Volunteers help break ground for the project made possible by $10K PSEGLI grant

The Living Lands design team at Three Village Historical Society. From left, Mike Dondero, Alex Getches and Logan Kjep. Photo by Kimberly Phyfe/TVHS

Three Village Historical Society broke ground last week on a project to install a series of gardens surrounding its main building on North Country Road, courtesy of a $10,000 outdoor commerce and beautification grant from PSEG Long Island.

The gardens will include a pollinator pathway, colonial kitchen garden, indigenous medical garden and sensory garden, all with native plants, according to Kimberly Phyfe, development coordinator for TVHS. She added that the plan also includes garden paths, educational signage and some additional trees.

“This is going to be a teachable educational space,” she said. “You’re going to be able to walk through a timeline of history.”

A series of gardens will surround Three Village Historical Society’s main building after the society received a $10,000 grant from PSEG Long Island. Photo by Mallie Jane Kim

At a Friday, Nov. 10, “garden party,” an estimated 20 community volunteers, including some members of the Three Village Garden Club and the historical society’s grounds committee, participated in clearing most of the ground cover, invasive species and weeds to prepare for the project, which is headed up by Living Lands, a North-Shore based garden design and installation company that specializes in native habitats and ecological restoration, primarily on a residential level.

Living Lands co-owners Logan Kjep and Alexandra Getches said they feel honored to be part of such a community-facing project to highlight the beauty and usefulness of native plants.

“Getting to find out the history of the plants and the way they were used in the past has been really interesting because we focus more on their role in ecology,” Getches said. “Investigating how the indigenous people used them, how the colonists used them was really fascinating.”

The PSEGLI grant is typically for downtowns or business districts. Phyfe said when the representative originally stopped by last spring on a Monday at 10 a.m., all was quiet on the stretch of North Country Road where the society sits.

She said she urged him to return on a Friday afternoon during the farmers market so he could “see this town taken over by small businesses, locally owned; food trucks, music, education, entertainment — everybody is here on a Friday night. I think that’s what really did it.”

Phyfe added that the market brings business to neighboring establishments and acts as the start of historic Setauket. “Welcome to Culper country — this is the home of historic American Revolution stories right here in Three Village,” she said.

Phyfe called the gardens an “outdoor classroom and teaching garden space” that will be available even when the museum and visitor center is closed, and will expand on the education provided by the Culper Spy and Chicken Hill exhibits, which can host only small groups at a time during student or Scout visits.

She said the sensory garden will be particularly friendly to students with sensory processing disorder. “I want to make learning and field trips accessible to learners of all ages, and particularly learners with disabilities and special needs,” she said.

Phyfe indicated the garden project should be completed by Thanksgiving.

Ken Brady. Photo by John Griffin

By Philip Griffith

I was sorry to read in The Port Times Record [Oct. 25] that Kenneth C. Brady Jr., born April 17, 1943, passed away on Oct. 24.

Ken inherited Rob Sisler’s title, Port Jefferson village historian. Brady was the quintessential explorer of our Port history. He leaves us a legacy of 17,500 priceless photographs, numerous articles, eloquent historical lectures, fascinating artifacts and public exhibitions. A wise Irish patron of a local pub advised me, “Always expect the worst. You’ll never be disappointed.”

It was my pleasure to meet Ken as a co-writer and editor of The Echoes of Port newsletter distributed by the Historical Society of Greater Port Jefferson. He taught me much about accurate research and reporting. Along with me, Brady was a founding member of Port Jefferson Conservancy and later became its president. He worked tirelessly to preserve our village history, architecture, parks and surrounding waters of the Long Island Sound.

Beyond Port Jefferson, he served as president of the Suffolk County Historical Society. His books on Belle Terre and photographs of Arthur S. Greene are gems. I especially enjoyed his many photographic exhibits at the Port Jefferson Village Center and at our annual dinner of the Port Jefferson Historical Society at Port Jefferson Country Club.

In addition, Ken was a frequent contributor to The Port Times Record, best known for his Hometown History series. TBR News Media named him as a 2013 People of the Year winner.

I visited Ken many times in his archive office, which he designed and created on the second floor of the Village Center. He was always gracious about my interrupting his work and generous with sharing information for my research. Ken was a walker and often greeted residents on his journey. My grandson Jack lived on South Street, and Ken always gave him a high five and a smile. When Jack went ice skating at The Rinx adjoining the Village Center, he always went upstairs to visit Ken, who offered him a few peppermint candies to enjoy.

A retired Sachem teacher, Ken loved children and Jack loved him — as all who knew him did.

Ken had a great sense of humor. He was a kind, intelligent, unassuming gentleman. You’d see him in his Montauk sweatshirt, a place where he spent many days at his second home. In this small resort village called “The End,” and the location of seven Stanford White homes, Ken spent many hours with his good friends, Mike and Claire Lee. The surrounding ocean waters beguiled them. Ireland, the land of his ancestors, is noted for its saints and scholars. In my judgment, Ken qualified for both categories.

It is ironic that days before Ken’s death, I met Mike Lee at the Colosseo Pizzeria in Port Jeff Station. As I frequently do, I asked Mike, “How is Ken?” He replied, “Fine.”

There’s an old Hasidic adage that goes, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans for the next week.” At 11 a.m. on Oct. 27 in Cedar Hill Cemetery, Kenneth C. Brady Jr. was laid to rest before more than 100 friends and neighbors. The Methodist Rev. Charles Van Houten conducted the solemn graveside service. Van Houten and attending mourners offered prayers.

Mike Lee made a fittingly concluding remark. I made a fittingly concluding remark, too. I said, “Ken, you are now a part of Port Jefferson’s history.”

Rest in peace.

President John F. Kennedy's motorcade in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Photo by Victor Hugo King/Public domain
By Bill Landon

On Nov. 22, 1963, I was a 7-year-old who had convinced my mother that I didn’t feel well enough to go to school that day. It was the Friday before Thanksgiving.

Not long after lunch, the TV began interrupting the regularly scheduled programs with news of a shooting in Dallas. No matter what channel I turned to — there were only 12 back then — it was the same. President John F. Kennedy (D) had been shot.

Later in the afternoon, my mother was talking with many people on the phone. As a 7-year-old, I didn’t understand what was happening other than my mother growing more hysterical as the day wore on. I faintly remember my older sister coming home from school early, but I still didn’t understand what was happening.

There was a palpable fog that hung over us that would just get worse two days later when we watched Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby shoot and kill Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin, on live television.

I don’t remember anything about our traditional Thanksgiving dinner that year, but I remember the fog lasting for weeks.

Bill Landon is a sportswriter and photographer for TBR News Media.

By Tara Mae 

In celebration of the 27th Annual Charles Dickens Festival in Port Jefferson Village on Dec 2 and 3, the Long Island Museum (LIM) has collaborated with the Greater Port Jefferson Arts Council (GPJAC) to present  Come In! — Come In! And, Know Me Better, Man! at the LIM’s Carriage Museum on Saturday, Nov. 25 and Saturday, Dec. 9, from 2 to 4 p.m. Over a dozen costumed Dickensian characters will roam among antique carriages as they magically transform the galleries into a London of a bygone century. The event is included with museum admission.

“Some of the beloved longtime Dickens Festival characters are venturing further afield from Port Jefferson Village and heading toward the Long Island Museum to spread some joy in the holiday season, and to share with LIM visitors some of the aspects of their life during the middle of the 19th century,” said GPJAC Program Director Amy Tuttle. 

Portraying a number of the author’s archetypes such as those who populate A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist, they carry the patrons back in time by immersing themselves in their roles. Being surrounded by transportation of yesteryear only enhances the effect. 

“The actors will be wandering around and doing performances as Dickensian characters-situational performances,” explained LIM’s Public Programs Coordinator Emma Backfish. “We have never had something like this, where we have these performers near the actual carriages. It will be interesting to see the actors play off of the different carriages, many of which are tied into that era. And, it will be an unique experience for them.”

“Because the actors are so immersed in their characters, they can not only bring scenes in the Dickens canon to life, they also interact spontaneously with the public. Several of the actors are also very much involved with historical re-enactments, and have appeared in period films,” added Tuttle.

Like the museum itself, the actors are committed to exploring the artistry of enlivening history. Through historical interpretation, a performance art rooted in realism, the actors invite the audience to participate in their play and appreciate history from a more interpersonal perspective. 

“I am excited to see people acting amongst our vehicles. They are bringing the era to life, putting vehicles in motion in people’s minds. Having people there, speaking and acting as they are part of that time, brings them to life in a lot of ways,” Backfish said.

Wardrobes are provided by either the actors or through the estate of Nan Guzzetta, the late proprietress of Antique Costumes and Props by Nan in Port Jefferson. 

These events are the latest act in an ongoing partnership between the GPJAC and LIM. Previously the organizations jointly focused on live musical performances, specifically the Sunday Street Concert Series which is held at the museum’s Gillespie Room. 

“It’s exciting being part of a collaboration which is so unique, enlightening and fun for everyone,” said Tuttle.

The Long Island Museum is located at 1200 Route 25A in Stony Brook. For more information, visit www.longislandmuseum.org.

Photo by Lisa Mcgrath


Lisa Mcgrath of Stony Brook took this beautiful photograph of the historic Gamecock Cottage (built in 1876) at West Meadow Beach on October 2nd. 

She writes…”While walking on this glorious day at our local beach after so many days of rain, I realized what a constant and beautiful backdrop the cottage is throughout the changing seasons. There were people fishing and enjoying the sunshine as well. It reminded me what a special place we live in.”

Send your Photo of the Week to [email protected]

Top row, from left, Wayne Hart, Kimberly Hart, Ed McNamara and Tim Adams; middle row, from left, Tom Comisky, Rob Pellegrino, George Overin and David Phyfe; front row, from left, Chris De Francis, Alle Wallace, Kathryn Comisky, Helen McCarthy, Aneka Carsten, George Fear, Stephanie Carsten, Stephanie Sakson, Bianca Dresch and Mort Rosen Photo by Kimberly Phyfe

By Kimberly Phyfe

On Saturday, October 21st, the Three Village Historical Society (TVHS) welcomed over 300 guests through their annual graveyard walk, the Spirits Tour, made possible through the help of 50 volunteers and staff.

Visitors met spirits from the Chicken Hill neighborhood in Setauket throughout the 100 years people lived there, between 1860 and 1960.

Chicken Hill was a one mile neighborhood located along Route 25A, where Stop & Shop is now, originally made up of Eastern European immigrants, Native Americans, and African Americans.

Today, the community of Chicken Hill is far from its original housing and cultural form. The people who lived there have lost their personal, cultural and social past. At present, they risk losing even that important and precious heritage: the memory and collective history of Chicken Hill. 

This 29th Annual Spirits Tour was an effort to preserve that memory and to establish Chicken Hill’s place in the evolution of the Three Village Area.

The tour began at the Setauket Presbyterian Church at dusk and continued into the clear, moonlit night. Inside the fellowship hall were cider & donuts, a pop-up gift shop, and live music from the wonderfully talented Long Island Youth Development Inc.

Scott Ferrara, Exhibits & Collections Coordinator at TVHS, assembled an incredible mobile display of artifacts from the award-winning Chicken Hill exhibit. Scott printed dozens of historical images and brought out treasured items from the archives such as the Ridgway Family Bible.            

Beverly and Barbara Tyler were on hand to speak about the Day Book on exhibit from the Tyler Brothers General Store circa 1908, mentioned by the first spirit Jacob Hart, portrayed by Wayne Hart. Both Beverly and Wayne shared about their family’s history in Chicken Hill with deep affection, and a desire for future preservation.

Nancy Scuri was a tour guide and remarked that “Having the family members tell their ancestors’ stories was an incredibly special touch. The group I led was interested and listening to all the actors, but when I told them they were watching direct descendants of the people they were portraying, it was all the more meaningful!”

Owen Murphy, a recipient of the Three Village Young Historian Award, also volunteered as a tour guide this year. “The fact that all the spirits were from the same place was amazing, as you were able to peer into the life of ordinary people in the 100 years of Chicken Hill’s existence,” he said.

There were four stops throughout the graveyard at Setauket Presbyterian, two more at the Village Green, and the last four were at Caroline Episcopal Church.

TVHS told humorous, honest, and heart-breaking stories of the actual people who lived, worked, and died here. Scripts were originally written by the TVHS Education Committee comprised of Donna Smith, Bev Tyler, Brian Bennett, Town of Brookhaven Historian Barbara Russell & Education Coordinator Lindsey Steward-Goldberg. 

They then went on to be edited by Development Coordinator Kimberly Phyfe and volunteer / spirit Stephanie Sakson.

George Fear portrayed Charles, a spirit tending to the fenced-in Searing plot in the far corner of Caroline Church. “I’d heard about Chicken Hill but hadn’t had an appreciation for the richness of its history in Three Village until being exposed to it this year. It’s not a time in history which is documented or discussed nearly to the extent of others in the Three Village area (i.e. George Washington and the Culper Spy Ring) but so relevant and relatable given the ties so many families have to Chicken Hill and its history.”

TVHS Director Mari Irizarry says that plans for the 30th Annual Spirits Tour are already in the works. “We have so many ideas inspired by the Three Village area, our actors and guides, and local lore. Bringing history to life for our community is an incredible honor and one that I am proud to share in year after year. It is no exaggeration to say that this was our best Spirits Tour to date!”

So what keeps family, friends, and neighbors coming back for more? George Fear says that “I have always loved history, there’s an abundance of it in Three Village, and you learn something new and interesting every year. Most importantly, it’s the opportunity to meet and collaborate with a terrific group of people who are passionate and enthusiastic about history and make it an absolute pleasure to volunteer. What could be better than that? Needless to say, count me in as a spirit for next year and I am looking forward to the 30th Spirits Tour!”

Special thanks to Setauket Presbyterian Church, Caroline Episcopal Church, and the sponsors of the 29th Annual Spirits Tour: Annmarie’s Farm Stand, Luigi’s Pizzeria, Starbucks, Stop & Shop, and Town of Brookhaven Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich.

Author Kimberly Phyfe is the Development Coordinator for the Three Village Historical Society in Setauket.

Joseph Pierce, associate professor in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature and the inaugural director of Stony Brook University’s Native American and Indigenous Studies program. Photo courtesy Stony Brook University

Stony Brook University named Joseph Pierce, associate professor in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature, the inaugural director of a Native American and Indigenous Studies effort as the university plans to hire three new faculty in this nascent undertaking.

Next year, the southern flagship school of the State University of New York plans to add staff in the English Department, Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies and Anthropology.

“I have been eager for this to start,” said Pierce, a member of the Cherokee Nation who has been at the university for a decade. “We have so much to contribute to broader discussions that are happening around the world. The university is better by including Native American studies.”

Andrew Newman, professor and chair of the Department of English at SBU. Photo courtesy Stony Brook University

Andrew Newman, professor and current chair of the Department of English, who is also chair of a committee advising Axel Drees, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, described Pierce as having a “real national profile,” adding that he was the “right person to be the founding director.”

Starting next fall, students at the university can minor in Native American and Indigenous Studies, where they can study the history, art, social and political interests, languages and cultures of Indigenous peoples.

The focus on Native American Studies will emphasize transdisciplinary topics such as environmental justice and sustainability.

Earlier this year, Stony Brook won a competition to develop Governors Island as a climate solutions center [See story, “SBU will develop $700M climate center on Governors Island,” April 26, TBR News Media].

Indigenous scholars should have a “seat at the table,” said Newman, “as they are globally one of the demographics most impacted by climate change.”

Islands in the Pacific are disappearing, Guam is undergoing “significant environmental degradation,” and fires in the Pacific Northwest and leaking pipelines in the United States and Canada are “disproportionately affecting Indigenous peoples,” Pierce added.

Indigenous groups relate to the land in a way that’s different from others, approaching it as stewards and caretakers, Pierce said.

“We see land as a relative,” he noted. “We’re asking very different questions about what it means to care for a place and to care for the environment and to care for the life that sustains it.”

The New York City government proposed plans for flood relief on the lower East Side of Manhattan in the event of future storms like Hurricane Sandy. The proposals included building massive walls and raising elevated platforms, including clearing thousands of trees.

Numerous indigenous groups objected and protested against such plans, Pierce said.

In an email, Carl Lejuez, Stony Brook University’s provost, suggested that a significant piece of Governors Island is climate justice, so the link between the Governors Island effort and indigenous peoples “fits naturally with the goals of the New York Climate Exchange.”

Axel Drees, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at SBU. Photo courtesy Stony Brook University

Lejuez credited Drees as a “driver of this in collaboration with Professor Pierce.” Lejuez added that his office is “definitely providing support to see it come to fruition.”

The most crucial component in the start of this effort is hiring faculty.

“If we build the core faculty across the university, we can definitely consider expanding research and curriculum opportunities,” Lejuez wrote.

Student interest

Students from the Anthropology Department recently invited Pierce to give a talk about some of his current research.

“It was evident that a lot of them have an interest in working toward understanding humanity, what it means to be human,” he said. They also have an understanding of how anthropology as a discipline has sometimes historically “adopted rather unscientific and proto-eugenic methods” in describing and analyzing Indigenous Peoples.

Students are eager for an alternative perspective on the acquisition and acceptance of knowledge.

Pierce believes students have considerable interest in Native American Studies. His courses about Latin American indigenous populations are full.

“There are numerous students who are interested in Native American and Indigenous studies but don’t quite have a cohesive plan of study that’s available to them,” Pierce said. “This is remedying that disconnection.”

Long Island students grow up in numerous towns and communities with Native American names, such as Sachem, Wyandanch, Montauk and Setauket.

Newman added that the staff hopes the new effort can do some “outreach to local schools and provide professional development with kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers. It would be an important mission for the university to educate Long Island as a whole about Native culture.”

Above, two skeletons take it easy. Photo by Nasrin Zahed

By Nasrin Zahed

Halloween has a rich history on Long Island that dates back to the early colonial days. Over the centuries, it has evolved from ancient Scottish rituals to the modern-day extravaganza of costumes, candy and spooky spectacles.

Halloween’s origins can be traced back to the ancient Scottish festival of Eve of All Hallows, celebrated around the end of October. Though commonly believed to be derived from the Celtics, Henry Kelly, distinguished research professor in the Department of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, has provided the research to debunk such a claim.

“People in Ireland also indulged in similar festivities on the day before All Saints’ Day, including divination games and competitions like apple bobbing,” said Kelly in an email exchange.

Below, Halloween decorations plastered on the exterior windows at the Dance Arts Development Center in St. James. Photo by Nasrin Zahed

Halloween customs came to America primarily through the Irish immigrants in the 19th century. The practice of carving Jack-o’-lanterns, a staple of modern Halloween, is often attributed to Irish immigrants who brought the tradition of carving turnips with them. The orange pumpkin, native to North America, became the go-to canvas for spooky faces and designs.

Though of all the traditions to be brought over, dressing up on Halloween and going door to door is still a bit hazy. “The question of when children started masquerading and going around for treats at Halloween in America needs further research,” Kelly said.

Regardless, Halloween has adapted to become one of the most profitable holidays of the year. Seeing as the United States has a strong consumer culture, Halloween became an opportunity for retailers to tap into this market. Businesses saw the potential in selling costumes, decorations, candies and other Halloween-related products.

There is no question that Long Island has found a niche in that market as fall makes Long Island a scenic destination for all things fall fun.

With its agricultural history, Long Island is also home to numerous farms and pumpkin patches, where families can pick their own pumpkins and enjoy fall-themed activities. Others can enjoy an array of haunted attractions and houses that draw thrill seekers and horror enthusiasts during the Halloween season. Places like Darkside Haunted House in Wading River and Gateway’s Haunted Playhouse in Bellport offer terrifying experiences for those brave enough to enter.

Long Island boasts numerous historical sites with eerie legends and ghost stories.

One of the standout Halloween events is the Rise of the Jack O’Lanterns at Old Westbury Gardens, showcasing thousands of intricately carved pumpkins, transforming the gardens into a mesmerizing pumpkin wonderland. The event is being held through Nov. 2.

Local businesses and communities have embraced the spirit of Halloween, with businesses decorating their storefronts and residents adorning their homes with creative and spooky decorations.

Hailey Hamilton of Old Wood Road, Stony Brook, shared her thoughts on the upcoming holiday, saying, “Halloween in our town is always a blast. The decorations go up, the costumes come out, and the spirit of the season is infectious. It’s the perfect time of year to enjoy some spooky fun with friends and family.”

A fascinating tapestry of ancient Scottish customs, early American traditions and modern-day festivities, Halloween on Long Island is the one to beat. A bewitching experience for all ages, Long Islanders have embraced this holiday with open arms, making it an integral part of their culture. 

If you find yourself on Long Island in late October, be prepared for a ghoulishly good time.

Norma Watson and Steve Englebright shake hands as Johanna Watson, John Cunniffe and Three Village Community Trust board member Robert Reuter look on. Photo by Herb Mones

Abraham Woodhull’s ancestral property to be preserved, showcased to the community

By Mallie Jane Kim

Several blue-and-yellow historical markers dot Setauket streets, and the hamlet can truly boast “George Washington slept here.”

But none of these signs feels more out of the way than the one on the road to Strong’s Neck, in a peaceful corner of town overlooking Little Bay. And yet this sign marks the ancestral property of an important player in the Revolutionary War: Abraham Woodhull, “chief of Long Island spies under Gen. Washington,” the sign reads. In coming years, the marker won’t be the only way history buffs can enjoy this important piece of the past, which was at the heart of the historic Culper Spy Ring.

Three Village Community Trust is in the process of purchasing this property, with plans to preserve and eventually use it as a setting for community historical events. In a press release about the purchase, TVCT President Herb Mones wrote that he wants to “have children walk in the very steps of the founders of our country.”

Woodhull, code name Samuel Culper Sr., was one of the primary members of the group that tracked British troops and provided key information to Gen. George Washington and the American forces during the Revolutionary War, using espionage tradecraft like secret codes, invisible ink and dead drop secure communications. An article on the Central Intelligence Agency’s website identifies the Culper ring among “the founding fathers” of intelligence gathering by Americans.

“It’s a tremendous win for the community to be able to protect it and preserve it going forward,” Mones added. 

The trust, a community organization focused on preserving local natural resources and historical properties, owns several Three Village spots with Revolutionary War-era significance, including Patriots Rock Historical Site and the Smith/de Zafra House, home of Timothy Smith who, according to the TVCT website, mounted a broken musket over his fireplace to divert attention of suspicious British soldiers from his real cache of weapons hidden nearby.

“We’ve had a collection of properties that represented the foundations of the American experience,” Mones said. Thanks in part to “Turn,” the AMC television series about the spy ring popularizing Setauket’s history, the Woodhull property has the potential to draw even more interest in local history. “It’s important — it’s a feather in the cap,” the trust president said.

TVCT confirmed in a press release that the sales contract has been signed. The trust is in the process of submitting other required documentation to the state to finalize the purchase, which was made possible by a $825,000 grant secured in 2022 by then-New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket).

Norma Watson, who currently owns and lives on the property, will have a life tenancy, according to Mones. Watson herself has a history of advocating for natural and historical preservation, and she was involved with the trust at its inception.

According to Mones, the Woodhull property currently houses a pond and a barn — with a history of its own — that was reclaimed and converted around the 1950s into the home where Watson now resides. Woodhull’s original 1660 house burned down in 1931.

Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

David Grann’s true-crime Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI brilliantly chronicles the Reign of Terror that cut a blood-stained swath through the Osage tribe in Oklahoma in the early 1920s. Two dozen murders were directly attributed to the four-year period, but further inquiry revealed a larger conspiracy that spanned at least two decades and hundreds of homicides. The book was one of the best or most notable books of 2017 by The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Time, NPR, and many others.

Members of the Osage Nation earned royalties from oil sales through their federally mandated “head rights.” As the oil market grew, many amassed wealth, leading to widespread swindles and violence on the unsuspecting Native Americans. In addition, the Burke Act (1906) imposed an unscrupulous situation of guardianships, depriving many of the Osage control over their money making them wards of predatory opportunists. 

Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

The book’s narrative is one of poisonings, shootings, and even the bombing of a house. The history is fraught with coverups by local authorities, high-profile citizens, police, doctors, and even undertakers. Coercion, blackmail, and negotiations with criminals are all part of the byzantine tapestry. The country found little sympathy for the victims, instead focused with a morbid glee on the lurid details: “Osage Indian Killing Conspiracy Thrills,” heralded the Reno Evening Gazette. 

With over forty films (including multiple documentaries), Martin Scorsese’s extraordinary roster includes Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence, Casino, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street, and, his last film, 2019’s The Irishman. The Award-winning director has co-written the screenplay for Killers of the Flower Moon with Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Munich, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and A Star Is Born). The result is a compelling epic. 

The story alternates between wider brutality and intimate moments among a trio of first-rate actors, surrounded by a varied, if not fully developed, supporting cast. Clocking in at nearly three and a half hours, Killers of the Flower Moon is a powerful, important film, but surprisingly misses some of the broader and significant elements of the story.

The film opens with a ritual burying of a peace pipe in a meditative and communal ceremony. Set to a pulsing soundtrack, the action shifts to an almost orgasmic oil gush, segueing into a portrait of the Osage, who became the world’s richest people per capita.

The scene changes to Fairfax, Oklahoma. While it is the 1920s, the town seems more a portrait of Wild West chaos, contrasting the wealthy Native Americans with an earthy population of white speculators and oil workers. 

Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns from Europe, where he served as an infantry cook in World War I, and his uncle, William King Hale (Robert De Niro), takes him in. Hale, the self-titled King of the Osage Hills, is a friend and supporter of the Osage, speaking the language and moving with ease in their community. The façade is quickly dispelled as Ernest is drawn into Hale’s machinations of deception and vicious, destructive manipulations. With his sly, paternal benevolence, he advises Ernest not to make small but big trouble—for there lies the big payoff.

While driving a cab, Ernest meets and courts Osage Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone). Much of the film is shown through her eyes and heard in her brief voiceovers, simply and devastatingly enumerating the many uninvestigated tribal murders. After their marriage, Hale continues to involve Ernest in a range of illegal and immoral activities, resulting in the death of Mollie’s sisters. 

Scorsese and Roth have narrowed the scope, focusing mainly on Ernest, Mollie, and Hale, allowing for extraordinary performances. DiCaprio has never been better as the conflicted but easily swayed Ernest, who becomes one of the “squaw men,” the lay-about husbands living off their wives’ money. DiCaprio shows Ernest’s struggle, creating a character of active and passive complicity but still revealing lingering shreds of humanity. 

Lily Gladstone is a revelation of nuance and subtle dimension, finding joy, pain, humor, and strength. Her ability to project extraordinary shades of emotion in complete stillness is matched by her anguish in the film’s most gut-wrenching scenes of loss. Late in the film, her declaration that “this blanket is a target on our backs” reflects a woman robbed of peace of mind, living in a world crumbling from within and without.

De Niro balances the “great white father” with the darkness of a conscienceless villain whose lack of moral compass tips towards the amoral. De Niro (and the film) might have been better served by a gradual revelation of Hale’s true colors, something in which the book succeeds.

As for the rest of the players, there are no weak links, but they have only one or two notes to play. The rogues are rough, whiskey-soaked outlaws. The citizens of Fairfax carry a certain generic “oldy-timey” vibe. The members of the Bureau of Investigation (the forerunner to the FBI) are a tight-lipped crew, directed by Agent Tom White, an effective Jesse Plemons. While a good portion of Grann’s book deals with the investigation under J. Edgar Hoover, the film truncates the inquiry. The trial itself is abbreviated, with John Lithgow, as Prosecutor Leaward, and Brendan Fraser, as W.S. Hamilton, Hale’s attorney, basically serving their functions.

Throughout, the wrongs committed against the Osage are rightly and unflinchingly highlighted. Whether being overcharged for funeral arrangements, targets of arson and insurance fraud, or treated with disdain, suspicion, and envy by the “buzzards circling [the Osage] community,” the Osage nobility is fully present. Never caricatured, their ascendency from victim to the pursuit of justice in the face of systematic murder creates the core of the film’s final stretch. 

Scorsese’s penultimate scene is fascinating, allowing a seeming gimmick to work on another level (as it is fact-based). His cameo is fun, if a bit jarring. Killers of the Flower Moon’s final image, a contemporary nod, is beautiful—the ideal resolution to a film that casts light on a bloody, scarred chapter of American history.

Rated R, the film is now playing in local theaters and will later play on Apple TV+.