Greed trig­gers Reign of Ter­ror

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Gideon Haigh Michelle Cox­all

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

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