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Killers of the Flower Moon: How the Osage Murders Shed Light on Estate Planning and Conservatorship

Discover the shocking history of the Osage Murders in Scorsese's new film, 'Killers of the Flower Moon,' and its insights into estate planning and conservatorship.

Martin Scorsese's much-anticipated film, "Killers of the Flower Moon," is making waves in the box office. History, cinema, and legal intricacies are colliding, offering not only compelling narratives but also powerful lessons. Trust & Will takes a journey back to the early 1900s to a chilling chapter known as the Osage Murders.

This is a real-life story of greed, power, and injustice -- a story that holds up a mirror to issues that stand today surrounding estate planning and conservatorship. As we unravel this intriguing intersection, we hope to offer you a new take on a topic that often seems distant or irrelevant that will encourage you to take action on issues that could impact your future and legacy.

Killers of the Flower Moon: summary

"Killers of the Flower Moon," a film by the legendary director Martin Scorsese, is adapted from the critically acclaimed book of the same title by acclaimed journalist David Grann. This film, which hit box offices earlier this month, showcases an impressive cast including Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro.

The film and book shed light on an infamous series of murders that took place in the wake of the oil boom on Osage Indian Nation lands in early 1920s Oklahoma. The newfound wealth of the Native American tribe caught the attention of unscrupulous individuals, leading to a chilling series of murders known as the Reign of Terror. As the death toll mounted, the FBI, then newly formed, was called in. This investigation marked one of the bureau's first major homicide cases, with then-agent Tom White leading a squad of undercover operatives to crack the case. At the heart of this story is a tangled web of deceit, greed, and struggle for power, making it a pertinent reflection of the potential pitfalls surrounding estate planning and conservatorship.

Historical context: the Osage Murders

The Osage Murders, often dubbed the "Reign of Terror," took place in the early 20th century in Osage County, Oklahoma. The Osage Indian Nation was a tribe that had been relocated to this area in the late 19th century. They retained their mineral rights to the land, and when significant oil reserves were discovered in the 1920s, the tribe became exceedingly wealthy.

However, with newfound prosperity came increased attention, particularly from those who viewed the tribe's wealth with envious eyes. The Osage tribe members began to be systematically murdered, their deaths often cloaked in mystery and suspicion. These murders were not just random acts of violence; they were meticulously planned and executed to usurp the tribe's wealth.

The death toll continued to rise, and the local authorities seemed incapable of bringing the killers to justice. The situation became so dire that the newly established Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) was called in. The Osage murder cases turned out to be one of the first major investigations carried out by the FBI. The investigation led by then-agent Tom White unraveled a chilling conspiracy that implicated many influential locals, including businessmen and law enforcement officials.

Unravelling the conspiracy

The investigation into the Osage Murders uncovered a web of deceit and corruption that was deeply entrenched within the local community. The wealth of the Osage tribe had led to a horrifyingly calculated plot of murder and theft. At the heart of the conspiracy were two prominent figures, William K. Hale, a local businessman and cattleman, and his nephew, Ernest Burkhart.

Hale, infamously known as the "King of the Osage Hills," was a revered figure in the community. However, beneath this surface of respectability lay a ruthless, greedy individual who orchestrated the murders to gain control of the Osage oil wealth. Burkhart, married to an Osage woman, was a willing accomplice in his uncle's sinister plan.

Together, the pair played mastermind to a series of heinous murders, either by poisoning or staged accidents, to systematically eliminate Osage tribe members and seize their headrights, the legal claim to oil royalties. The plot was further facilitated by the involvement of local officials, lawyers, and even law enforcement, who were either complicit in the crimes or turned a blind eye due to bribery and intimidation.

In 1929, Hale and Burkhart, along with several others implicated in the crimes, were finally arrested. The trial that followed shocked the nation. Hale and Burkhart were found guilty of murder. Hale was sentenced to life in prison, while Burkhart received a lesser sentence; he was released on parole in 1959. The Osage Murders case, however, remained only partially solved as many of the murders went unprosecuted and the depths of the conspiracy were never fully revealed.

This dark chapter in American history serves as a stark reminder of the dangers of greed and the misuse of power, particularly in matters of wealth and inheritance.

What does the film's title mean?

The term "Flower Moon" in the title of the book and film is a reference that carries significant meaning. It is attributed to the Native American practice of naming each full moon throughout the year based on the changing seasons and nature's rhythms. The Flower Moon specifically refers to the full moon in May, a time when spring is at its peak and flowers bloom in abundance across the landscape.

However, in the context of the Osage Murders, the term takes on a more hair-raising connotation.

The Osage refer to May as the time of the "flower-killing moon." This is a time in which the bloom of the spring flowers are fleeting, replaced by the summer heat and taller plants that eventually suffocate them. The murder of Anna Brown took place in May 1921 and serves as a harsh reminder of the greed and deception that ruined a time of growth and abundance for the Osage people.

The ripple effect of the Osage Murders

The legacy of the Osage Murders goes beyond its haunting narrative. It compelled the United States government to review its stance on the treatment of Native American rights and wealth management, although not immediately or sufficiently. The incident highlighted the alarming levels of corruption, greed, and racial prejudice that was prevalent during that era, casting a shadow on American ideals of justice and equality.

The Osage Murders also marked a turning point in FBI history, which was then still in a fledgling state. The murders led into a major operation that resulted in one of the most historically-referenced murder investigations of the 20th century. This case became a landmark that bolstered the bureau's authority.

The murders also highlight the importance of estate planning.

Osage Murders & estate planning: an intersection

While it may not be evident at first, there is a strong connection between the Osage Murders and estate planning.

In the 1870s, the U.S. government forced the Osage people to leave their land in Kansas and move to a reservation in Oklahoma. They became one of the few Native American nations to purchase their reservation land, which they funded using proceeds of their original Kansas land to white settlers.

The reservation, which was presumably worthless and ill-suited for farming, turned out to be rich in oil. Because the Osage owned the land, they retained sovereignty and other rights to this property. After the oil was discovered, they came into significant wealth. In 1923 alone, the Osage earned roughly $540 million in today's currency in royalties. During this time, Osage tribe members often lived in mansions and were driven by chauffeurs.

Here, let's introduce two key estate planning concepts that help explain how the legacy of the Osage people went horribly wrong:

  1. Headrights

  2. Guardianship

1. Headrights and heirship

In 1907, each of the 2,229 members of the Osage nation became entitled to a headright, referenced earlier. These are equal shares of oil royalties which could equal roughly $232,000 per tribe member today. This means that a family could earn close to a million per year in today's dollars.

While this brought about tremendous wealth and prosperity for the Osage peoples, it is also the Achilles heel that arguably led to the murders.

The kicker: headrights can only be inherited; they cannot be sold or purchased.

Greed led to unscrupulous estate planning schemes where beneficiaries of deceased Osage members were manipulated or altered to ensure that wealth would flow to conspirators. As we learned from the plot of "Flower Moon," this also manifested as a nefarious plan that ultimately led to manslaughter. Non-Osage men would marry into these wealthy tribal families and murder them to make sure they would inherit and take possession over these lucrative oil royalties.

2. Conservatorship

In 1921, Congress passed a law that required these payments to be channeled through court-appointed Guardians. They deemed the Osage people incompetent to handle large sums of money, which created a host of issues.

In their pursuit of fortune, white prospectors manipulated the Guardianship system to exploit the Osage tribe's wealth. This system, which was managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, required Osage members to obtain approval for each and every financial transaction from their assigned white "Guardian." These Guardians, driven by greed and racial prejudice, misappropriated funds and oppressed the native people, regardless of their level of education or military status.

The system also inadvertently shaped community dynamics. It enabled white locals to seize oil leases and further abuse the Guardianship system to monopolize Osage wealth, creating an intense cycle of greed, corruption, and indifference in Pawhuska and neighboring Fairfax. The death of an Osage or becoming the Guardian of an inheriting Osage was a route for white locals to access these profits. The systemic corruption led the Osage Nation to seek federal intervention in 1923, which ultimately led to the murder investigation by the FBI.

The importance of proper & ethical estate planning

The "Reign of Terror" highlights the importance of proper and ethical estate planning.

It serves as a cautionary tale, reminding us of the potential vulnerabilities that can arise when the right safeguards are not in place. It underscores the need for transparency, protection from undue influence, and ensuring the wishes of the individual are upheld. Modern-day estate planning has evolved to incorporate these principles, aiming to protect the rights and wishes of individuals and their beneficiaries.

This horrific piece of history drives home the significance of these practices and the potential consequences when they are circumvented. The experiences of the Osage people continue to inform our understanding of estate planning and reinforce the necessity for its careful and ethical implementation.

Here are some key lessons to be gleaned from the murders:

  • Transparency is paramount: The Osage Murders underscore the necessity for transparency in all dealings related to estate planning and guardianship. Any behind-the-scenes machinations or hidden agendas can lead to devastating outcomes.

  • Protection from undue influence is essential: The systemic manipulation and betrayal of the Osage people demonstrate the potential consequences of undue influence in the realm of estate planning.

  • Upholding the individual's wishes is crucial: The Osage Murders serve as a stark reminder that the wishes of the individual, particularly those related to their estate and assets, should always be at the forefront of any decisions or actions.

  • Legal oversight and control: The Osage Murders highlighted the need for proper legal oversight and control over estate planning and guardianship processes to prevent misuse and exploitation.

  • Education and awareness: The events remind us of the importance of being educated and aware about estate planning and the rights it entails to protect oneself and one's assets adequately.

  • Respect for cultural diversity and traditions: The disregard for Osage traditions in the guardianship system underlines the need for cultural sensitivity in estate planning, respecting the wishes and traditions of different communities.

  • Regular review and updates: The evolving situation of the Osage people emphasizes the importance of regularly reviewing and updating estate plans to reflect the changing circumstances and needs.

While it is impossible to undo the tragic events of the Osage Murders, let us explore what could have been done differently pertaining specifically to these atrocities:

  1. A more stringent oversight of the guardianship system could have been implemented to deter exploitative behaviors. Congress passed the law that insituted the guardianship system, and yet manipulation and exploitation ran rampant due to a lack of oversight. A checks-and-balances system, one that would hold guardians accountable for their actions, should have been in place.

  2. Respect for the cultural autonomy and traditions of the Osage people could have prevented gross abuses. Their rights to manage their resources, based on their traditions and wisdom, should have been acknowledged and preserved.

  3. Education and awareness of the rights and processes involved in estate planning and guardianship could have empowered the Osage people to better protect themselves and their assets. For instance, Osage members with headrights may have considered the option of putting a prenuptial agreement in place before agreeing to marry any non-Osage individual. These often block a spouse from inheriting anything if the marriage is terminated due to death.

  4. A legal system that works to uphold individuals' wishes and regularly reviews and updates estate plans to reflect changing circumstances could have mitigated some of the damage. These factors collectively underscore the importance of transparency, accountability, education, and respect for cultural diversity in estate planning and guardianship.

A discussion on conservatorships

The Guardianship system that was signed into law in 1921 is extremely similar to the Conservatorship system that exists today.

A court-appointed conservatorship is a legal framework wherein a person or organization, known as the Conservator, is appointed by a court to manage the affairs of those who are incapable of doing so on their own due to incapacities. Minors, seniors with dementia, or individuals with mental disabilities are such examples. The conservator could be responsible for various aspects of the person's life, including financial matters, healthcare decisions, or both. This arrangement requires regular reporting and accountability to the court to safeguard against potential abuses.

However, there can be complications, such as the potential for the misuse of power if the conservator does not act in the best interest of the individual they are representing. As was the case with the Osage people, the conservatorship system sometimes led to exploitation rather than protection.

In modern times, we have also seen the Conservatorship system lead to exploitation. The Free Britney case is a perfect example.

There are several alternatives to a conservatorship that can provide vulnerable individuals with support and protection. One such alternative is a power of attorney (POA). A Power of Attorney is a legal document that enables a person (the principal) to appoint someone they trust (the agent) to handle their affairs if they become unable to do so. This could span financial decisions, health care matters, or both, depending on the type of POA issued. Unlike a conservatorship, a POA does not require court involvement and oversight, which can make it a more flexible and less restrictive option. A POA is not without its risk; the principal must trust the appointed agent to act in their best interest. However, it could be argued that this is a much better alternative where the principal is empowered to select their own agent, rather than having one forced upon them by the legal system that can be susceptible to corruption.

Take action today

The historical events portrayed in "Killers of the Flower Moon" offer a haunting glimpse into the misuse of conservatorships and estate planning. These cases serve as a stark reminder of the importance of transparency, accountability, and respect for individual rights within these legal structures. From the Osage Murders to the "Free Britney" movement, we are shown that the potential for exploitation exists even within systems designed for protection. Further, this danger is still imminent today.

Whether you read an article, the book, or watch the film that shares the incredible story of the Osage people, you will hopefully learn the importance of educating yourself regarding estate planning. Further, you will also hopefully become motivated to take action to protect yourself, your loved ones, your rights, and your family's legacy.

Don't wait until it's too late.

Trust & Will is an online estate planning platform that has modernized an ages-old process so that you can put protections into place. The Osage people did not have access to these solutions that are offered in modern society today, so allow this to inspire you to take advantage. Our Learn Center offers a large library of free educational resources so that you can empower yourself with information. When you feel ready, you can put your estate plan in place and have peace of mind knowing that you took charge over your own legacy. Find out how to get started today.

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