Celebrated filmmaker Martin Scorsese is partnering once again with his frequent collaborators Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro on his new film Killers of the Flower Moon, a crime drama about a series of murders in the Osage Nation reservation in Oklahoma during the 1920s.

Like many of Scorsese’s most acclaimed films—including Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), The Aviator (2004), and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)—his latest movie is based on a true story. Killers of the Flower Moon, which will be released in theaters on October 20, is adapted from a non-fiction book of the same name by David Grann.

The film received rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival, where it premiered, and is already generating Oscar buzz for next year’s Academy Awards. Here’s the true story of the Osage murders, a vast and complex plot in which conspirators lied, killed, and even married into families to steal the rights to oil on their Oklahoma land. The conspiracy was so nefarious that it led to one of the first murder investigations by what is today known as the FBI.

A Conspiracy for Oil Money

The Osage Nation, a Native American tribe of the Great Plains, were driven from their Kansas lands in the late 19th century and relocated to a rocky, barren reservation in northeastern Oklahoma. The land was considered worthless until the 1890s, when some of the largest oil deposits in the United States at the time were discovered there.

By the 1920s, the Osage people collectively received more than $400 million in today’s dollars, making them the wealthiest people per capita in the world. They built terra-cotta mansions, had chauffeured cars, hired servants, and sent their children to private school.

a black and white photo of william hale, wearing a suit and tie, smiling at the camera while standing next to two women
A 1926 photo of William Hale (center), who was the mastermind behind the plot to murder Osage people for the oil rights on their land.
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However, a group of businessmen launched a conspiracy to steal the oil right out from under the Osage people, using illegal means and even murder where necessary. This scheme was led by William Hale (played by De Niro in the film), who built a ranch on the Osage reservation and became rich raising cattle there, becoming known as “The King of Osage Hills.”

Rights to the oil revenue could only be legally obtained by outsiders if they married into the tribe, so Hale encouraged his nephew, Ernest Burkhart (played by DiCaprio) to marry Mollie Kyle (portrayed by Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman living with her mother, Lizzie Q, in Fairfax, Oklahoma, according to Grann’s book.

A Series of Mysterious Deaths

a black and white portrait of anna brown, wearing native american clothing and looking directly into the camera
Anna Brown, one of the victims of the Osage murders
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One by one, members of the family turned up dead. Kyle’s sister Anna Brown was found shot to death in May 1921, and two months later, Lizzie Q died of a suspected poisoning, according to Dennis McAuliffe’s book Bloodland: A Family Story of Oil, Greed and Murder on the Osage Reservation. In March 1923, another of Lizzie’s daughters died, along with her husband, when their home was destroyed by an explosion.

Burkhart and Kyle saw their fortunes grow as they inherited the estates of these family members. Lizzie’s nephew Harry Roan also died in 1923, and Hale fraudulently named himself the beneficiary of Roan’s $25,000 life insurance policy, according to Grann’s book. Meanwhile, other Osage people from outside the family were also dying under mysterious or suspicious circumstances.

The Osage killings became one of the first murder investigations launched by the FBI, which was then called the Bureau of Intelligence. Tom White (portrayed by Jesse Plemons) led the investigation, which involved agents going undercover as insurance salesmen, cattle buyers, and citizens to gather evidence.

A Conspiracy Revealed

Hale quickly fell under suspicion, and although some members of local law enforcement attempted to derail the federal investigation, Hale and Burkhart were arrested in 1926 for their part in the conspiracy, according to McAuliffe’s book.

Another conspirator named Kelsey Morrison was also arrested after he admitted to murdering Anna Brown, according to Grann’s book. It is estimated at least 24 Osage people were killed as a result of Hale’s conspiracy.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

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Hale, Burkhart, and another conspirator named John Ramsey were all convicted and sentenced to life in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Prior to his conviction, Burkhart told the authorities he feared Hale would have him “bumped off,” according to Grann. Morrison, already in prison for an unrelated crime, also received a life sentence.

Burkhart was set free after receiving a pardon by Oklahoma Governor Henry Bellmon in 1965. He died in 1986, at age 94. Hale was paroled in 1947 after serving two decades of his sentence, and he died in 1962 at age 87.

Against all odds, Mollie Kyle survived Hale and Burkhart’s murderous conspiracy. The killers had started poisoning her, but she recovered and survived long enough to divorce Burkhart following his trial. She remarried, then died in 1937 at age 50, according to Grann.

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In addition to Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, Killers of the Flower Moon will star Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, Brendan Fraser, and John Lithgow. It releases in theaters October 20.

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Colin McEvoy
Senior News Editor, Biography.com

Colin McEvoy joined the Biography.com staff in 2023, and before that had spent 16 years as a journalist, writer, and communications professional. He is the author of two true crime books: Love Me or Else and Fatal Jealousy. He is also an avid film buff, reader, and lover of great stories.