Killers of the Flower Moon: 11 Characters to Know

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Killers of the Flower Moon" by David Grann. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

Who are the Killers of the Flower Moon characters? What were their names, and what did they do?

Killers of the Flower Moon discusses the murders that took place during the Reign of Terror, when members of the Osage Tribe were murdered by white residents of Osage for their money. These Killers of the Flower Moon characters are the key players.

Killers of the Flower Moon Characters: The Victims

These Killers of the Flower Moon characters are victims of the murders, with the exception of Mollie Burkhart, who survived, only to find out her husband had a role in killing her family members.

Shortform note: While many people are discussed below, including both victims and perpetrators, not all victims or perpetrators are listed. To this day, the full scope of the Osage murders is unknown. Killers of the Flower Moon is a murder mystery, but it is also yet another violent chapter in the tale of Native Americans in the United States suffering at the hands of whites.

#1: Mollie Burkhart

Mollie’s family suffered during the Reign of Terror. Her immediate family included her sisters, Anna Brown and Rita Smith, and her mother, Elizabeth Kyle. Mollie was married to a white man named Ernest Burkhardt, a native of Texas who had moved to Osage County as a young man. Rita and Anna had also married white men.

Mollie’s husband, Ernest, worked with his uncle to kill Mollie’s family members. Many of the headrights of in the family had been willed to Mollie Burkhart. When all of this money came to Mollie, it would be easy for Hale to exercise control of it through his easily manipulated nephew Ernest—though it would be even easier if Mollie were to be killed, too. This was why Mollie’s family was being systematically eliminated. Through oil headrights and life insurance policies, Hale and his conspirators had a direct financial stake in the deaths of many Osage.

Mollie later discovered that she was being poisoned by her husband, and suffered through the murder trial, where she was ostracized by members of the community. Mollie loses nearly her entire family, and she’s one of the Killers of the Flower Moon characters to appear consistently throughout the story.

#2: Anna Brown

The five-year-long Reign of Terror began in May 1921 with the discovery of the body of a murdered Osage woman named Anna Brown. Anna had been married to a white man, as were her sisters, Mollie Burkhart and Rita Smith.

Kelsie Morrison confessed to her murder. Morrison and Bryan Burkhart had gotten Anna drunk at a speakeasy before driving her out to Three Mile Creek. Bryan’s wife, Cole (who corroborated all the details of Morrison’s testimony) waited in the parked car to stand lookout. They then dragged the inebriated Anna down into the ravine. Bryan propped her up on a rock and held her still while Morrison shot her in the back of the head—with a gun that had been provided by William Hale. 

#3: Charles Whitehorn

bout a week after her body was discovered, another Osage victim was found near an oil rig. This time, the corpse belonged to a man named Charles Whitehorn, who had been missing for about two weeks. Whitehorn was a well-known and popular figure in Osage County, married to a half-white, half-Cheyenne woman. Like Anna Brown, he had been shot in the head—and the bullets appeared to be the same kind as the ones that had killed Anna Brown.

#4: Henry Roan

n February 1923, the body of a 40-year-old Osage man named Henry Roan was found slumped behind the steering wheel of a Buick, a few miles outside of Fairfax. Roan had been shot in the back of the head. Local authorities notified William Hale, whom Roan had considered a close friend and benefactor.

The murder of Roan created an atmosphere of terror and paranoia that ripped the community apart. People began to suspect their neighbors, friends, and even family of being involved in the deadly conspiracy.

#5: Bill and Rita Smith

Bill Smith, Mollie’s brother-in-law, had been looking into the killings on his own, unable to shake the suspicion that his mother-in-law, Lizzie, had been poisoned. 

He and his wife Rita, Mollie’s sister, began to receive threats and intimidating “warnings” as Bill appeared to get closer to the truth, especially after he discovered a connection between Roan’s murder and local criminal kingpin and bootlegger Henry Grammer. Bill confided to his friends that he “didn’t expect to live long.”

On March 10, 1923, the house that Bill and Rita Smith had moved into exploded in a thunderous blast, just before three o’clock in the morning. Neighbors heard the explosion for miles around, with the force of the blast blowing out windows in the neighboring town of Fairfax. Nothing remained of the house but twisted metal and burnt furniture.

The Perpetrators

These Killers of the Flower Moon characters participated in the murders. Numerous people may have taken part in the conspiracy, but William Hale was convicted as the mastermind of the operation. The scope of the murders is unknown, and there were likely many more conspiracies operating outside of William Hale’s orders.

#6: William Hale

William Hale is one of the more notorious Killers of the Flower Moon characters. William Hale was a businessman, power broker, and self-styled “True Friend of the Osage.” Hale had powerful business and political connections and had supported the establishment of charities, schools, and hospitals for the Osage. Hale was more than just any local grandee, moreover—he was the uncle of Ernest Burkhart, Mollie Burkhart’s husband. He had been at Anna Brown’s funeral and even vowed to the family that he would seek justice for Anna.

William Hale tried to influence both the investigation and the trial. Despite his efforts, on October 29, 1926, Hale was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

#7: Ernest Burkhart

Ernest Burkhart was Mollie Burkhart’s husband and William Hale’s nephew. The Bureau agents discovered that Ernest Burkhart and his brother, Bryan, had been willing and active accomplices in their uncle’s murderous conspiracy—Ernest Burkhart had been a party to the murder of his wife’s sisters. In piecing together the puzzle, White’s team saw that the motive for all the murders was simple: profit.

On June 9, 1926, he pled guilty. He read a statement before the judge and jury that he had, in fact, hired Kirby to blow up Rita and Bill Smith’s house. Accordingly, Ernest Burkhart was sentenced on June 21, 1926 to life imprisonment. For Mollie, it was a day of devastation.

#8: Kelsie Morrison

Kelsie Morrison, the notorious bootlegger, outlaw, onetime Bureau informant, and the man whom Ernest had fingered as Anna Brown’s killer. The prosecutor brought Morrison in to take the stand. This time, Morrison decided to cooperate with the government against his former employer, Hale. Morrison confessed in open court that he had been recruited by Hale to help eliminate Mollie’s entire family. He then proceeded to narrate the awful details of Anna’s final moments.

He and Bryan Burkhart had gotten Anna drunk at a speakeasy before driving her out to Three Mile Creek. Bryan’s wife, Cole (who corroborated all the details of Morrison’s testimony) waited in the parked car to stand lookout. They then dragged the inebriated Anna down into the ravine. Bryan propped her up on a rock and held her still while Morrison shot her in the back of the head—with a gun that had been provided by Hale. 

#9: Bryan Burkhart

By July 1925, Tom began to think Bryan Burkhart, brother of Ernest Burkhart (Mollie’s husband) and brother-in-law to Mollie and Rita, was the most likely perpetrator of Anna’s murder. He was the last person to have seen her alive when he dropped her off back home the evening she disappeared. Tom believed this, even though Bryan’s alibi was well-corroborated by people who claimed to have been in his company at the time of the killing, including his brother Ernest and his uncle, William Hale.

Bryan Burkhart was later given immunity for providing testimony against William Hale.

#10: John Ramsey

Ernest also linked Hale directly to the murder of Henry Roan, stating that a contract killer named John Ramsey (another associate of Grammer) had been hired to kill him. Agents in the field immediately apprehended Ramsey, brought him into custody and presented him with Burkhart’s signed confession. Ramsey, in turn, confessed to getting Roan drunk and shooting him in the back of the head. 

On October 29, 1926, Ramsey was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The Investigator

Of the Killers of the Flower Moon characters, Tom White, FBI agent, was the main investigator on the case. Tom White initially enlisted William Hale to help with the investigation, but later determined him to be suspicious. This section provides info on Tom White.

#11: Tom White

Tom’s career in law enforcement was relatively bloodless, and he prided himself on the fact that he had never killed anyone in the line of duty, a rarity for an officer of his time and place. His approach to law enforcement was more modern and less bloodthirsty than his background would have suggested, and it earned him a strong reputation within the Bureau of Investigation.

Tom White did at least enjoy an initial career boost from his work on the Osage case. In fall 1926, the U.S. Justice Department named him the new warden of the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas. Life had come full-circle for Tom, who had grown up in the shadow of the county jail that his father had operated in Texas. 

For someone of his background and era, Tom White was progressive in his attitudes towards convicted criminals, seeing in many of them the potential for redemption and rehabilitation. He was personally opposed to capital punishment, although he was occasionally called upon to oversee executions at the prison—just as his father had been. 

These Killers of the Flower Moon characters are just a few of the people who were involved in the Osage murders. In Killers of the Flower Moon, characters are easily swept up in the twists and turns of the story, but it’s important to remember that this story, despite its almost unbelievable murder conspiracy, was a true and tragic event in the lives of many Native Americans, and the true scope of this tragedy is still largely unknown.

Killers of the Flower Moon: 11 Characters to Know

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of David Grann's "Killers of the Flower Moon" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Killers of the Flower Moon summary:

  • How the Osage tribe had vast oil wealth, but had it seized by their murderous neighbors
  • The brutal and unresolved murders of Osage Native Americans
  • The complicated history of the FBI in profiting from the Osage murders

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *