Killers of the Flower Moon - Critical summary review - David Elliot Grann
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Killers of the Flower Moon - critical summary review

Killers of the Flower Moon Critical summary review Start your free trial
History & Philosophy

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 0307742482

Publisher: Vintage

Critical summary review

In the first half of the 20th century, it was discovered that the Osage territory in Oklahoma was sitting above some of the largest oil deposits in the United States. To come in possession of that oil, prosecutors had to pay the Osage for leases and royalties, and thanks to this, tribe members quickly amassed millions and millions of dollars - in 1923, they were even considered the wealthiest people per capita in the world. However, as it often happens, their wealth attracted great misery, and many members of the Osage tribe became victims of the terrifying murder conspiracy, which took years to unravel. Get ready to be shocked and disturbed as you learn more about what is now known as the Reign of Terror.

Time of the flower-killing moon

If you happen to find yourself in the Osage territory of Oklahoma in May, you will hear coyotes howling beneath the large moon and see taller plants, such as spiderworts and black-eyed Susans, creeping over the tinier ones, stealing their light and water. As a result, the necks of these smaller flowers break, and their petals soon end up buried underground - for this reason, the Osage Indians refer to May as the time of the flower-killing moon. 

It was in the time of the flower-killing moon, a century ago, when Mollie Burkhart feared that something bad happened to one of her sisters, Anna Brown. Although Anna was known in the family for her dancing and drinking sprees, her disappearance usually never lasted more than a few days. As three nights passed without her showing on Mollie’s door, she grew anxious. Her anxiety also fueled the fact that she lost another sister, Minnie, three years earlier due to vague circumstances - Minnie had been only twenty-seven and in perfect health when, according to doctors, a ‘’peculiar wasting illness’’ took her away. 

A week after Anna vanished, an oil worker found a rotting corpse with two bullet holes between the eyes. The body decomposed so badly and, if there wasn’t a letter in his pocket addressed to Charles Whitehorn, it would be next to impossible to identify it. Around the same time, a boy who went squirrel hunting found another dead body, also challenging to identify. This time, it was the Indian blanket, the clothes, and the gold fillings that gave it away - it was Anna Brown, who disappeared almost at the same time as Whitehorn. And this wasn’t the only thing that connected these two deaths - Anna, too, was shot in the head, likely with a .32-caliber pistol - the same kind of weapon suspected to be involved in Whiteborn’s murder.

There was something strange about those deaths

Shortly after Anna’s burial, investigators interrogated Bryan Burkhart, a brother of Ernest Burkhart, Mollie’s husband, the last person seen with Anna before she went missing, to gather all the possible information about her death. Bryan told them he dropped Anna home between 4.30 and 5 and that he hadn’t seen her since then. After the hearing, Bryan was detained by the authorities but soon turned loose because no evidence implied that he was the killer.

Several weeks after Bryan’s interrogation, a man arrested in Kansas for check forgery informed the Osage County Sheriff Freas that he had the information concerning Anna’s murder. What he claimed was that Anna’s ex-husband, Oda Brown, had paid him $8000 to murder Anna. Nevertheless, within days, the authorities concluded the forger had no basis to claim such a thing - Brown had an alibi, and there was no evidence that he ever contacted the forger.

Meanwhile, the health of Mollie’s mother, Lizzie, inheritor of Anna’s fortune, deteriorated. Strangely, her symptoms were similar to the disease that took her daughter Minnie three years earlier. And, in July, two months after Anna’s murder, Molly lost her mother, too. Was there anything curious about Lizzy’s death? Was it a coincidence that it came so soon after the murders of Anna and Whitehorn? Bill Smith, Mollie’s brother-in-law, was the first to suspect this. He also expressed deep frustration over the authorities’ investigation and had begun looking into the case himself. The circumstances of Lizzy’s sickness and doctors’ inability to determine what caused it particularly struck him. The more he explored, the more his suspicion that someone poisoned Lizzy and that these three deaths were connected grew. Somehow, he suspected, they had something to do with Osage’s subterranean reservoir of black gold. 

Who will be next?

It did not take long for Smith to share his suspicions with authorities that Lizzy had been slowly poisoned. However, no one looked into the case, which is not surprising considering the progress the officials made - even three months after Anna’s murder, they had no slightest clue who was behind it. Overall, the situation with law enforcement back then was pretty bad - officials were corrupt, incompetent, and underfunded, and police departments were decentralized. For instance, Sheriff Freas, at first in charge of Anna’s case, was later charged with permitting bootlegging and gambling. So, much like Smith, Mollie decided to prod the investigation herself by offering a $2,000 cash reward for any information that might help in catching those responsible for Anna’s murder. Local philanthropist and powerful advocate for law and order, Willian Hale, Ernest Burkhart’s uncle, promised his own reward to anyone who caught the killers - dead or alive. He also recruited a private detective, Pike, to pursue the investigation. 

While Mollie’s family members and the private detectives they hired were trying to search for the killers, other members of the Osage tribe died. One of them was William Hale’s close friend, Henry Roan. So, there was no more doubt that there was a conspiracy against the Osage people, and the question about who would be next began to fill the chilling atmosphere that the murders created. People started to leave lights on during the night and became suspicious of everyone - even their friends and neighbors. Such an atmosphere encouraged Smith's decision to flee home with his wife Rita and move to another house. He had a particular reason to be scared since he did not give up on his attempts to investigate the murder cases. Unfortunately, it turned out that he had to.

One night, around three o’clock in the morning, Smith’s new neighbors heard a loud explosion. As they got out of their houses and ran towards the blast, they realized it was the Smith’s house that was burning - someone had obviously planted a bomb under it and detonated it. Four days later, Bill Smith, another victim of the Osage Reign of Terror, died in a hospital.

The big twist in the investigation 

One day in 1925, J. Edgar Hoover, the newly appointed Director of the Bureau of Investigation, asked Tom White, the special agent in charge of the Bureau of Investigation’s field office in Houston, known for being a skilled investigator, to meet him in person because he had ‘’an important message for him.’’ White did not have a clue what that might be about. He heard about the sensational case of the Osage murders and knew that it was one of the bureau's first major homicide investigations. He also heard that some of those who tried to catch the killer had themselves ended up dead. The agents who failed to solve the case had been banished to distant outposts or cast from the bureau entirely. So, when Hoover told him he wanted him to direct the investigation, White knew he had to be up to the task.

When White took over the case in 1925, four years had passed since the killings of Anna Brown and Charles Whitehorn. The bureau’s files on the murders amassed, but much of the information in them was obtained by private eyes and local lawmen, who based their opinions on ‘’little more than hearsay.’’ ‘’Given that corruption seemed to permeate every institution in Osage County, these sources might be intentionally spreading disinformation in order to conceal the real plot,’’ Grann comments. What seemed obvious, though, was that there was a pattern in killing - the victims were wealthy Osage Indians, among which three of them - Anna Brown, Rita Smith, and Lizzy - were blood-related. Furthermore, the nature of the murders suggested this was not the work of one serial killer, nor were they impulsive - the whole conspiracy was the work of a person intelligent enough to understand toxic substances and calculating enough to carry out his plan over the years. So, what was his motive? If he was after the wealth, as Bill Smith assumed, the killer had to have a plan for obtaining headrights to the oil, which were more precious than any cache of diamonds or gold. Since these could not be bought or sold, the only legal way a person could get them was through inheritance.

King of Osage Hills and his nephew guilty of murders

When White questioned Bill Smith’s lawyer, he discovered one interesting fact - when he was in the hospital after the explosion, Smith told the lawyer that the only enemies he had in the world were two people - Willian Hale and his nephew Ernest Burkhart. Interestingly, as White’s investigation progressed, it turned out that all the roads led to these two names. For instance, White revealed that Hale was the beneficiary of Henry Roan’s $25,000 life insurance policy. Furthermore, in questioning, Pike admitted that Hale did not hire him to work on the murder case but to conceal Bryan’s Burkhart whereabouts on the night of the crime. His duty was also to manufacture evidence and generate false witnesses to shape an alibi. 

At the time White was conducting his investigation, Mollie’s health condition was bad. As she had inherited the bulk of the family’s headrights after her sisters’ and mother’s deaths, she was now the killer's main target, so White suspected the insulin shots she started receiving because of her diabetes actually contained poison. In fact, once evidence against Hale emerged, White became convinced that he had forged an indirect channel to Mollie’s fortune through his subservient nephew. It all made sense - by ordering Anna’s murder first, Hale made sure that her mother inherited her headrights. After he murdered Lizzy, the next targets were her inheritors, Rita, and her husband, Bill Smith. And finally, there was Mollie. Fortunately, she managed to survive to see the killers of her family caught. Nevertheless, she couldn’t imagine they were people she would never suspect.

On October 24, 1925, three months after White took over the case, he sent Hoover a telegram saying that he had strong evidence that Ernest Burkhart and William Hale were behind the massive murders of the Osage. A year later, after a series of hearings, the two of them ended up in the county jail, where they would spend life imprisonment and hard labor.

Final notes

Whenever tragedies such as The Osage Reign of Terror happen, it is crucial to find and punish those who are responsible but also give the story a literary form to honor the dead and preserve the memory of them. Of course, not everyone can do this as skillfully as David Grann, whose captivating storytelling makes the disturbing story easier to digest. All in all, ‘’Killers of the Flower Moon,’’ truly is an extraordinary piece every American should read.

12min tip

If you haven’t already, watch the movie ‘’Killers of the Flower Moon,’’ directed by Martin Scorcese, starring Leonardo Dicaprio as Ernest Burkhart, Robert De Niro as William Hale and Jesse Plemons as Tom White.

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Who wrote the book?

David Elliot Grann is an American journalist, staff writer for ‘’The New Yorker,’’ and an author of ‘’The Lost City of Z,’’ ‘’The Wager,’’ and ‘’Killers of the Fl... (Read more)

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