The Osage Murders & Biggest Changes Explained

Warning: Contains SPOILERS for Killers of the Flower Moon!

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Summary

  • Killers of the Flower Moon sheds light on a dark time in U.S. history, exposing a despicable crime ring behind the Osage murders and the injustices endured by the victims and their families.
  • Based on the true story documented in David Grann’s novel, the movie explores the reign of terror that plagued the Osage Indian Nation, revealing a debased conspiracy coverup driven by racism and greed.
  • Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Ernest Burkhart showcases his skill as an understated performer, delving into the complex and unsympathetic character who played a crucial role in the murders.

Martin Scorsese’s star-studded Western crime epic Killers of the Flower Moon is based on the grisly true story of the Osage murders. The movie stars longtime Scorsese collaborators Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, as well as Lily Gladstone, Brendan Fraser, John Lithgow, and many more. At almost three and a half hours long, it provides a thorough examination of the “Reign of Terror” that gripped Osage County, Oklahoma, and the United States as dozens of members of the Osage Indian Nation were brutally murdered in the early 1900s, necessitating the involvement of the FBI in its first major homicide investigation.

The Osage murders represent one of the most gruesome true-crime stories in American history, as well as one of the most debased conspiracy coverups of all time. Even now, public awareness remains shockingly low for the number of innocent lives claimed by greed and racism, but based on Killers of the Flower Moon’s cast and story, the film promises to shed a blinding light on the despicable crime ring responsible for so much loss of life. The status of Scorsese and his cast provides visibility to a dark time in U.S. history with the promise of enlightening viewers about the injustices the victims and their families have endured for decades.

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Killers Of The Flower Moon Is Based On A Book About The Osage Murders

Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart and Lily Gladstone as Mollie Burkhart in a field in Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon is based on the 2017 non-fiction novel Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by American journalist David Grann. Killers of the Flower Moon‘s book focuses on members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma who, in the 1920s, were some of the richest people (per capita) in the world thanks to oil found beneath their land. From living in mansions and being driven in chauffeured cars to sending their children to the best schools in Europe, they lived a life of luxury on land given to them by Thomas Jefferson in the 1700s and once deemed “worthless.”

Convinced that the Osage didn’t know how to properly handle their newfound wealth, a guardian program was established consisting entirely of white Oklahomans, and even the smallest purchases (like toothpaste) were monitored and required approval. The FBI was in its infancy, but since anyone who investigated the murders was killed themselves, a young J. Edgar Hoover took up the case, and it became the organization’s first major murder investigation. Hoover created an undercover team including Texas Ranger Tom White and one of the few First American agents in the bureau to track down the killers and bring them to justice.

Killers Of The Flower Moon’s Timeline Of Events

killers of the flower moon mystery

How much time is covered before Killers of the Flower Moon‘s ending is a bit vague in the movie, but the murders that repeatedly devastated the Osage Nation lasted for years. The movie does not explicitly state what year it takes place in, but Ernest Burkhart’s time in Oklahoma begins around 1920 or 1921. He quickly reconnects with his uncle William King Hale and meets his future wife Mollie Kyle. The timeline of events that unfold from here happens over the span of five or six years, depending on when exactly Ernest arrives in Oklahoma, leading up to the trial that takes place in 1926.


Related: Why Killers Of The Flower Moon Is Rated R

Who Committed The Osage Murders, Why, & How Many People Died

Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart and Lily Gladstone as Mollie Burkhart sitting at a table in Killers of the Flower Moon

The Osage Murders, also known as the “Reign of Terror,” were documented in the newspapers between 1921 and 1926 and included dozens of Osage victims (some of them all from the same family), but it’s thought that the killings actually began as early as the 1910s. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, watched her entire family be killed in front of her, including her older sister Anna Brown shot, her cousin Charles Whitehorn, and her mother Lizzie Q. Kyle slowly poisoned. One by one, more Osage were murdered under mysterious circumstances, growing from twenty-four victims when Hoover and the FBI got involved to over sixty.

As Grann’s novel reveals, the murders were not simply the rogue deeds of one or two people in a tiny Oklahoma town, but part of a concerted conspiracy by white townspeople, lawmen, and lawmakers that extended all the way to Washington, DC. Fear and greed got the better of cattle barons like William Hale who looked at the suddenly wealthy Osage with contempt and saw an opportunity, murdering them for their oil-rich land and the headrights that granted them extensive annual royalties. Even members of Hoover’s own investigation team were aware of the true nature of the murders and turned a blind eye due to avarice and racism.

How Many People Were Charged For The Osage Murders

Robert De Niro as William Hale and Brendan Fraser as W. S. Hamilton sit in court in Killers of the Flower Moon

Unfortunately, most of the Osage murders were never prosecuted, but a few perpetrators were convicted, including cattle baron William Hale, who ordered Anna Brown to be murdered by Kelsie Morrison to gain control of her oil rights. Hale led a crime ring known as “King of the Osage Hills” with his nephews Byron and Ernest Burkhart, all of whom conspired to gain the headrights of prominent tribal members. The Department of the Interior charged a few dozen members of the Osage guardian program with corruption in 1924, after they had already swindled their charges out of millions of dollars, but each of them settled out of court.


Related: How To Watch Killers Of The Flower Moon

As evidenced by people like Hale and his familial accomplices, the members of the Osage guardian program, and the lawmakers who protected them, many people knew about the true nature of the Osage murders and did nothing. Hale, and others like him, had come from Texas and surrounding states to work in the oil fields of Osage County and, finding the Osage so fabulously wealthy, sought to take it for themselves. Several men married Osage women to obtain their headrights and then slowly poisoned them to death, their murders covered up by coroner reports that indicated they had taken their own lives.

How Killers Of The Flower Moon’s Osage Murders Changed U.S. Law

Robert De Niro as William Hale confronting Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart in Killers of the Flower Moon

In 1925, the United States Congress passed a law in an effort to the Osage by prohibiting any non-Osage person from inheriting the headrights from Osage who had half or more Native American ancestry. At the same time, the government continued to manage Osage royalties from their oil lands, and even decades later, the Osage Nation has fought the Department of the Interior about the mismanagement of royalties that were overdue. As recently as 2011, the Department of the Interior had to settle for $380 million and commit to improving the trust system.

In 1935, the Osage murders were dramatized in an episode of G-Men made with FBI cooperation, but even by the 1940s and 1950s, public recollection of the Osage murders was already fading. Not even Jimmy Stewart’s 1959 movie The FBI Story, which mentioned the Kyle family murders, did much to raise public awareness. Despite being the subject of other novels, Grann’s work has done the most to draw attention to the true story of the Osage murders that still cast a shadow over the Osage people to this day.

Was Leonardo DiCaprio’s Killers Of The Flower Moon Character A Real Person?

Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart looking troubled at night in Killers of the Flower Moon

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Ernest Burkhart in Killers of the Flower Moon, and his character is based on the real nephew of cattleman William Hale. Hale persuaded his nephew to marry Mollie Kyle, a full-blooded member of the Osage tribe, before arranging for her mother, sisters, brother-in-law, and cousin Henry Roan, to be killed so that Ernest could claim the headrights of the family and cash in on their insurance policies. Mollie had already been poisoned for some time by the time the FBI began their investigations. Ernest and others were put on trial over the course of several years during the 1920s, and Ernest pleaded guilty to the conspiracy.

The role is a complex one for DiCaprio, who is no stranger to playing unscrupulous characters in movies like Wolf of Wall Street and Django Unchained. While those characters were flashy and eccentric, Ernest is a return to DiCaprio’s skills as an understated performer. That Ernest Burkhart’s actions were so deplorable, and his sentencing so ultimately lenient will make him very unsympathetic. Still, DiCaprio tries to humanize him with a performance that could garner him consideration in early predictions for Oscars 2024.

Which Real-Life Characters Appear In Killers Of The Flower Moon

Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart kneeling down in front of Lily Gladstone as Mollie Burkhart in Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon has several real-life characters, including William Hale (Robert De Niro), his nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), Ernest’s wife Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), her mother Lizzie Q (Tantoo Cardinal), Texas Ranger Tom White (Jesse Plemons), Legislative Assembly member W.S. Hamilton (Brendan Fraser), and Prosecutor Leaward (John Lithgow). Supporting characters include Mollie’s sister Anna Brown (Cara Jade Myers), her cousin Henry Roan (William Belleau), and petty criminal Kelsie Morrison (Louis Cancelmi).

Grann outlines that were it not for the diligence of FBI officer Tom White and the other members of his undercover team who could be trusted, William Hale and the other members of his crime ring wouldn’t have been brought to justice. The case helped legitimize the FBI in the eyes of the rest of the nation and solidify Hoover’s future leadership. Its corruption, apparent from the beginning, however, would be something that dogged its reputation for several more decades to come.

How Killers Of The Flower Moon Changes The True Story

killers of the flower moon mollie

Killers of the Flower Moon is a mostly faithful adaptation of the true story and the book it is based on. The biggest differences emerge through how Killers of the Flower Moon‘s book is framed through the lens of Tom White’s investigation, with Scorsese electing to center the movie around Ernest and Mollie’s lives. This change was understandably made to avoid any white savior storytelling that makes Tom White the hero of the story. Instead, Killers of the Flower Moon stays focused on the Osage Nation and the devastating nature of these murders, as well as the psychological state of Ernest Burkhart.

There are other true story changes or events that Killers of the Flower Moon leaves out altogether. The movie does not outright show that Bill dies days after the bombing on his and Anna’s house, and it also leaves out the fact that he revealed his suspects behind the Osage murders to authorities before passing. While Killers of the Flower Moon is filled with death, it does not include every known or suspected victim either. This is again the result of staying more focused on how Hale and Ernest’s plans affected Mollie’s family specifically. Other true story changes include Mollie meeting President Coolidge and only hiring one private investigator.

Did Ernest Know He Was Poisoning Mollie In Real Life?

Killers of the Flower Moon leaves Ernest’s knowledge about poisoning Mollie up to viewers to interpret whether he is lying or truly in the dark about this part of the plan. However, the real Ernest Burkhart likely had no such doubts. Ernest testified about Hale’s usual methods of using poisoned moonshine and was knowledgeable about how his uncle used poison to kill other members of the Osage Nation. Although a confession to poisoning his wife never was made, Ernest Burkhart’s understanding of his uncle’s operation and overall plan to inherit Mollie’s family’s riches indicate his compliance with the plan.

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