Martin Scorsese’s latest triumph, Killers of the Flower Moon, is about to hit theaters, and it tells a story that is as shocking as it is based on true events. Longtime Scorsese collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio is back, this time joined by Robert De Niro and Lily Gladstone, with an ensemble cast that includes John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser, Tantoo Cardinal, and Jesse Plemons, among other big talents. It’s a stellar cast to tell a complex story.

Some may know Killers of the Flower Moon is based on David Grann’s 2017 book of the same name. What is less well-known, however, is that that book chronicles real and horrifying events that happened in Oklahoma over the decades of the 1910s-1930s. In that time, at least 60 members of the Osage Native American tribe were murdered in what became a years-long string of unsolved murders until the FBI, led by J. Edgar Hoover, finally stepped in to investigate. What they found was a complicated web of lies, greed, murder, and a callous disregard for rights or human life.

Killers of the Flower Moon Tells The Story Of The Osage Indian Murders

From 1918 to 1931, wealthy Osage Tribe natives started turning up dead all over Osage County, Oklahoma. While the murders went unreported, covered up, or written off as unfortunate circumstances for years, it soon became clear that they weren’t accidents. The case got even stranger when a number of the murders in a 5-year period from 1921 to 1926 were connected to the same family. In that time period, at least seven members of a one prominent Osage family died under mysterious circumstances, all seeming accidents. As it turns out, they weren’t accidents at all, but deliberate attempts to steal something the Osage families had: land rich with oil.

In 1897, something changed the lives and fortunes of the members of the Osage Indian Reservation forever: oil was discovered on their land. At the time, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the leases for oil production and exploration. Through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as part of the process for prepping Oklahoma to become a full-fledged state of the union, each person on the Osage tribal roll was allotted a parcel of property on that oil-rich land. As a result, the members of the Osage Tribe became very rich, very quickly. In 1923, it was estimated that the Osage people took in more than $30 million, more than $400 million today. Things seemed to be going well for the rich Native Americans, who were finally regaining their wealth.

There was just one small problem: The laws at the time enabled the headrights to the land and oil production royalties to be passed down to any legal heirs, whether Osage or not. And with that loophole, dozens of white opportunists came to Osage County looking to worm their way into a rich Osage native family, first by marriage, then by murder. It got far worse when, in 1921, Congress passed a law that demanded that any Osage member, even only half-Osage, be granted a conservator to retain guardianship of their wealth and oil royalties until they demonstrated the “competency” needed to properly manage their own finances. With most of these men being appointed financial guardians being white, it set up the Osage people to be taken advantage of, both through recordkeeping and through more vicious methods. Not only were a number of the Osage people swindled out of their money, but an astonishing 60 or more were murdered in order for the white men who either had control of their finances or who had married into their families to gain the oil royalties headrights.

Killers of the Flower Moon Characters Are All Real Historical Figures

It’s common with movies based on a true story to create fictional characters in order to allow for a looser interpretation of historical events. The main characters in Killers of the Flower Moon, however, and most of the supporting characters, are all based on real people. Though Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ernest Burkhardt and Lily Gladstone’s Mollie Burkhardt are set up as the protagonists, it’s really Robert De Niro’s William Hale who, as the trailers indicate, is the central antagonist and the catalyst for the events of the movie.

Mollie Burkhardt’s family was the target of the string of mysterious deaths in the early 1920s. Mollie herself narrowly escaped dying when her sister’s house exploded, killing Mollie’s sister and the house servant; Mollie’s brother-in-law died from wounds sustained in the explosion four days later. Mollie had planned to stay at her sister’s house that night, but, because her son had an infection that required them to travel to see a doctor, she wasn’t in residence at the time of the explosion. However, she suspected that the deaths weren’t an accident and that she was next – after all, with the deaths of her relatives, she was the sole owner of the oil headrights for her family and she’d suddenly contracted a mysterious illness that kept her sick.

As it turns out, the problem was sleeping right beside her at night: Her husband, Ernest Burkhardt, had been strongarmed by his uncle, William Hale, a rancher turned political boss, into a murderous plot to eliminate members of her family in order to gain their wealth. As the FBI uncovered in its investigation, Hale was responsible for every one of the murders of Mollie’s family that ravaged Osage County from 1921-1926. If Molly had not divorced Ernest and Hale’s plot had not been exposed by Ernest himself to FBI investigators, then both Mollie and Ernest would have been murdered; Hale’s ultimate goal was to remove anyone in his way, even his own nephew, to gain the Osage oil headrights of Mollie’s family.

Killers of the Flower Moon Only Shows a Small Piece Of History

While Killers of the Flower Moon does an astonishingly good job of portraying horrific events and a deadly historical conspiracy, however, it’s not the full story. Mollie’s family was the most prominent of the Osage County Native American murders, but they weren’t the only ones. The known murders spanned a period of thirteen years, not just the five that targeted Mollie’s family. The murders of over sixty wealthy Osage members were traced back to these killings over oil headrights.

It’s now estimated that up to 150 Osage natives may have been killed in the ongoing plots. It’s impossible to determine the exact number of Osage Native Americans who were murdered, or their identities. Thanks to more recent investigations and modern technology, however, it’s been discovered that a far greater number of suspicious deaths may be tied to the oil plots, but were simply covered up or went unreported. Killers of the Flower Moon shines a spotlight on only one section of time and one group of murders during this terrible time; it’s worth researching the entire history of the murders to get a full scope of the true story behind the movie.

  • Editorial