Ernest Burkhart In ‘Killers Of The Flower Moon,’ Explained: Why Did Ernest Poison Mollie?


Sometimes, fighting for what you really love is what makes you human. But Ernest Burkhart never fought for anything in this world. Ernest never fought the demons that he harbored. He didn’t even take part in the First World War as Killers of the Flower Moon book never mentions any such detail. Like many other white Americans, nineteen-year-old Ernest was fascinated by the tales of the Osage Hills. Therefore, the young man from Texas packed his bags and came to Fairfax in 1912, looking for his Great Indian Dream. At that time, the Osage were considered the wealthiest people on earth due to their reservoirs of black gold. The irony of the color is that the gold was indeed cursed. White Americans wanted to conquer it all, but there were certain laws, namely Headright, that protected the lands of the tribe. However, when one is inherently a conqueror, they just don’t look away when it is a matter of gold or land. They plan and plot. They divide and rule. They become your friends, only to backstab you in the end. But Ernest Burkhart was too naive for that.

Spoiler Alert

How did Ernest become rich?

In the larger scheme of things, Ernest was just a mere shadow—a lonely boy driving his cab around town like Travis Bickle. He was just a nobody, slowly disappearing in the crowd, until he finally met Mollie. One can say that falling in love with Mollie was the only decision that Ernest took by himself. Other than that, his uncle, William K. Hale, or the surrogate father, as he liked to call him, was the one pulling the strings all along. Men like Hale can be quite cunning and dominating, but it is cowards like Ernest who help these evils flourish. Ernest had no purpose in life, which is why Hale gave him one. “Look after your family, boy,” he said, and he meant it in the most sinister way possible. We still wonder how many lives Ernest could have saved if he had the courage to fight for what he loved by raising his voice against his uncle. But the tragedy of men is that wisdom comes too late. For some, it never does.

It won’t be wrong to say that Ernest never really toiled in his life. His father was a poor cotton farmer, and evidently, he didn’t want that life for himself. It is not a bad thing to be ambitious, but how you fulfill your ambitions is a matter of discussion. After getting his hands on the black gold and becoming Mollie’s financial guardian, Ernest never felt the need to work. The true horror in Killers of the Flower Moon that I came across was that there was a government that believed that Osages were not capable of handling their own money. We saw Mollie begging for her own money from Scott Mathis, the owner of Big Hill Trading Company, because of this White Man’s law. It not only makes you sad, but it also makes you furious. Men like William Hale were just outlaws circling the Indians. However, it was the government that handed them guns and the permission to pull the trigger.

Why Did Ernest Poison Mollie?

It is said that the devil lures you with greed but enslaves you with fear. Alas, that was the case with Ernest Burkhart. A part of Mollie died with each death of a member of her tribe. But the brave warrior refused to stand silently while her family was being brutally slaughtered. She wanted justice, but people around her didn’t like the noise she made. All the private investigators that Mollie and the community had hired were either killed or bribed by Hale and his friends. Mollie knew she needed a person of higher authority to look into the matter, but Hale didn’t like the idea. If an outsider came to Fairfax for investigation, that would be the end of Hale’s endeavors. He ordered his puppet, Ernest, to give Mollie the poison that would slow her down and gradually kill her. However, Ernest never really knew what was inside the bottle that brothers James and David Shoun gave him. For him, it was just a calming medication, which he even mixed in with his whiskey when the fear of getting arrested haunted him.

It was the same poison that was given to Mollie’s mother and her sister, Minnie, who died three years before Anna Brown. The Shoun brothers had been poisoning the entire town, and we still don’t know how many people these evil brothers had actually murdered. They used to tamper with the evidence and also removed the bullet from Anna’s body to hamper the investigation. Their crimes are numerous, but what’s most unsettling is the fact that they were never charged for any of them.

Why Did Ernest Turn Against His Uncle?

The only thing that distinguished Ernest from his evil uncle was guilt. It is mostly associated with conscience, which, in Ernest’s case, came too late. It can be surmised that Mollie’s third child, whom she named after her late sister, Anna, was born with complications because of the poison in her body. It was probably the reason why Hale was so furious when he heard the news of the third child in the family. Another reason could be that he didn’t want the inheritance to be divided up any further.

Nevertheless, On June 3, little Anna died of lung failure, though the real reason for her death isn’t mentioned in the book. Before that tragedy befell the family, Ernest had decided to side with his uncle, as he believed he was his only savior. But after Ernest visited the graveyard and faced Mollie, he could see the reflection of the real murderer on her face. It was Ernest Burkhart. Ernest Burkhart killed his daughter with his own two hands and for his own greed. That was a turning point in the man’s life; he couldn’t run away from his guilt any longer. With a guilty conscience, he confessed all his crimes, including killing Bill Smith and Rita in cold blood.

Why did Ernest lie to Mollie?

Courage is a virtue, but you cannot expect it from everyone. And love is indeed an act of courage. Mollie had protected her husband till the very end, but the death of her daughter was the final blow to their relationship. She sought the truth from the only man she loved. She sat in front of him and asked if he had really poisoned her. But the man was too afraid to tell the truth. He had always been afraid to do the right thing. I truly believe that we have lost our humanity, not because bad people do bad things, but because good people are too afraid to do the right thing. Ernest might not be a bad person, but he sided with the devil because he never had the courage to question the wrong and take action. People like Ernest still exist in real life. We watch unfathomable atrocities happen in our daily lives—on the streets and on our mobile screens—but we do nothing. Eventually, we become a part of it.

What Happened to Ernest in the End?

Ernest was given life imprisonment for the crimes he had committed, but he came out of prison in 1959 because of the flawed justice system. He was later given an official pardon, because of which he was able to return to Oklahoma and he started living in a trailer outside Osage County. His daughter, Elizabeth, never showed any interest in meeting the culprit, but his son, Cowboy (James), did visit his old man from time to time.

As per the real-life facts, Mollie and her children had planned to spend the night at Bill Smith’s house on the day of the tragic blast, but Mollie canceled the plan because of Cowboy’s bad earache. After Cowboy grew up, the fact haunted him his entire life: his father would have killed his entire family just for money. Probably in the later stages, Cowboy sought an answer from his old man, but unfortunately, there was none. Ernest had been blind all his life. He could see that the real gold he had in life was Mollie. The wealth he never really cherished and paid for his ignorance in the end. He died in 1986, but his actions still haunt his family and the members of the Osage community.

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Shikhar Agrawal
Shikhar Agrawal
I am an Onstage Dramatist and a Screenwriter. I have been working in the Indian Film Industry for the past 12 years, writing dialogues for various films and television shows.

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