David Grann begins Killers of the Flower Moon with a metaphor which explains its title. Every April, along the vast prairies in the Osage territory of Oklahoma, millions of tiny flowers pop up and bloom, signaling the start of spring. As spring morphs into summer and taller flowers begin to sprout, the larger plants “creep over the tinier blooms, stealing their light and water.” Because of this phenomenon, the Osage Indians refer to the month of May as “the time of the flower-killing moon.”
This metaphor, in which taller choking plants strangle the newly-blossoming spring blooms, serves as a metaphor for how the Osages’ white neighbors will attempt to strangle and decimate the tribe’s newfound financial success.
On May 24, 1921, Mollie Burkhart—an Osage Indian and a resident of the Osage settlement town of Gray Horse, Oklahoma, becomes fearful that something terrible has befallen one of her three sisters, Anna Brown. Anna, at thirty-four, is barely a year older than Mollie—she often goes off on “sprees,” spending long nights out drinking and dancing, but now that Mollie hasn’t seen Anna in three days, she is beginning to worry. Mollie has recently lost another sister—less than three years ago, Mollie’s younger sister Minnie had died of a “peculiar wasting illness.”
Right off the bat, Grann establishes an atmosphere of suspicion and intrigue. Minnie’s death was already deemed “peculiar,” and now Anna’s sudden disappearance heightens the stakes.
Mollie and her sisters—and their parents, too—have their names inscribed on the Osage Roll: they are registered members of the Osage tribe. This means that their family possesses a “fortune.” After being driven, in the 1870s, off of their ancestral lands in Kansas onto a rocky, barren, “presumably worthless” spit of land in northeastern Oklahoma, some of the largest oil deposits in the whole of the United States were discovered right beneath the Osage tribe’s new reservation. As such, in the early 20th century, each member of the tribe began receiving a quarterly check—as the years went by, the dividends grew and grew until the tribe had collectively accumulated millions of dollars. Grann writes that in 1923 alone, the tribe took in over $30 million—the equivalent of that amount today would be more than $400 million.
Grann briefly outlines the Osage tribe’s recent history. They were given a parcel of land which the U.S. government assumed was worthless—only to find that it was worth hundreds of millions. The racist U.S. government can’t be all too happy about the Osage’s discovery—and as suspicious happenings start taking place in Osage County, it seems as if a grab at the Osage fortune is at the root of the crimes.
The Osage were considered the wealthiest people per capita in the world, and the public had become “transfixed” by their tribe’s prosperity. Reporters, seeking to sensationalize the Osage’s wealth, “seized upon any signs of the traditional Osage way of life,” contrasting the vast wealth the tribe had come into with their “wild” tribal customs.
To compound matters, the Osages’ wealth was visible on the world stage—and the world was jealous of what they saw. That the reporters latch onto “wild” tribal customs reflects racist prejudice against the Osage Indians.
Mollie doesn’t spend as lavishly as some of her neighbors, but still lives a life of luxury. She lives in a beautiful, “rambling” house, owns several cars, and has a staff of servants. Though many of the Osage tribe’s servants are black or Mexican, “even whites,” according to observers’ reports from the time, “perform […] ‘all the menial tasks about the house to which no Osage will stoop.’”
It seems as if what is really outraging the public is not so much that the Osage have money—but that their wealth is allowing them to begin to subvert the social order which has kept white Americans at the top, so to speak, of the food chain.
Mollie was one of the last people to see Anna before she disappeared. On that day—May 21, 1921—Mollie woke early, a habit from childhood ingrained from when her father woke each morning to pray to the sun. Mollie, unlike many of her friends, still dressed in traditional Osage clothing, and that morning wrapped herself in an Indian blanket and let her long black hair flow loose down her back.
This passage shows that despite having assimilated into white society and come into a great deal of wealth, Mollie is still a woman tied to her cultural heritage and many tribal traditions.
Mollie’s husband, Ernest Burkhart, woke with her. A twenty-eight-year-old white man, Ernest was born in Texas, the son of a poor cotton farmer, but moved to Oklahoma at nineteen to live with his uncle, a domineering cattleman named William K. Hale. Ernest ran errands for Hale and worked as a livery driver—he met Mollie while chauffeuring her around town. Mollie and Ernest were married quickly, though Ernest’s friends looked down on him for marrying an Indian woman and becoming a “squaw man.” Mollie, too, had concerns about marrying Ernest—she suffered from diabetes, spoke English as a second language, and, moreover, all three of her sisters had married white men. Mollie felt that she should carry on the tradition of an arranged Osage marriage. Nevertheless, in 1917, she married Ernest, and by 1921, they had two children—Elizabeth and James, who was nicknamed Cowboy.
Mollie and Ernest’s relationship is rife with power imbalances owing to the Osage’s sudden good fortune. Ernest and Mollie met when he was in service to her, and though his marriage to her further demoted and emasculated him in the eyes of his white friends, he nonetheless pursued her.
On May 21, Mollie hosted a small luncheon. The house bustled with preparations while Mollie tended to her sick mother, Lizzie. Mollie asked Ernest to call Anna and ask her to come over to assist with preparations, and Anna soon arrived dressed to the nines in flashy red shoes, an alligator purse, and a traditional Indian blanket. Despite her grand appearance, Molly noticed something about Anna: she was already drunk.
Anna’s appearance symbolizes who she is: still tied to her tribe in small ways, Anna has more or less embraced white fashions and the gaudy, flashy sensibility of the roaring twenties.
As the guests began to arrive—including Ernest’s brothers Bryan and Horace—Anna became drunker and drunker, sipping from a hip flash of bootleg whiskey. Anna, who had recently divorced her husband Oda Brown, had been troubled of late, and had begun spending time in many of the reservation’s “tumultuous boomtowns,” drinking and gambling. Anna began flirting, over the course of the party, with Ernest’s younger brother Bryan—and also began fighting with Mollie and her mother.
Though the circumstances of Anna’s disappearance are suspicious, this passage shows that Anna had been in trouble lately—complicating the mystery surrounding her being missing.
As the party drew to a close and Ernest took some guests to the next town over, Fairfax, to see a musical, Bryan offered to drop the intoxicated Anna at home. Mollie, who was planning on staying home with her mother Lizzie, helped sober Anna up and then sent her on her way. That was the last time Mollie saw Anna before her mysterious disappearance.
This passage makes it clear that Mollie and Anna, despite their differences, have a close relationship and strong familial ties.
Now that Anna has been missing for days, Mollie has grown more and more anxious. Bryan has insisted that that night, he took Anna straight home and dropped her off, so Mollie sends Ernest over to Anna’s house to check on her. The house, though, is dark and deserted, and her servant, who lives in a small residence on the property, says she hasn’t seen Anna in days.
As the family grows more and more concerned about Anna’s whereabouts, the mystery deepens—and the stakes grow even higher when it becomes clear that Anna is truly nowhere to be found.
News of Anna’s disappearance begins spreading throughout the reservation’s boomtowns. The “unease” throughout the reservation is compounded by the fact that another Osage, Charles Whitehorn, disappeared just a week before Anna. The thirty-year-old Whitehorn, married to a woman who is part white and part Cheyenne, is popular in town, and went missing on May 14. Despite knowing of Whitehorn’s disappearance, Mollie tries to keep calm, telling herself that Anna is simply off on one of her binges, dancing in a jazz club in Oklahoma City or Kansas City. Ernest, too, reassures Mollie that Anna will soon be home.
Anna’s disappearance in and of itself is mysterious and suspicious—but coming so soon after another member of the tribe’s disappearance makes it seem downright sinister.
A week after Anna’s disappearance, an oil worker is on a hill a mile north of downtown Pawhuska when he notices a rotting corpse poking out from the brush near the base of an oil rig—the victim has been shot, execution-style, twice between the eyes. The oil worker calls others over to take a look, but the body is so badly-decomposed that it is impossible to identify. One pocket of the corpse’s trousers contains a letter—addressed to Charlies Whitehorn.
The discovery of Charles Whitehorn’s murdered, decomposing body makes it clear that something evil is afoot in Osage County—and that Anna is truly in danger.
Several miles away, near Fairfax, a man and his teenage son are squirrel hunting. When the boy chases a squirrel down into a ravine, he spots a dead body at the edge of the creek: again, the body is badly-decomposed, but appears to be that of an American Indian woman. The man and his son rush back into town and alert the proprietor of the Big Hill Trading Company, Scott Mathis, of what they’ve found. Mathis alerts his undertaker, and several men return to the creek, where they drag the body from the ravine and begin examining it. The body is in such bad shape, though, that none of them can make an identification.
As a corpse that may or may not be Anna’s turns up, it seems as if the whole town is concerned, and a group of people rush to the ravine to try and confirm whether Anna has truly been found.
Mathis contacts Mollie, and she, her sister Rita, Rita’s husband Bill Smith, Ernest, and Bryan make their way out to the creek. As Mollie and Rita approach the stinking, blackened, bloated body, they immediately recognize Anna’s Indian blanket and flashy clothing. When Rita’s husband, Bill, pries the corpse’s mouth open with a stick, Anna’s sisters recognize her gold fillings, and begin to weep.
Anna’s family recognizing her by her clothes is symbolic of the importance and ubiquity of tribal tradition in this place—even though Osage culture is changing, it still binds the members of the tribe together.