The Mysterious "Wasting Illness" Proved to Be the Most Fatal in 'Killers of the Flower Moon'

Jamie Lerner - Author

Jan. 16 2024, Published 1:07 p.m. ET

Women in 'Killers of the Flower Moon'
Source: Apple Studios Pictures

Spoiler alert: This article contains spoilers for Killers of the Flower Moon.

Throughout its 206-minute running time, Killers of the Flower Moon tells the story of the Osage Nation and its mysterious murders. The Martin Scorcese film is based on the non-fiction book of the same name, which chronicles the lives and deaths of Mollie Kyle’s wealthy Osage family, who struck gold after finding oil gushing from the ground on their Oklahoma reservation in the early 1900s.

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In the film, Ernest Burkhart, his brother Byron, and their uncle William King Hale pose as friends to the Osage tribe, but instead, they instigate a series of murders to gain more access to Mollie’s family’s wealth. As part of this, a mysterious “wasting illness” seems to affect multiple members of the family. But what exactly is the wasting illness in today’s terms?

Mollie in 'Killers of the Flower Moon'
Source: Apple Studios Pictures
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The “wasting illness” in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ is likely a type of poisoning.

While there are several mentions of diabetes in Killers of the Flower Moon, the “wasting illness” is what ends up taking the lives of Minnie, Lizzie Q, Rita, and nearly Mollie. In the true story behind the film, doctors called Minnie Smith’s cause of death a “peculiar wasting illness,” which The New York Times supposes is “probably poisoning.”

The film further supports this as Mollie’s diabetes treatment seems to lead to the same type of wasting illness. As Hale took control of Mollie’s diabetes treatment, doctors under him began to inject her with a type of poison as part of an “experimental treatment.” In the film, we see nurses ask for heroin as well as a vial of morphine combined with something that starts with “atr,” which the nurses administer to Mollie.

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People died from "wasting illness" in 'Killers of the Flower Moon'
Source: Apple Studios Pictures

While Mollie believes she’s just receiving insulin to treat her diabetes, there’s clearly more being injected into her without her consent, which is a type of poisoning. Plus, knowing Hale’s scheme to take over her family’s fortune, it wouldn’t be surprising if he’s ordering her to be injected with poison, whether a higher dose of insulin (which can lead to death) or a controlled substance that can cause poisoning.

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While the wasting illness is likely poisoning, the Yale School of Medicine believes it could also be undiagnosed diabetes.

According to the Yale School of Medicine, it’s implied in Killers of the Flower Moon that the “wasting illness” is undiagnosed diabetes. Since the mid-1900s, diabetes has been a leading cause of death among indigenous communities in the U.S. Yale’s research discusses how the trauma of being pushed out of their land and forced to assimilate can contribute to more chronic illnesses, such as diabetes.

Mollie sitting in a church in 'Killers of the Flower Moon'
Source: Apple Studios Pictures
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Now, there are about 3x as many cases of diabetes among Native American populations than there are of the general non-Hispanic white American population. Anthropologist Margaret Pollak told Slate, “Looking at the research, you could very strongly argue that colonialism is to blame for the current diabetes epidemic faced by Indigenous Americans.”

In both Killers of the Flower Moon and real-life research, indigenous peoples often attribute diabetes to the “white man’s food,” which may be an accurate cause. Quickly introducing processed foods into communities where historically that wasn’t the case along with food insecurity may have led to the diabetes epidemic.

While much of this is addressed in the film, the “wasting illness” is clearly a combination of undiagnosed conditions along with a probable poisoning, whether intentional or accidental.

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