The release of HBO’s Watchmen series led many Americans to learn about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre for the first time, highlighting a recurring issue of our educational institutions failing to provide crucial historical knowledge. This inadequacy is reinforced yet again with the release of Martin Scorsese’s exploration of a series of murders that occurred during the 1910s to 1930s. These murders are a factual part of history, featuring real-life characters at the forefront of the new film.
Ernest and Mollie Burkhart, central characters in Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, did indeed exist in reality. The story of Ernest and Mollie, originally known as Mollie Kyle, began in Oklahoma during the 1910s. Ernest relocated to the area in 1912, alongside his brother, seeking opportunities in the oil industry. He resided with his uncle, William Hale, a prominent businessman and rancher in the region. It was during his various odd jobs, including working as a taxi driver, that Ernest encountered Mollie and initiated the courtship. Eventually, in 1917, they married.
Mollie, a young woman, belonged to one of the wealthiest and coveted groups in the United States. She was a member of the Osage Nation, a tribe that strategically acquired substantial wealth from oil reserves in Indian Territory, later Oklahoma. This affluence made the Osage people among the most affluent in the nation, drawing envy and covetousness from many white individuals.
William Hale, among the most avaricious of these individuals, was a significant figure in this narrative, as was Ernest. Ernest’s marriage to Mollie was largely driven by the desire to access the oil wealth and position more white individuals in influential roles within the Osage Nation. The tremendous wealth derived from oil, amounting to tens of millions, was distributed among Osage Nation members through a system known as “headrights.”
However, this system came with a loophole that Hale and Ernest sought to exploit. Upon the death of a headright owner, their share could be inherited by the next legal heir, which also included non-Osage individuals.
The Osage community soon faced a series of gruesome murders. The immense wealth of the Osage attracted government intervention, leading to the appointment of white “guardians” who gradually siphoned off money from the rightful Osage owners. Subsequently, mysterious deaths, explosions, and shootings plagued the Osage people, with over 60 murders occurring between 1921 and 1925 in Osage County. These deaths, often inexplicable, were linked to headright holders, further depleting the wealth of the Osage Nation.
The crimes were eventually unveiled after the early FBI was engaged in the investigation. The culprits, including Hale and Ernest, were implicated in several murders and even an attempted assault on Mollie. While Mollie survived, Ernest was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1926.
Unfortunately, Ernest’s sentence was not permanent. Despite being pardoned twice, serving approximately ten years initially and nearly 15 more later, his actions continued, leading to his release from prison in 1966. Meanwhile, Mollie, who divorced Ernest and remarried, faced social exclusion from other Osage individuals due to her initial support for her husband. Her children inherited a substantially reduced family fortune during the Great Depression, receiving meager payouts in subsequent decades.
Mollie passed away at the age of 50 in 1937.