Chronicle 1, Part 3: King of the Osage Hills 

The near-simultaneous discovery Anna and Charlie’s bodies, both shot with a .32-caliber pistol, causes much speculation. Because Mollie speaks English and has a white husband, she speaks to the authorities for the family. They are reluctant to investigate, so the Burkharts ask Ernest’s uncle, William Hale, to get involved. An influential and wealthy businessman in Osage County, Hale is a known advocate for the rule of law, and he promises to help Mollie obtain justice for her sister. His background suggests that he will not be deterred by initial failures. He had arrived in the territory, seemingly without a past, many years earlier and worked as a cowboy, driving cattle across the plains to slaughter. He carefully saves enough money to buy a herd of cattle, but quickly loses everything. This failure only makes him more ambitious to succeed, however.  

He starts over—and this time makes a fortune in the cattle industry. As he becomes wealthier, Hale abandons his rough image. He begins dressing in a manner befitting his new position, marries a schoolteacher, and fathers a daughter. Grann makes clear that he earns his position by outworking and outsmarting his rivals, accruing power and influence. Founding a hospital and schools, Hale presents to most members of the Osage tribe as an exceptional benefactor and special friend. He is revered as a king, given an honorary position as a deputy sheriff, and takes on the title of Reverend. A mason, Hale operates with ease in the world of white privilege and authority. His relationship with Ernest and his friendship with Anna give confidence he will win justice for Mollie’s murdered sister. 

Mollie testifies at the formal inquest into Anna’s death and is eager to provide any information that might help to identify who killed her sister. Because he was the last person to see Anna alive, Bryan Burkhart is detained after the inquest, as is his brother Ernest. Both men are soon released, however, as there is insufficient evidence they were involved. Many believe that outsiders killed Anna, because Prohibition, which took effect in early 1920, had created a lawless environment in the region. Others suspect Anna’s ex-husband, Oda Brown, who attempts—unsuccessfully—to overturn Anna’s will, which leaves him nothing. A Kansas forger contacts Sheriff Freas and claims that Brown paid him to murder Anna. There is no evidence, however, so both he and Brown are released. 

Hale pressures local officials, who decide to disinter Anna to search again for the bullet. The stress of Anna’s murder, however, weighs on Lizzie, who dies two months after the death of her favorite daughter. Bill Smith finds her death suspicious and begins to investigate, concluding that she had been poisoned. Smith becomes convinced that all recent deaths—Anna, Lizzie, and Charles Whitehorn—are connected and linked by the vast oil reserves the Osage control.   


This chapter is about “King” William Hale, a self-made man who rules over Osage County and who is related to Mollie Burkhart through her marriage to his nephew, Ernest. That there may be something amiss with Hale, though, as conveyed through his popular nickname. He presents a benevolent and caring face to the community—indicated in the chapter by the pressure he puts on local officials and later when he hires private detectives to investigate the murders, but Hale also exerts a great deal of influence over the community. His energetic determination to succeed, despite hardship and adversity, is well-known and wins him respect. But the character traits that enable his success also demonstrate that he does not respect limitations, as his willingness to pressure officials makes clear. This is an act that is easily read as helpful but, given the imperiousness a king can display, also admits of a different interpretation, one that is less flattering. At this point in the narrative, however, there is little reason to suspect Hale of anything more than solicitude. 

Although Mollie’s character has already begun to appear in the preceding chapters, this one is the first to contain her direct speech: her brief answers at Anna’s inquest. Because these are historical actors, not fictional characters, Grann must shift between imagining what Mollie is likely to have thought or felt and being able to share her actual words and ideas with the reader. Though Grann compellingly sketches her character, the inquest transcript is an invaluable document in that it lets her speak for herself. The woman who appears through these lines is decisive and determined. Her English is clear but not perfect. She preferred to speak directly, however, and not through the interpreter that had been hired for her. There are moments when she falters briefly but, as Grann indicates, her desire to help the authorities and to win justice for her sister is palpable.  

The Eighteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which made the production, transport, sale, and importation of alcohol legal in the United States, was ratified on January 16, 1919. Prohibition at the national level took effect the following January and remained the law of the land until its repeal in 1933. Prohibition was enacted to protect the moral character of the nation but, as Killers of the Flower Moon indicates, its effects were often the inverse. Bootleggers quickly set up shops and the products they produced were often lethal, containing poisonous substances. The illegal trade in alcohol was both highly profitable and very deadly. While it had been hoped by the religious groups that agitated for the passage of the Amendment that outlawing liquor would lower rates of crime, the opposite seems to have been the case. The history of Prohibition, and the lawlessness it introduced, is an important element of the story Grann tells, in part because the Osage Hills provided an excellent hideout for people on the run from the law.