Killers of the Flower Moon

by David Grann

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Chapters 24–26 Summary and Analysis

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Chapter 24

Grann attended a recorded performance of Wahzhazhe, an Osage ballet that presented Osage history, including the murders. The show began with a reflection about how the hearts of the Osage “are divided between two worlds,” those of tradition and modernity, of past and present. The people walk in both worlds with strength and courage while holding fast to their culture.

Grann also returned to the museum and met again with Kathryn Red Corn, who showed him a letter written by Bill Hale in 1931. In it, Hale declared that he “will always be the Osages true Friend.” Red Corn also told Grann the story of her grandfather, who was likely poisoned by his second wife. The death was covered up by authorities, and she noted that “there were a lot more murders during the Reign of Terror than people know about.”

The author agreed. His office was filled with documents, and he continued to search, hoping to fill in the holes in the story. Grann revisited the case of Charles Whitehorn. It was never officially solved, but Grann determined that Whitehorn’s wife, Hattie, her soon-to-be-new-husband, LeRoy Smitherman, and Minnie Savage may have been responsible. Hale was likely not involved, and this shows that the Reign of Terror extended more broadly than the officials were ever willing to admit.

Chapter 25

In 2015, Kathryn Red Corn told Grann to drive out into the prairie and see the latest exploitation of the Osage: the dozens of windmills an energy company put up without Osage permission. A federal court ruled in favor of the company, because it technically was not pursuing minerals. Oil drilling had dwindled to nothing by this time.

While researching in the Pawhuska library, Grann came across an unpublished manuscript entitled “The Murder of Mary DeNoya-Bellieu-Lewis.” The author, a relative of the murdered woman, related how Mary Lewis mysteriously vanished in 1918 while in the company of two white men, Thomas Middleton and a friend. Mary’s body was discovered later, and the friend confessed to the plot of killing Mary for her headright payments. Middleton, however, was punished only mildly and then pardoned. Grann noted that this event took place long before the Reign of Terror and that there were likely “countless other killings” in the years before and after Hale’s murder spree.

Chapter 26

Grann continued his research. Looking at an Office of Indian Affairs logbook listing white guardians and Osage wards, he noticed how many of those wards were labeled as dead. The percentage was startling and far above the expectations of natural deaths. Grann discovered cases in which officials suspected poison but never investigated or in which the victim died of tuberculosis after being denied treatment by a guardian. Other victims were tortured and drugged yet survived.

The case of Sybil Bolton was especially telling. Sybil was found shot to death in her front yard. The death was ruled a suicide, but her grandson’s investigation and account revealed that Sybil’s headright money was subsequently stolen.

Gran concluded that the actual number of Osage murders is far higher than the officially estimated twenty-four, for there is a long string of unexplained deaths that might even range into the hundreds. One historian noted that every Osage family lost a member over the headright issue.

Judge Marvin Stepson was the grandson of William Stepson, who was poisoned in 1922. Stepson was likely killed by Kelsie Morrison, who later married Stepson’s widow, Tillie, and became the guardian of her children, thus significantly benefiting from Stepson’s death. Marvin Stepson added that Tillie, too, died of poisoning at Morrison’s hands....

(This entire section contains 1021 words.)

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Morrison planned to kill the children as well but was unsuccessful.

As time passed, suspicious deaths became more and more difficult to solve, and families lived with lingering suspicions and doubts. Sybil Bolton’s grandson, for instance, suspected her stepfather but could not prove it, for the necessary evidence simply does not exist. Mary Jo Webb also wondered about the death of her grandfather Paul Peace, who believed his wife was poisoning him with the help of the Shoun brothers, whom Grann had long found suspicious. Peace died in a hit-and-run, and, as his granddaughter said, “The blood cries out from the ground.”


The last section of The Killers of the Flower Moon revolves around the theme of history’s influence. The past affects every human in some way or another, and this is especially true of the Osage people, for their history is so often characterized by pain and grief and violence. To move forward in their lives and in their shared heritage and culture, they must somehow make sense of this history and come to terms with it.

The Osage do this in numerous ways. The ballet Wahzhazhe offers a creative option for exploring and interpreting the past. Grann was especially struck by the opening reflection that meditates on the Osage as straddling two worlds, struggling courageously to hold onto their traditions while making their way in modern America. The ballet then presents visual and musical interpretations of Osage history from the days before the missionaries arrived through the Reign of Terror and World War II and up to modern times. As Margie Burkhart noted, the emotion of the ballet affected her deeply. As she watched, the history of her people appeared before her eyes in new, creative, and moving ways.

The Osage also connect with their history through personal investigations of the deaths of family members. People like Kathryn Red Corn, Sybil Bolton’s grandson and the relative of Mary Lewis, wonder and research, trying to make sense of the tragedies of their relatives’ lives but lacking the resources to ever know for certain what happened to them.

History is filled with gaps and questions, and Grann realized this clearly as he searched through archive after archive, document after document, in his attempts to bring some closure to the complex story of the Osage murders. While he resolved many points, paid tribute to the victims and the investigators, and provided answers to some questions, he understands that many areas of history will always remain shrouded in mystery.


Chapters 20–23 Summary and Analysis