The Bloodcurdling True Story Behind Killers of the Flower Moon

Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon, nominated for 10 Academy Awards heading into the 2024 Oscars on March 10, tells a story of treachery, greed and murder that's all too real.

By Natalie Finn Mar 10, 2024 2:00 PMTags
Watch: Killers of the Flower Moon: Breaking Down the Tragic True Crime Story!

If evil can be pure, there's pure evil on display in Killers of the Flower Moon.

But unlike the sort of terror you shake off once the movie is over and the lights come back on, this is the kind that really happened. Certain narrative choices aside, the story that unfolds in Martin Scorsese's three-hour-plus epic—which is nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, ahead of the 2024 Oscars on March 10—is based squarely on the 2017 nonfiction best-seller of the same name by David Grann.

And while Grann kept the whodunit part more of a mystery as he detailed how the investigation into the murders of dozens of Osage people in 1920s Oklahoma gave rise to the modern FBI, the film puts the two-faced perpetrators front and center so their treachery is on full display.

"It's a completely forgotten part of American history," Leonardo DiCaprio, who was originally going to star as the federal agent who cracked the case but opted to play the complicit Ernest Burkhart, told British Vogue ahead of the Apple Original film's October theatrical release. "And an open wound that still festers."

Added Lily Gladstone, who won a Golden Globe and is nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her turn as Ernest's Osage wife, Mollie Burkhart, "It's not that long ago that the Reign of Terror happened. I don't want to label this a western. I'm happy that it's being labeled a tragedy."

2024 Oscar Nominations: Snubs and Surprises

And while it's officially considered a drama as far as awards season is concerned, feel free to file the film under horror as well.

Apple Originals

What is the true crime story at the heart of Killers of the Flower Moon?

The crimes perpetrated against Osage Nation occurred on multiple levels, but in a nutshell: Oil was discovered on the Osage Indian Reservation, located in what was then known as Oklahoma Territory, toward the end of the 19th century. Through the Office (later the Bureau) of Indian Affairs, which fell under the Department of the Interior, the U.S. government leased the land from the Osage to drill and pump oil, and tribe members received royalty payments.

Ahead of Oklahoma becoming a state in 1907, every Osage person on the tribal rolls was allotted 657 acres of land by the federal government, and each accordingly received the headrights to whatever oil production occurred on their property. Quarterly checks paid to each tribe member grew from a few dollars to thousands. Grann notes in his book that, in 1923, the tribe as a whole took in $30 million—equivalent to more than $500 million today.

But as the Osage, who communally retained the land's mineral rights, became extremely wealthy, Congress passed a 1921 federal law that deemed them incapable of being in charge of their individual holdings (a.k.a. all that oil money).

Bettmann / Contributor (Getty Images)

Court-appointed guardians (all white men) were brought in to manage the Osages' assets, which is why Gladstone's Mollie, her tone heavy with weary contempt, has to identify herself as "incompetent" every time she goes to a meeting to request access to her own money.

And in the meantime, people had started to die.

At least 60 members of the Osage tribe were reported killed between 1918 and 1931—though investigators later said there could have been hundreds of victims who fell prey to what amounted to an insidious conspiracy to strip the Osage of their oil wealth.

Borrowing the blood-drenched term from the spate of public executions that occurred during the French Revolution, newspapers in January 1926 called the murders a "Reign of Terror." 

2024 Oscar Nominees at Their First Academy Awards 

Who were Ernest Burkhart and Mollie Burkhart?

Ernest grew up poor in Texas and set out for Oklahoma in 1912, when he was 19 (another reason why DiCaprio, 49, wasn't originally a given for the role). He was working as a taxi driver and running errands for his uncle, cattle baron and local powerbroker William King Hale, when he started courting Mollie Kyle. 

Mollie, a registered member of Osage Nation (and therefore a possessor of headrights), fell in love with Ernest, who was six years her junior, despite—as emphasized in Scorsese's film—her astute assumption that he was at least partially in it for the money. She calls him, not without affection, a coyote.

Apple Originals

They married in 1917 and moved into a spacious new house, where they enjoyed a comfortable life with servants and several cars. The couple became parents to daughter Elizabeth and son James (a third child, Anna, died of whooping cough) and Mollie's mother, Lizzie, also moved in with them after her husband died.

Ernest did dote on Mollie, according to Grann, learning her indigenous language even though she spoke English and caring for her when she suffered from the painful side effects of diabetes. A lawyer in town who knew the couple wrote in his diary that Ernest's "devotion to his Indian wife and his children is unusual...and striking."

TV's Most Killer True Crime Transformations

What happened to Mollie Burkhart's family?

Mollie's younger sister Minnie Smith died in 1918 at the age of 27 of what was recorded at the time as a "peculiar wasting illness," per Grann, after which her husband Bill Smith married Minnie and Mollie's sister Reta.

Apple Originals

In May 1921, Mollie's eldest sister, Anna Brown—a divorcée who was known to enjoy a night out drinking and dancing (and carried a small gun in her purse for protection)—was found dead by Three Mile Creek, near the town of Fairfax, Okla., shot once in the back of the head. She'd been missing for a week after last being seen with Bryan Burkhart—Ernest's younger brother and her sometimes-boyfriend—who swore to Mollie he drove Anna straight home after they had a heated argument at Mollie and Ernest's house.

On the same day Anna's body was found, a father and son out hunting discovered the remains of 30-year-old Charles Whitehorn—a cousin of Mollie's who'd seemingly disappeared into thin air a week before Anna—on a hill north of Pawhuska, near the base of an oil derrick. He'd been shot twice in the head.

The Best Oscars Dresses of All Time

Ernest's uncle Hale—an avowed friend of the Osage people whose charitable donations to their schools, hospitals and other institutions predated the discovery of oil on the land—served as a pallbearer at Anna's funeral and promised Mollie he'd get justice for her sister.

The Department of the Interior's Office of Indian Affairs held an inquest and Mollie testified about the day she last saw her sister. Bryan was briefly jailed—as was Ernest, just in case he was covering up for his brother—but not charged, there not being any physical evidence connecting him to the murder.

Mollie's mother Lizzie died in July 2021. In January 1923, Mollie's cousin Harry Roan was found in his car, shot dead. Two months later, an explosion at Reta and Bill Smith's house killed the couple and their housekeeper.

Mollie inherited Reta's headrights. And as her own health continued to decline, she was convinced that her mother and sister hadn't just been taken ill, they'd been poisoned. And she couldn't help feeling that she was doomed as well.

Apple Originals

How did Tom White and the FBI get involved in the Osage murder case?

Local lawmen "were then still largely amateurs," Grann wrote. Deputies could point and shoot (and they did, often) but most didn't have the tools or the training to solve complicated cases. And, sadly, dozens of deaths among the Osage didn't qualify as the highest priority for authorities in Fairfax.

News of the crimes eventually made it to Washington, D.C., though not without further casualties: Barney McBride, a rich white oilman from Oklahoma and a friend to the Osage, traveled to D.C. to meet with federal officials about the murders and he never returned home. He received a telegram at his boarding house warning him to watch his step, and the next morning he was found beaten and stabbed to death in a culvert in Maryland, his body stripped naked.

After McBride was killed, a homicide that made national news, local attorney W. W. Vaughn started investigating allegations that Osage were being poisoned. The father of 10 kept the evidence he was gathering in a safe and told his wife where to find it before he set off for Oklahoma City to meet with a dying man who suspected he'd been fatally dosed. After the meeting, Vaughn phoned the local sheriff and said he was coming home with enough evidence to put at least one killer behind bars.

Vaughn got on the train but never made it home. He was found dead, also sans clothes, along the tracks. When his widow went to open the safe, it had been cleaned out of anything having to do with the Osage killings.

Apple Originals

"Several people who had tried to catch the killers themselves had been killed," Grann told NPR in 2017. "And there was a genuine sense of terror. The Osage would hang lights around their houses so that at night they would be illuminated. Doors were locked. Children were not allowed to wander the streets. Many Osage moved to California. Osage would later refer to this as a diaspora."

Terrified but undeterred, the tribe issued a resolution asking for assistance from federal investigators, sensing by then that local authorities either couldn't—or worse yet, wouldn't—provide the help they needed.

And in 1925, help arrived in the form of Thomas White Sr. from the Bureau of Investigation. (It would be rechristened the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935.)

White, a former Texas Ranger, was head of the bureau's Houston office. When he was assigned the Osage case, he put together a team of fellow frontier-lawmen types—including an agent whom Grann suspected was the only American Indian on the force—to go undercover as cowboys and ingratiate themselves with the locals.

Apple Originals

Who was behind the Osage murders?

White's team uncovered the most nefarious of schemes, a tangled web of murder, theft and manipulation that was masterminded by the Osages' No. 1 local benefactor, Bill Hale.

"There was a complicity to these killings because they involved not only the perpetrators," Grann told NPR. "They involve morticians who would then cover up the crimes. They involve lawmen who then would not investigate them. They involve neighbors who would never speak out, reporters who would not dig into the crimes. There were so many willing executioners."

Along with the triggerman John Ramsey, Hale was arrested for the murder of Harry Roan, having served as a pallbearer at his friend's funeral while also holding a $25,000 life insurance policy on the deceased. Hale skirted federal agents' attempt to take him into custody, instead showing up nattily dressed in a suit and tie to turn himself in.

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

"He was a guy who was well liked in the community, if you will, or feared, or both," Robert De Niro, an Oscar nominee for supporting actor for his shaking-your-hand-with-a-smile-while-stabbing-you-in-the-back turn as Hale, told The Hollywood Reporter. "He felt he was a genuine contributor to the community, and he felt entitled to do things that were not really very nice, if you want to put it like that."

Ernest was charged with murder for his role in the conspiracy that resulted in the deaths of Mollie's sisters Anna and Reta and brother-in-law Bill. He had also been poisoning his wife at Hale's behest to aid his uncle's plot to get his hands on the roughly $7 million in headrights that had belonged to Mollie's suspiciously shrinking family. 

Mollie "had to sit through the trials and listen to the evidence presented and learn the secrets of her husband, that the secrets of this murder were right inside her house," Grann said. "And it was utterly devastating to her, as anyone would imagine."

The Biggest Shockers in Oscars History

By the time Ernest testified against his uncle—investigators believed Hale was also planning to have Ernest bumped off once Mollie was gone, truly clearing the path to those millions—he had been sentenced to life in prison.

Hale was found guilty of Roan's murder in 1929 and also given a life sentence, but he was released on parole in 1947. He died in 1962 at the age of 87.

Ernest was paroled in 1937, sent back to prison in 1940 for burglary and ultimately freed for good in 1959. Oklahoma Gov. Henry Bellmon pardoned him for his role in the Osage murders in the mid-1960s, and Ernest remained in the state until his death in 1986 at the age of 94.

Apple Originals

What happened to Mollie Burkhart?

Mollie divorced Ernest in 1926 after he was arrested and made their children the sole heirs of her headrights—and in 1931, she successfully sued to have herself freed from the guardianship that had prevented her from being in charge of her own estate.

She married John Cobb in 1928 and was with him until her death in 1937 when she was 50 years old. 

Gladstone, noting that her great-grandmother would have been Mollie's contemporary, told E! News that some of the Osage she met making the film didn't even know who Hale was because their elders had excised him from the tribe's history.

"The community just completely stopped talking about him and cut him out of photos," she said, calling the chance to tell this story on such a huge platform "overwhelming and really exciting."

Apple Originals

What was the biggest change the film Killers of the Flower Moon made from the book?

The screenplay by Eric Roth originally hewed closer to Grann's telling of the story, a more chronological mystery that saves the shocking reveals—particularly that Ernest, who had all the hallmarks of a devoted, protective husband, was just one of Hale's pawns—for later.

But ultimately the writer, Scorsese and DiCaprio (who's also an executive producer) agreed that the Osage needed to be at the center of the film, not the FBI. More than 40 roles were filled by Osage actors, and Gladstone, who grew up in Montana, is of Blackfeet and Nimíipuu heritage. DiCaprio opted to drop the role of Tom White (which went to Jesse Plemons) in favor of the more complex Ernest Burkhart.

Before the rewrite, DiCaprio told British Vogue, "It just didn't feel like it got to the heart of it. We weren't immersed in the Osage story. There was this tiny, small scene between Mollie and Ernest that provoked such emotion in us at the reading, and we just started to penetrate into what that relationship was, because it was so twisted and bizarre and unlike anything I've ever experienced before."

When she got the new script, it was no longer "a white-savior story," Gladstone told Vulture. "It's the Osage saying, 'Do something. Here's money. Come help us.'"

And now Gladstone is headed to her first Oscars. Read on to see the rest of the artists who are Oscar-nominated for the first time in 2024:

America Ferrera

This Barbie is a first-time Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actress.

Cillian Murphy

The Oppenheimer star earned a Best Actor in a Motion Picture nod for his work as J. Robert Oppenheimer in frequent collaborator Christopher Nolan’s biographical drama.

Lily Gladstone

Following her breakout role as Molly Burkhart in The Killers of the Flower Moon, the 37-year-old picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture.

Jeffrey Wright

The Emmy winner is a first-time Oscar nominee for his role as frustrated novelist Thelonious "Monk" Ellison in American Fiction.

Robbie Robertson

The founding member of The Band and longtime Martin Scorsese collaborator, who passed away in August, posthumously earned his first Oscar nomination for Best Original Score.

Emily Blunt

While she’s has attended the Oscars several times as a presenter, 2024 marks her first year as a nominee for Best Supporting Actress

Colman Domingo

The Rustin star earned a Best Actor nomination for his role as Bayard Rustin in the biopic

Da’Vine Joy Randolph

The Holdovers star will continue her impressive 2024 award season run as a Best Supporting Actress nominee. So far this year, she’s nabbed a Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award.

Scott George

Killers of a Flower Moon earned Best Original Song nomination for "Wahzhazhe (A Song For My People)." 

Sandra Hüller

The German performer is up for Best Actress for her work in the French legal thriller Anatomy of a Fall.

Danielle Brooks

The Orange Is the New Black alum is a Best Supporting Actress nominee for her work in The Color Purple.

Sterling K. Brown

The This is Us alum will compete for Best Supporting Actor for his work in American Fiction.

Justine Triet

The Anatomy of a Fall director picked up her first Best Director nod.

(Originally published Jan. 7, 2024, at 5 a.m. PT)

Latest News