Greed triggers Reign of Terror
Screen rights for David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon were acquired last year for $US5 million, with Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Leonard DiCaprio now circling. It is easy to see why. The story of the macabre assassinations of scores of members of the Osage Nation in the 1920s has all the feel of a saga made for prestige television, Deadwood meets Dallas, aswirl with blood and oil.
In the 1890s, the Osage had been decanted from homelands in Kansas into seemingly barren wastes in Oklahoma. The discovery of hydrocarbons beneath, however, shortly made them the richest people per capita in the world, occupying, as Grann puts it, America’s first ‘‘underground reservation’’.
After the oil-drilling came the gold-digging: soon enough, everyone wanted a piece of the Osage action. Conmen moved in to rip them off; lawmakers set to screwing them down; marrying an Osage provided access to an enviable lifestyle. A 30-year-old woman from Oregon wrote the tribe offering her hand: ‘‘Will you please tell the richest Indian you know of, and he will find me as good and true as any human being can be.’’
Not everyone was so ingenuous. If misfortune should befall an Osage partner, potential rewards multiplied. The official death toll of the ‘‘Reign of Terror’’ is something in the order of 60. Unofficially, Grann suggests, it is incalculable. A staff writer for The New Yorker, he concentrates on only one of a host of conspiracies, an investigation of the vendetta against the family of one Mollie Burkhart, engineered by cowboy turned ‘‘high-class gentleman’’ Bill Hale, who was at first, ironically, perceived as a sympathiser with the Osage.
In photographs, Hale resembles a waistcoated, bespectacled version of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. In ruthlessness he rivalled the bloodiest of Borgias, his agents dispatching targets by all and any means: pistol and poisons, daggers and dynamite.
Hopelessly in Hale’s power was his nephew Ernest Burkhart, Mollie’s husband. Ernest was so brainwashed that he was prepared to blow up his own children when they planned to spend the night with the target of the conspirators’ forensic inspection of his books gives no clues. A couple bore bookplates awarded to his brother, the gentle middle-aged man who brought them to my shop. He had travelled to my country bookshop with this small collection of books in a cardboard box. He had seen the children’s books in my shop — the Enid Blytons, the May Gibbs and Peg Maltbys — and had decided this was the place he wished to dispose of the books that had belonged to his brother, and which had remained untouched since his death, when they were both young boys.
Once I bought some beautiful children’s books that had belonged to a woman named Alice. I remember Alice. I have lived in this city for most of my life, and when you have lived in one place so long, the webs of association and recognition become tighter and denser.
Alice would buy a single ticket to every amateur theatre performance in our small provincial city. She was a tiny woman, with one leg shorter than the other, requiring her to wear one shoe with a thick fat heel, like the huge, shiny black shoes worn by Alice in Charles Blackman’s paintings.
Alice had left an astonishing collection of beautiful children’s books. She had collected nearly every book by Mary Grant Bruce. Some of these bore inscriptions dedicated to her when she was a child.
It was abundantly clear that these books were Alice’s great source of joy and delight. On some, she had written in large, bold black text: “This book belongs to Alice! If you are reading this, please contact the police, because this book has been STOLEN!!! Please return this book IMMEDIATELY!!!’’
But they have all now been sold, her collection broken up and scattered.
One day I visited an elderly couple who lived in a conventional brick veneer in a quiet street, set among similar houses, all with trim lawns and tidy garden beds and neat concrete kerbs. In the garage were hundreds of books that had belonged to their son, who had recently died.
The elderly man had spent weeks endeavouring to sort these books into categories and subjects. There were books on surrealist and experimental fiction, books on existential philosophy, beautiful cookery books with complex recipes and a broad range of classic literature. There was a scattering of children’s books, the usual sort of books belonging to a boy born in the 60s, someone of, or close to, my age.
I expressed my sympathy to the elderly couple, who resembled, not only in age, but in apparent education and experience, my own parents. They were good, honest, hardworking people, bowed under the magnitude of their grief but resolute in their determination to disperse their son’s property properly.
I said, “It’s a beautiful collection, you must next bomb. He was so craven that he would testify in the eventual trial first for the prosecution, then for the defence, and then again for the prosecution.
The unflagging pursuer of Hale and Burkhart was an austere frontier lawman, Tom White, Stetson pulled low over steel-grey eyes, who joined the nascent Bureau of Investigation, the FBI’s forerunner, in 1917. Grann introduces his redeemer with a line that could have been written for Gary Cooper: ‘‘The first time that Tom White saw a criminal hanged he was just a boy, and the executioner was his father.’’
Showing a flair for such economical formulations, Grann builds a well-paced, action-packed narrative long on tightly observed details: as he starts his investigation, for example, White works first from the absence of an exit wound, suggesting a disappeared bullet, suggesting a corrupted autopsy.
There is a cast of wildcatters and private dicks, a sleazy informant of whom an agent notes that he ‘‘sniffs nose and works mouth and nose like rabbit almost continuously, especially when excited’’, and a bloviating attorney whose have been so proud of your son.’’ And the father emitted an involuntary noise, a guttural grunt that had its source somewhere deep within him, and I knew, without knowing them or their son, that a great gulf had carved itself in their lives some time before their son had died, some time after he had read and moved beyond those children’s books that his parents had given him when he was a boy.
He had evidently voraciously, greedily sought more knowledge from more esoteric, more complex, more difficult tracts, something that had caused a great fissure of misunderstanding, an absolute, irrevocable chasm that had removed him from them, and that, perhaps, provided the chaotic maps that aided and abetted the path of his own dissolution.
The father handled those books, he sorted them, and endeavoured to classify and arrange them logically, but they defied him, they refused to give up their secrets, or to cast the light of understanding on their owner. They were like bricks, each one forming the small part of a great wall that segregated two loving parents from their brilliant, precocious and deeply, fatally, troubled son.
I carried them to my car, and, as I reversed down the driveway I saw the father standing there, bowed, shrugging off the arm that his wife had placed around his shoulder.
Frank’s books were much narrower in range. They were all children’s books: WE Johns, Enid Blyton. Was Frank reading one of those books when he died? Will I find a bookmark, a football card, a scrap of paper torn from a comic and party piece is a lecture titled The Trial of Jesus Christ from a Lawyer’s Viewpoint. The young J. Edgar Hoover, wiry, demanding and dedicated, is almost overshadowed.
So colourful is the material with which Grann has to work, in fact, that his own occasional ornate touches, such as quotes from Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes and Scott Fitzgerald, come off as obtrusive and unnecessary. He is much better when simply accreting detail, of which there is so much that the book’s pages almost give off puffs of archival dust.
The chief shortcoming of Killers of the Flower Moon is that, for all the cut and thrust of law and lawlessness, the victims are seldom much more than names, the Osage and their culture not coming into focus until the end. Mollie Burkhart and her kin move through the story as inscrutably as … well … cigar-store Indians. One longs for more on such characters as the sublimely titled Chief Bacon Rind.
An opportunity to set the Osage’s plight in the context of frontier dispossession also goes rather begging. How did attitudes to the American Indian render possible killing so reckless, even cavalier? How did political settings abet and protect their persecutors? In some ways elected officialdom took a toll of the Osage as brutal as that of their murderers.
This book is richly illustrated and studiously endnoted but lacks an index, an inexcusable deficiency in a work so packed with detail.
Not that this will make much difference to Scorsese et al. is a journalist and author. placed at the page he had read up to? Was he ill, dying, lying in his bed as his grieving parents or older brother read to him?
Or did some catastrophic calamity destroy him? An accident? Was he Biggles, valiantly sitting aboard his Sopwith Camel on the roof of a house in some tree-lined street when his makeshift plane plummeted down the terracotta roof tiles and left him lying broken on the ground, beneath the house’s eaves?
Was he high up in the Faraway Tree, searching for lands among its highest branches and he lost his footing?
Where was the magic promised again and again in children’s books that failed to raise him, pale, but recovering, from his sickbed? Where was the magic slide that would have borne him safely and thrillingly down from the treetop on to the forest floor?
So vulnerable we are within our thin packets of flesh, so easily damaged, but strangely so resilient in the cage of our bones. Will we unravel from within, betrayed by some aberrant event in our biologies, in our complex psychologies, or will some external adversary slay us?
We spin through the orbit of our lives, getting and spending, acquiring and accumulating, shoring up our lives with things. But at our lives’ ends, when even breath itself must be surrendered, our possessions will become impenetrable middens, mounds from which meaning will be sought, but which will always tender insufficient clues. is bookseller, writer and editor.
US president Calvin Coolidge with Osage Nation people at the White House in 1924
Osage exploiter William K. Hale