The True Story Behind Jesse Plemons’ ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ Character


The Big Picture

  • Killers of the Flower Moon recounts the real-life murders of Osage Native Americans and the scheme to steal their land rights after oil was discovered.
  • Tom White, an agent for the Bureau of Investigation, played a crucial role in ending the reign of terror and bringing the perpetrators to justice.
  • Despite his heroic actions, White did not stay with the Bureau and instead became the warden of Leavenworth Prison, treating all inmates with fairness and dignity.

Killers of the Flower Moon, the latest crime epic by renowned filmmaker Martin Scorsese, recounts the real-life murders of Osage Native Americans in 1920s Oklahoma. These deaths formed the bloody underbelly of a scheme engineered by the tribe’s patronage, William King Hale (a quietly haunting Robert De Niro), to steal their headrights after oil was discovered on their land. Aided by his nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) – who had been persuaded into marrying Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), a key member of the Osage Nation – Hale authorized the killing of several Osage for his twisted benefit, content that the biased justice system would guarantee no harm came his way. The event would be dubbed the “Reign of Terror” by local newspapers, and if not for Bureau of Investigation agent Tom White (Jesse Plemons), it would unquestionably have been worse.

White’s assignment to the case in 1925 was the catalyst that ended Hale’s murderous regime, saving not just the life of Mollie Kyle, but the lives of countless innocent people. He succeeded where dozens of fellow authoritative figures had willfully failed, making him a bastion of moral righteousness in a tale largely devoid of such kindness. Due to Scorsese framing Killers of the Flower Moon’s narrative around Ernest and Mollie’s poisonous romance, White has a somewhat minimal presence in the film, presenting viewers with only a snapshot of his life. However, the real Tom White lived an impressive life – one that extends well beyond a single investigation.

Killers of the Flower Moon

When oil is discovered in 1920s Oklahoma under Osage Nation land, the Osage people are murdered one by one – until the FBI steps in to unravel the mystery.

Who Was the Real-Life Tom White?

In hindsight, Thomas Bruce White never had a choice about his career trajectory. In the Killers of the Flower Moon book, author David Grann recounts how White’s childhood guided him toward the life of a lawful hero. He was born on March 6, 1881, to a Texas sheriff, Robert Emmet, whose passion for justice burned with a ferocious fire. His childhood was frequently tough, with White often raised by his older brother, Dudley, due to his father’s work commitments (his mother having died when he was six). When Robert was granted leadership of an Austin prison, young Thomas found himself living in the jail’s adjoining house. As should be expected when one’s formative years are spent within earshot of thieves and murderers, Tom developed a keen interest in the criminal mind. A defining moment came at age twelve when he witnessed his father execute a man who had been condemned for rape. Grann theories that this experience (plus others like it) contributed to his rejection of the so-called “judicial homicide” in favor of a better kind of justice. A justice he would dedicate the rest of his life to promoting.

By the time White joined the Bureau of Investigation in 1917 (a substitute after being rejected from the United States Army), he’d spent twelve years serving as a Texas Ranger, witnessing the worst of humanity’s sins in the despotic plains of the American frontier. White – who Grann notes had never killed someone, a fact he was immensely proud of – was impressed by the Bureau’s focus on investigation and quickly rose through the ranks. For example, one case saw him scrutinizing officials at an Atlanta prison who had been accused of accepting bribes to bestow some prisoners with special privileges (in the most egregious scenarios, early release). The investigation ended with the warden incarcerated in his jail, earning him respect from agents and prisoners alike.

Another person he impressed was the Bureau’s fresh-faced director, J. Edgar Hoover, who wasted little time assigning White to the Osage murders. At the time, the Bureau had made several blunders in the case, such as using an informant who killed a police officer. Hoover knew that his career was on thin ice, hence why he needed White to solve his problem. White was aware of the dangers, but he still agreed with little hesitation. It’s at this point that viewers of Killers of the Flower Moon can jump in, with the film presenting an accurate (albeit heavily condensed) version of his actions during this period, but it’s worth highlighting how perilous his situation was. White was the only member of his team to publicly announce himself as a member of the Bureau, putting him in the sights of some rather nefarious people. But White didn’t let this deter him. He worked diligently and with great care, eventually bringing the likes of Hale and Ernest to justice. It’s just a shame that Hoover would take most of the credit (in turn, enabling his forty-eight-year rule of both the BOI and the FBI).

Why Did Thomas White Leave the Bureau?

Despite earning praise for solving the Osage Nation murders, White did not remain with the Bureau. In 1926, shortly after Hale and Ernest were convicted, White was offered the role of warden at the infamous Leavenworth Prison in Kansas. A difficult choice lay ahead, but thanks to the promise of a higher wage for a job that would allow him to remain a father and husband to his growing family, he accepted the position. His tenure at Leavenworth was positive, with the new warden bolstering efforts to rehabilitate prisoners irrespective of how likely such attempts would be (not that this meant he was unwilling to distill harsh punishment when required). White treated his inmates fairly, but this wasn’t always easy. For instance, two of his inmates had killed Dudley several years earlier, although White kept this information concealed from them.

More unbelievably, William King Hale and Ernest Burkhart themselves were incarnated at Leavenworth. The circumstances would have been perfect for White to enact retribution against these criminals (especially since the latter was still maintaining his innocence despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary), but White was a better man than that. Upon their arrival, White did not greet them with fire and fury, but with something much simpler – a handshake. It was a symbol that made his philosophy clear: they were to be “treated as other prisoners [were] treated,” because that was the right thing to do. In the coming years, White would reinforce this multiple times, such as by declining requests from nosy journalists wishing to probe his convicts for information, or when easing concerns from Hale’s wife and daughter that they would be unwelcome at Leavenworth due to his premiership. These actions were the perfect encapsulation of what a virtuous man Tom White was.

Sadly, his time at Leavenworth ended on a sour note. In December 1931, White was kidnapped by seven of his inmates during a prison escape. The group intended to use White as leverage to dissuade the authorities from pursuing them, but the faults in that plan soon became clear. All the escapees would be either apprehended or killed, but not before White suffered a serious gunshot wound in his arm whilst protecting an eighteen-year-old girl they would otherwise have killed. As such, following an extended stint in Cushing Hospital, White was relocated to the milder La Tuna Federal Correctional Institution, but not before forbidding his officers from enacting any kind of revenge against the survivors of the escape attempt. White would stay at La Tuna until 1951 when he accepted a position on the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. To quote the man himself: “I began by catching criminals and sending them to prison. Then I spent twenty-five years taking care of them while they were serving their time. Finally, I spent the last six years of my career in deciding when they should be released. I had come the full circle.”

Thomas White Attempted To Write a Book on the Osage Murders

The memories of the Osage murders weighed heavily upon his mind as he grew older. He had previously offered to consult on the quasi-propaganda film The FBI Story which briefly depicts the horrific events in 1920s Oklahoma, but was passed over by Hoover who was eager to soak up even more of the glory. Sometime later, White attempted to write a book about the murders, with Grann stating that he wanted to “record the crimes against the Osage” to ensure that neither they nor the people who solved them would be “erased from history.” Despite his significance to the investigations, he instructed his co-writer, Fred Grove, to write in the third person as he didn’t want readers to believe he was the entire story (humble to a fault). Sadly, publishers admired his intent more than the result, leaving his final gift to the Osage unpublished. On December 21, 1971, Tom White passed away at the age of ninety. A friend said that he had died as he’d lived, “quietly and with a calm dignity.” Truly, there was no better way to describe him.

Killers of the Flower Moon is the most expansive film of Martin Scorsese’s career, and not just because of its runtime. This is a work whose themes and repercussions extend well beyond its trio of main characters, but to an entire nation whose blood-soaked foundations created the breeding grounds for such tragedies. That three-and-a-half-hour runtime might seem excessive, but even it can feel constrictive before long. A downside of this is that many vital players – Tom White chief among them – only appear when your typical film is wrapping up. This was an inevitability when communicating such a breadth of material in a limited time frame, but the Killers of the Flower Moon book lacks this constraint. It, alongside other sources, provides a detailed analysis of White that reveals just how fascinating this supporting character actually is. Those enraptured by Scorsese’s latest triumph should certainly seek to learn more about its crowning hero.

Killers of the Flower Moon is playing in theaters now.


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