3 Sentence Summary
“Killers of the Flower Moon” by David Grann delves into the dark history of Osage tribe members’ brutal murders for their oil wealth in 1920s Oklahoma. The book sheds light on a chilling conspiracy that involved J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. The book exposes the Reign of Terror against the Osage people and their tragic displacement due to white settlers, raising questions about unaccounted crimes against Native Americans.
Summary Read Time: Less than 8 minutes
Actual Book Length: 359
First Published in: 2017
The book is divided into three parts where each one is a chronicle of the whole incident. The first chronicle describes how the murders started and the background of Osage territory. The second one explores the investigation which took place to find the culprits while the third chronicle talks about after effects of the whole murder & its investigation on people involved.
Below is the detailed yet quick Killers Of The Flower Moon book summary covering each chronicle:
Chronicle 1 – The Marked Woman
Every April, the Osage territory in Oklahoma blooms with tiny flowers, creating a picturesque scene. However, by May, taller plants overshadow these flowers, leading to their demise. This phenomenon gives May its ominous name: the time of the flower-killing moon.
On May 24, 1921, Mollie Burkhart grows increasingly worried about her sister, Anna Brown, who has been missing for three days. Anna was known for her wild nights out, but her prolonged absence was unusual.
The Osage tribe, once driven to a rocky reservation, discovered they were atop vast oil deposits. This newfound wealth transformed them into some of the world’s richest people. Their affluence attracted attention, with media portraying them as a mix of wealthy elites and traditional natives.
Mollie, an Osage woman, is married to Ernest Burkhart, a white man. Their relationship, filled with love and care, defies societal expectations and prejudices.
On May 21, Anna visits Mollie’s home, intoxicated and causing a scene. Despite the tension, the sisters share a moment of reconciliation before Anna leaves, marking her last known appearance. As days pass, Mollie’s anxiety intensifies. Searches yield no clues, and another Osage, Charles Whitehorn, is also reported missing.
Anna Brown’s body was discovered by an oil worker on a hill a mile north of downtown Pawhuska. The worker noticed something in the brush near the base of a derrick, which turned out to be a decomposing corpse with two bullet holes between the eyes, indicating she had been shot execution-style.
A week after Anna’s disappearance, Charles Whitehorn’s decomposed body is found with two bullet holes, suggesting execution. Around the same time, another body is discovered near Fairfax, heightening the sense of dread.
The killings of Anna Brown and Charles Whitehorn caused a sensation. Two bullets were retrieved from Whitehorn’s skull, which appeared to have come from a .32-caliber pistol, the same kind suspected in Anna’s murder.
The Osage tribe members began to suspect a conspiracy due to the pattern and nature of the killings. The murders had created a climate of terror in the community, leading to widespread fear and distrust. People suspected neighbors and even friends. The constant question in the Osage land was, “who will be next?”.
The murders were so frequent and brutal that they were described as the “bloodiest chapter in American crime history”. The official death toll of the Osage Reign of Terror had reached at least twenty-four members of the tribe.
The Osage tribe began to urge the federal government to send investigators who had no ties to the county or state officials after the Smith bombing in 1923.
Chronicle 2 – The Evidence Man
In 1925, Tom White, the special agent in charge of the Bureau of Investigation’s Houston office, is summoned by J. Edgar Hoover, the new director. Hoover, aiming to reshape the bureau, needs White, an experienced agent, to resolve the Osage murders case.
White, a former Texas Ranger, had joined the Bureau of Investigation in 1917. He’s an old-style lawman, familiar with the challenges of the frontier. Despite his lack of formal training, White’s investigative skills are sharp. He’s witnessed corruption within the bureau and is aware of the challenges ahead.
The Bureau of Investigation undergoes significant changes under Hoover’s leadership. Hoover’s focus is on modernizing the bureau and avoiding scandals. The Osage murder case becomes a priority, given its potential to tarnish the bureau’s reputation.
The Osage murder case is a ticking time bomb for Hoover. Previous investigations have been unsuccessful, and there’s growing political pressure. Hoover believes that White, with his experience and reputation, is the best chance to solve the case and save the bureau’s image.
White begins his investigation by reviewing the bureau’s extensive files on the Osage murders. He recognizes that solving cold cases requires finding overlooked clues within the original records.
White began to suspect a mole inside the investigation. A local attorney had seen parts of the reports made by the Bureau, indicating that the investigation had been compromised from within.
The autopsy findings for Anna Brown were significant. Criminologists understood that blood coagulates at the lowest point of a body after death. If splotches appear on higher regions, it indicates the body was moved. In Anna’s case, there was no indication of this, suggesting that some witnesses might have been lying.
The Osage murders were carried out using a variety of methods, suggesting that this was not the work of a single killer. Instead, the mastermind behind the crimes likely employed henchmen. The person orchestrating the murders was calculated, understanding toxic substances and executing his plans over years.
Hale accused White and his agents of trying to coerce a confession from him using brutal methods, including threats of violence and electrocution. Hale’s testimony painted a picture of agents who were desperate to extract information by any means necessary.
Bryan Burkhart, a relative of Mollie Burkhart, confessed to his involvement in Anna Brown’s murder. He detailed how he and Kelsie Morrison had killed Anna. Bryan had even returned to the crime scene with Mollie and her family to identify Anna’s body, feigning grief while knowing he was responsible for her death.
The investigation revealed that Hale had benefited from several of the Osage murders. For instance, George Bigheart, an Osage Indian who had passed on information about the murders, was suspected to have been poisoned, and Hale was connected to his death.
The revelations of the arrests and the nature of the crimes captivated the nation. The press wrote extensively about the organized band responsible for the murders, and the story was even adapted into a newsreel shown in cinemas.
Despite the progress made in the investigation, there were hints of an even deeper and darker conspiracy that had yet to be fully exposed.
Chronicle 3 – The Reporter
The once-thriving Osage region has changed dramatically. Many of the big petroleum companies, derricks, and boomtowns have vanished. However, Pawhuska remains as a testament to the past, still serving as the capital of the Osage Nation.
The author, David Grann, visits Pawhuska in 2012, seeking information about the nearly century-old Osage murder cases. He meets Kathryn Red Corn, the director of the Osage Nation Museum, and learns about the profound impact of the Reign of Terror on the Osage community.
At the museum, Grann encounters photographs of many victims from the Reign of Terror. A significant panoramic photograph from 1924 has a section missing, which Red Corn reveals was intentionally removed to exclude the image of William K. Hale, the mastermind behind the murders.
The Osage hold ceremonial dances each June to preserve their traditions. During one of these dances, Grann meets Margie Burkhart, the granddaughter of Mollie and Ernest Burkhart. Margie shares the challenges her family faced due to their association with Ernest, one of the culprits behind the murders.
Margie recounts the life of her father, James “Cowboy” Burkhart, and the struggles he faced knowing the crimes his father, Ernest, had committed. Despite the pain, Cowboy occasionally visited Ernest after his release from prison.
After serving his sentence, Ernest Burkhart was paroled and returned to Osage County. He lived a quiet life, a stark contrast to his earlier years of affluence and crime.
The Great Depression and the depletion of oil fields significantly impacted the Osage’s wealth. However, they found new revenue sources, such as casinos, and managed to retrieve a portion of the oil funds mismanaged by the U.S. government.
Margie takes Grann to an old cemetery in Gray Horse, where many victims of the Reign of Terror, including her relatives, are buried. The graves serve as a somber reminder of the dark chapter in Osage history.
The legacy of Ernest’s crimes weighed heavily on his descendants. Margie’s father, Cowboy, and Aunt Liz faced ostracization from the Osage community. The trauma deeply affected them, with Liz frequently changing her address and phone number out of paranoia.
Grann’s journey underscored the importance of uncovering and understanding the past. While some mysteries were solved, others remained, hinting at deeper layers of the conspiracy yet to be uncovered.