie’s possession. Hale’s ultimate plan was to eliminate Mollie so that all the land rights would then belong to his nephew Ernest.

What Happened During William Hale’s Trial?

Robert De Niro as William
Image via Apple Studios

Following the FBI’s accumulation of substantial evidence against Hale, the subsequent trial captivated the media with numerous unexpected developments. Ernest Burkhart confessed that his uncle, William Hale, was the mastermind behind the scheme to profit from the murders of Osage individuals. Burkhart also admitted that, under his uncle’s instruction, he had personally recruited the individual responsible for one of the Osage killings. However, during the trial, Ernest retracted his confession after a brief meeting with Hale’s attorneys. Later, he reversed his decision and pleaded guilty. Meanwhile, Hale alleged that FBI agents had employed harsh interrogation methods, such as death threats and electrocution, to extract confessions from their witnesses. Hale’s claims led influential figures in politics and the media to demand Agent White’s removal from the FBI, until it became evident that Hale’s accusations lacked credibility.

Following the revelation of corruption in the original trial of William Hale, a new trial took place which led to Hale being convicted of first-degree murder. He was given a life sentence, although it is likely that he would have received the death penalty if the victims had been white. Ernest Burkhart also received a life sentence. Mollie divorced him, shocked to discover that her own husband had been involved in the murders. Agent White resigned from the FBI and took on the role of warden at the prison where Hale was held.

The Osage killings became infamous among the Osage community as “the reign of terror.” Author David Grann, in his book Killers of the Flower Moon, delved into the aftermath of this reign and discovered that even though Hale was apprehended, there were probably numerous other white men like him who were accountable for the deaths of possibly hundreds of Native Americans. Sadly, Hale was likely just one of many who killed Osage people for financial gain. The actual toll of this reign of terror, in terms of lives lost and wealth stolen, will probably remain unknown.

Killers of the Flower Moon is now available to stream on Apple TV+ in the U.S.

Watch on Apple TV+

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