Killers of the Flower Moon

by David Grann

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Killers of the Flower Moon Summary

Killers of the Flower Moon is a 2017 historical nonfiction book by David Grann about the Osage murders.

  • In the 1920s, members of the Osage tribe in Oklahoma had access to great wealth due to the oil on their lands.
  • A number of Osage people were murdered by perpetrators hoping to access their wealth. Early investigations into these murders were performed clumsily.
  • The key figures behind the murders were eventually uncovered by agents of the Bureau of Investigation, today known as the FBI.


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Last Updated on August 24, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1138

Mollie Burkhart’s sister, Anna Brown, had been missing for three days. It was May 24, 1921, and Mollie was worried. An Osage woman living in Gray Horse, Oklahoma, Mollie was married to Ernest Burkhart, a white man and nephew of prominent cattleman William K. Hale. Mollie’s mother, Lizzie, lived with the couple and their two children. Three days earlier, Anna had appeared at Mollie’s house in a drunk and disorderly state, and Ernest’s brother, Bryan, had taken her home. Anna’s body was discovered the following week, as was the body of another Osage, Charles Whitehorn.

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The inquest into Anna’s death and the autopsy performed by Doctors James and David Shoun revealed that Anna had been shot to death. Officials gathered only minimal evidence in their investigation, and Mollie’s family gathered for the funeral, which blended Catholic and Osage traditions. Mollie was upset, however, that the authorities were not working harder to solve Anna's murder, and she turned to Bill Hale, the self-styled “King of the Osage Hills,” for help as the local investigation ended with a declaration of murder at “the hands of parties unknown.” Soon Lizzie, too, is dead, and Mollie's brother-in-law, Bill Smith, suspected poison and a plot.

The Osage were a wealthy tribe thanks to the oil reserves beneath their lands. Even though they had long been subject to government interference like forced moves, forced sales, forced land allotments, and forced reeducation, the Osage had maintained control over the oil through the headright system, in which each individual Osage received payment for his or her share of the oil. This headright could not be bought or sold but passed only through inheritance. Oil companies leased their access to the oil, and the competition for these leases was intense at the quarterly auctions that drew wealthy oilmen and resulted in millions of dollars for the Osage. The Osage, however, could not control their own money and must have white guardians to manage their affairs.

Bill Hale and Anna's estate both engaged private investigators to look into Anna's death, and Bill Smith's suspicions increased. More suspicious deaths and outright murders occur, including those of William Stepson by poison and Barney McBride (a white oilman and advocate for the Osage) by stabbing. In 1923, Henry Roan was shot to death, and Bill Hale collected his $25,000 insurance policy. The Osage lived in tremendous fear, and Bill and Rita Smith moved into a different house because of intruders. Only a short time later, an explosion tore through the Smiths' home, killing Rita and their servant and seriously injuring Bill, who died not long after. Attorney W. W. Vaughan also became a victim when he was thrown off a train after discovering information about the murders. Mollie Burkhart suspected that she was being poisoned.

In 1925, Bureau of Investigation chief J. Edgar Hoover sent special agent Tom White and a team of agents (some deeply undercover) to investigate the Osage murders. White began his work, knowing that he needed a solid set of facts and evidence to unlock this extensive conspiracy. He eliminated some suspects and realized that there had been significant tampering with evidence as well as cover ups and leaks. However, White soon discovered that Bryan Burkhart’s alibi was not valid; Bryan and Anna were together after Bryan had supposedly taken Anna home on the night of her murder. There had also been another man with the couple.

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Tom White was an experienced, practical, courageous, and ethical investigator and a former Texas Ranger. White’s father had also been a lawman and provided a strong set of principles and a high standard for his son to follow. As White continued to dig, he discovered that before his death, Bill Smith made Dr. James Shoun the administrator of his wife’s estate, and he confronted the deep corruption of the guardian system. Informants told White and his agents that Bill Hale controlled everything in the area and that he even ordered a fire in his own pasture to collect insurance money. White also noticed that Mollie Burkhart was falling heir to a large number of headrights, and he suspected that she was being betrayed by her own husband and his uncle.

Yet White had difficulty finding witnesses who would speak against Hale, for Hale's network extended widely and included many prominent figures. White, therefore, turned to criminals like Dick Gregg for information. Gregg claimed that Hale approached criminal Al Spencer to kill the Smiths, but Spencer could not confirm, for he was dead. Other criminals supposedly knowledgeable about the murders had been recently killed. Convict Burt Lawson declared that he was the one to set the bomb at the Smith home at the request of Bill Hale and Ernest Burkhart.

Hale and Burkhart were arrested but firmly denied any involvement. Another outlaw, Blackie Thompson, claimed that the two also approached him to kill the Smiths. Finally, Ernest Burkhart confessed, pointing to Hale as the mastermind of operations and to the guilty parties in the murders of the Smiths, Henry Roan, and Anna Brown.

A series of courtroom dramas followed as corruption and threats dominated the defense team’s efforts. Ernest recanted his confession, claiming that agents tortured it out of him. At his trial, however, he suddenly changed his plea to “guilty” and admitted everything he had done. Ernest was sentenced to life in prison. Hale's first trial (in conjunction with the trial of James Ramsey) for the murder of Henry Roan ended in a hung jury, but in the retrial, Hale and Ramsey were both convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Kelsie Morrison was convicted of Anna's murder.

After the trials, Tom White accepted a job as warden in Leavenworth, Kansas, where Hale and Ramsey are both imprisoned. White worked to reform the prison and improve the treatment of all prisoners. He was injured in a prison break in 1931 and worked at La Tuna prison for the rest of his career. White prepared a manuscript about the Osage murders, but it was never published, and he died in 1971.

Mollie Burkhart divorced Ernest and remarried. According to her granddaughter, Margie Burkhart, she was happy with her new husband. Mollie died in 1937. Ernest was eventually paroled and pardoned and died in 1986.

During his research, David Grann delved into Osage history and culture and met with relatives of Osage murder victims. He determined a probable suspect in W. W. Vaughan's murder (banker H.G. Burt) and discovered the most likely killers in Charles Whitehorn's murder (including Whitehorn's own wife). Grann also learned that there were many more Osage murder victims than the twenty-four officially identified and that hundreds of suspicious deaths (most related in some way to headright payments and the guardian system) took place both before and after Bill Hale’s Reign of Terror.

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Chapter Summaries