Killers Of The Flower Moon: Whatever Happened To Ernest Burkhart?

Few people are so craven as to marry into a family as part of a plan to take that family's money when the family gets murdered, all at the behest of a domineering uncle. But such was Ernest Burkhart (played by Leonardi DiCaprio in the 2023 film, "Killers of the Flower Moon"), nephew of William Hale, rancher, businessman, and so-called "King of Osage Hills." Hale orchestrated a web of murders in 1920s Oklahoma to kill one member of the Osage Native American tribe after another and collect their wealth.

The Osage tribe struck it rich when oil was found on the land they'd purchased from the Cherokee near Pawhuska, Oklahoma in 1883, according to Osage Nation. Around that time, William Hale sauntered his way into Oklahoma, at that time little more than a "cowboy living in a tent," per the University of Arkansas (UA) at Little Rock. He developed business connections with locals, made good with both Osage and non-Osage alike, leased and sold Osage land, and became a wealthy and highly respected man in the area. 

This, however, was apparently not enough. Come the 1920s, Hale recruited his nephew Ernest Burkhart into a murderous scheme to get even richer. He persuaded Burkhart to marry into the Osages to get their oil money when they were killed. Per The Oklahoma Historical Society, Burkhart confessed to his part and received a life sentence in prison, but testified against his uncle. He was eventually released on parole, and ultimately pardoned.

A family murdered one by one

We don't know much about Ernest Burkhart before the 1920's Osage murders. But, we know that his uncle, William Hale, urged him to marry a full-blooded Osage woman, Mollie Kyle. This came at a time, per The Oklahoma Historical Society, that Osage tribal members earned royalties on sales of oil from their land per the Osage Allotment Act of 1906. In 1923 — two years after the Osage murders officially began — marked the height of the Osage oil boom, when the tribe raked in a walloping $30 million. Adjusted for inflation, that's nearly $540 million in 2023. UA Little Rock called the Osage the "wealthiest people on Earth."

Around this same time, Osage tribespeople started showing up murdered, three of which are pictured. As Famous Trials explains, many were found shot in the head, execution style. Others died from a mysterious "wasting away" illness that was likely poison. Non-Osage — perhaps sympathizers or those that Hale thought would interfere with his plan — were thrown off trains or stabbed repeatedly after burlap sacks were wrapped around their heads. 

Over the course of a few years, Kyle's sister, Anna Brown was shot in the head, and their mother Lizzie Kyle died of suspected poisoning in 1921. Kyle's cousin Henry Roan was also shot, and her youngest sister Rita Smith died when her house exploded in 1923. This left all the family money to Ernest Burkhart and Kyle.

Convicted, paroled, and pardoned

Eventually, Famous Trials says that the Osage tribal chieftain reached out to the Bureau of Investigation (now the FBI) for help. Authorities traced hitmen back to William Hale (pictured), including rancher and bootlegger John Ramsey on a lead from Ernest Burkhart. Burkhart, Hale, and Ramsey were arrested in 1926, while Burkhart's brother Bryan Burkhart — along with "petty criminal" Kelsie Morrison — were arrested for the murder of Anna Brown. Ernest's wife Mollie Kyle, meanwhile, remained alive this entire time, witnessing events, despite also likely being slowly poisoned until the FBI intervened.

Ernest Burkhart pleaded guilty to his involvement in the Osage murders. Interestingly, it seems like Burkhart didn't actually do any killing — he was just sort of there, observing and facilitating, while his family by marriage died one by one. On the stand, per Famous Trials, he feared for his life and waffled a bit, but revealed his uncle's use of "poisoned moonshine." Despite receiving a life sentence in 1926, his compliance led to him being paroled in 1937, the same year his former wife Mollie Kyle died. 

Burkhart robbed a bank on parole, went back to prison, and was released in 1959. He then, bizarrely enough, received a full pardon from Oklahoma Governor Henry Bellmon in 1965. He passed his final years in his brother Bryan's trailer. Find a Grave says he died in 1986 at the age of 94 in Pawnee, Oklahoma, and his cremated remains were scattered on the Oklahoma River.