Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega searches old newspapers to learn more about the true story in Martin Scorsese’s recent movie “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”
For anyone who has watched the recent Martin Scorsese movie Killers of the Flower Moon, the story of the reign of terror that struck the Osage Nation in Oklahoma in the 1920s may be an introduction to a piece of history that seems unbelievable. But the truth is that one man’s greed for the headrights to Osage oil led him, his nephew, and others on a killing spree that didn’t end until the Bureau of Investigation (precursor to the FBI) came to investigate.
If you’ve seen the movie or read the book (a non-fiction book of the same name by David Grann, published in 2017), the story in historical newspapers gives another look at this terrible event.
The Reign of Terror: A Synopsis
Killers of the Flower Moon tells the story of Osage member Mollie Kyle Burkhart, her white husband Ernest Burkhart, and her family. Ernest’s white uncle, William K. Hale, was the “mastermind” behind the idea of murdering Mollie’s family and others to inherit rights to the oil that once made the Osage Nation the richest in the United States.
In 1921 the reign of terror began with the murder of Mollie’s sister Anna Brown and Osage member Charles Whitehorn, who were both shot to death. (1) Hale decided that by having his nephew marry Mollie and then in turn killing Mollie’s family one by one, Mollie would inherit their oil rights – and then her death would leave Ernest the inheritor of all of the family’s “headrights” (quarterly royalty payments), thus making Hale and Ernest rich.
Because Hale had almost the entire white community complicit with his plan, down to the medical doctors who helped poison Mollie and the funeral director and law enforcement agents who covered up the crimes, nothing was being done to investigate the murders. With no official response locally, delegates from the Osage Nation traveled to Washington, D.C., to ask that something be done.
Although not wanting to investigate initially, J. Edgar Hoover did finally send an agent, ex-Texas Ranger Tom White. White uncovered the participants and motive for the murders. His arrests stopped the murders and saved Mollie from further poisoning at the hands of her husband.
Historical Newspapers Report on the Reign of Terror
This newspaper article in the Evansville Journal from January 1926 reported on the arrest of Hale and the names of the murder victims. As news of the Osage murders was printed across the nation, readers were introduced to those involved – from the Native American murder victims to the white men who were murdering them.
This article was illustrated with a photo of the wreckage from the bombing of the home of Mollie’s sister Rita Smith, which resulted in the death of her sister and her sister’s husband (a white man). The article explained the motive for the murders.
This article reported:
W. K. “Billy” Hale, wealthy cattle baron known as “King of the Osage Hills,” has been arrested in connection with the investigation of the alleged effort to settle by murder the headrights of the Indian family on a single girl heir, married to Ernest Burkhart, Hale’s nephew. The latter is also under arrest…
Ernest Burkhart is the white husband of Mollie Burkhart, who is the last surviving child of Lizzie Q [Queue]. Two wives of Bill Smith, whose home was blown up, were sisters of Mollie Burkhart and their headrights vested in Mollie, as were those of Anna Brown [Mollie’s sister, who was the first to be murdered].
Thus the headrights of Lillie Q, Anna Brown, Rita Smith and Nina Smith all ultimately came into possession of Mollie Burkhart, the lone surviving child of Lizzie Q.
This next article, from the Daily Jeffersonian, reported that Mollie Burkhart earned $135,000 per year via her oil rights (which would equal about $2.3 million per year today). Many newspaper articles stressed the wealth of the Osage Nation, but this article also pointed out that the Osage were forced onto a barren strip of land in Oklahoma that wasn’t good for growing food. The later discovery of oil allowed the Osage to go from impoverished to wealthy.
A “News of the Day Told in Pictures” feature found in the Springfield Republican included photos of Mollie, her mother, two of her sisters, and two men who were murdered during the reign of terror under the heading “Victims and Key in Osage Indian Murders.”
This photo caption read:
Death quiz in Osage, Okla., Indian murders of five years ago has shifted to Washington, D.C., for probe of corruption in investigation. The indictments have been returned for death of Henry Roan, one of nine slain, five of whom are pictured above. Probers charge Mollie Burkhart’s relatives were slain to gain thousands in oil headrights. She has $135,000 a year income from nine of these headrights. Husband [Ernest Burkhart] is charged in murders.
This next newspaper article explained that the Osage had 2,229 headrights that distributed the wealth among the Osage tribe. There could never be fewer or more than that number. It goes on to explain that for 25 years:
“…the average 700-acre allotments of land to individual Indians could NOT be sold or taken from them without the approval of the Interior Department and that the oil royalties and pasture rentals should go into a common tribal fund.”
Marrying an Osage tribe member became one way to access the money. Although the Osage did have wealth, they were decreed incompetent by the United States government and thus assigned white guardians who looked over their money and approved or disapproved their expenses.
After the Burau of Investigation made its arrests William K. Hale and Ernest Burkhart claimed they were not guilty, but eventually Ernest decided to come clean with the truth. This next newspaper article had the headline “Plots to Kill Rich Indians Exposed by Man on Trial.” Ernest admitted that he, along with his uncle who hatched the plot, were involved in the murders of the Osage.
The End of Terror
The Osage murders were fodder for newspaper articles decades after the trials ended. Initially newspapers followed the story of the arrests and trails, but over time they would tell the story as a sensational reminder of what happened in the “Wild West.”
What happened to the murderers? According to the Oklahoma Historical Society’s The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture:
Between June 1926 and November 1929 the defendants were tried in state and federal courts at Guthrie, Oklahoma City, Pawhuska, and Bartlesville. The trials, with their deadlocked juries, appeals, and overturned verdicts, received national newspaper and magazine coverage. In June 1926 Ernest Burkhart pleaded guilty and received a life sentence in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary at McAlester for the murder of William E. Smith. Turning state’s evidence, Burkhart testified against Hale and Ramsey, who, in January and November 1929, respectively, were sentenced to life imprisonment in the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, for the murder of Henry Roan. A petty criminal, Kelsie Morrison, admitted he had killed Anna Brown at Hale’s request. Morrison was already serving time in November 1926 when he received a life sentence for Brown’s murder. Byron Burkhart, Morrison’s accomplice, turned state’s evidence and was not tried for the crime.
Despite Osage protests, Hale, Ramsey, and Ernest Burkhart were eventually paroled. (2)
In the case of Ernest Burkhart, it was a complicated history of being convicted and paroled. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Anna Brown in 1926. He was then paroled in 1937. He was sent back to prison in 1940 for burglarizing his former sister-in-law’s home. He was then paroled for a final time in 1959, and later pardoned by the Oklahoma governor for his role in the Osage murders. After spending some time in Osage County, he moved to Cleveland, Oklahoma, where he died in 1986. (3)
Like his nephew, William Hale was sentenced to life imprisonment, but ended up serving only 18 years. He died in 1962 in Arizona.
Mollie Burkhart was granted a divorce from Earnest in 1927. She married John Cobb two years after her divorce and continued to raise her two children by Burkhart. In 1931 she successfully sued to end her guardianship. (4) Mollie passed away at the age of 50 years in 1937.
If you’re interested in learning more about the reign of terror and the history of the Osage, the National Archives holds the Registers of Guardians appointed to control the Osage money. In these records you will see those that were either minors or declared incompetent, as well as a note indicating those who died (some of natural causes and others because they were murdered).
Books to read include Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann (2017); The Deaths of Sybil Bolton: Oil, Greed, and Murder on the Osage Reservation by Dennis McAuliffe Jr. (her grandson) (2020); and Mean Spirit: A Novel by Linda Hogan (1991).
Margie Burkhart, the granddaughter of Mollie Burkhart Cobb, told the television show CBS Saturday Morning recently, “We should never forget this story. We should be talking about this for years to come.” (5) This tale of greed, racism, and evil does need to be remembered long past the time that the movie is in theatres. We need to remember the people impacted even today and vow to not let injustices like this happen again.
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Note on the header image: political cartoon of the Osage Indian murders depicting Mollie Burkhart and William King Hale. Credit: Daily Jeffersonian (Cambridge, Ohio), 18 January 1926, page 1.
(1) “How Killers of the Flower Moon Captures the True Story of the Osage Murders,” Time (https://time.com/6325586/killers-of-the-flower-moon-true-story/: accessed 14 November 2023).
(2) “Osage Murders,” Oklahoma Historical Society (https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=OS005: accessed 14 November 2023).
(3) “Ernest Burkhart,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Burkhart: accessed 14 November 2023).
(4) “The horrifying, nearly forgotten history behind Killers of the Flower Moon,” Vox (https://www.vox.com/culture/23920002/killers-flower-moon-true-story-osage-murders-reign-of-terror-mollie-burkhart-what-happened: accessed 14 November 2023).
(5) “Author David Grann talks book ‘Killers of The Flower Moon,’” CBS Saturday Morning (https://www.cbsnews.com/video/author-david-grann-talks-book-killers-of-the-flower-moon/: accessed 14 November 2023).