By David Grann, Dou­ble­day, 338 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - Magazine Harper’s Monthly Moon Mag­nif­i­cent Seven-type Killers of the Flower

The first two bod­ies were found on the same day in late May 1921, at the tail-end of what the Osage In­di­ans call “the time of the flower-killing moon.” First Charles White­horn was dis­cov­ered in the brush near an oil derrick, hav­ing been shot twice, ex­e­cu­tion-style, be­tween the eyes. Then, scarcely 30 miles away, Anna Brown’s bloated corpse sur­faced in a mossy ravine; a coroner’s inquest de­ter­mined she had been shot at close range from the back of her skull. Be­fore five years were out, at least 22 more Osage In­di­ans would lose their lives in a bloody saga — told here by David Grann (The Lost City of Z, 2009) — that re­veals the greed and racial ha­tred at the pit of Amer­ica’s heart of dark­ness.

In Grann’s riv­et­ing Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Mur­ders and the Birth of the FBI, the au­thor details a sys­tem­atic mur­der plot that was hatched to bilk mem­bers of the Osage na­tion out of their oil-rich lands in north-cen­tral Ok­la­homa. Anna Brown’s sis­ter Mol­lie Burkhart — who even­tu­ally lost both her sis­ters, her mother, and nearly her own life in what was called the Osage Reign of Ter­ror — was ten when the black-gold rush be­gan in Osage ter­ri­tory. By the 1920s, the rich­est peo­ple per capita in the world were the Osage In­di­ans, and every­one around them had taken no­tice of their mansions, ex­pen­sive wardrobes, and chauf­feured cars. As a writer for

put it, “Where will it end? Ev­ery time a new well is drilled the In­di­ans are that much richer.” He added, “The Osage In­di­ans are be­com­ing so rich that some­thing will have to be done about it.”

In Osage County, evil seemed to run deeper than the oil wells, as the au­thor details the var­i­ous and das­tardly ways in which the Osage were dis­patched: with poi­soned moon­shine, strych­nine in­jec­tions, mys­te­ri­ous ex­plo­sions, and point-blank shoot­ings. The mastermind be­hind the scheme turned out to be a pil­lar of the com­mu­nity — in the 1924 panoramic shot of the tribe, taken along­side prom­i­nent white lo­cals, that spans the book’s ti­tle page, the killer hides in plain sight.

Many Osage could not spend their money as they wished. Fed­er­ally ap­pointed fi­nan­cial guardians were given to any In­dian the Depart­ment of the In­te­rior said was “in­com­pe­tent,” which usu­ally came down to the quan­tum of In­dian blood in the prop­erty holder. Full-blooded In­di­ans got a guardian; mixed-blood land­hold­ers rarely did. Grann’s painstak­ing re­search re­veals the ex­tent to which th­ese guardians col­luded in and con­trib­uted to the ris­ing Osage mur­der rate dur­ing the early 1920s.

The mur­derer was even­tu­ally brought to jus­tice by former Texas Ranger Tom White, who in 1917 joined the gov­ern­ment’s fledg­ling Bureau of Investigation, which later be­came the FBI. By 1924, when twenty-nine-yearold J. Edgar Hoover was ap­pointed its di­rec­tor, the Osage mur­ders were al­ready un­der investigation by the bureau. But the case had been met with de­lib­er­ate ob­fus­ca­tion, as wit­nesses re­fused to co­op­er­ate be­cause of cor­rup­tion, dis­re­gard for In­dian lives, or, as one agent said, an “al­most uni­ver­sal fear of be­ing bumped off.” Grann grandly re­counts White’s re­cruit­ment of a hand­ful of other fron­tier law­men to work the case as mostly un­der­cover op­er­a­tives in Osage County. With shades of a dream team, th­ese ops were called the Cow­boys by other mem­bers of the bureau. Their meth­ods were more old-fash­ioned than the fledg­ling foren­sic science and dili­gent pa­per­work per­formed by Hoover’s pre­ferred “col­lege boys,” and the book is at its finest in re­count­ing the story of the FBI’s evo­lu­tion along with its first suc­cess­ful large-scale so­lu­tion of a fed­eral crime.

A lo­cal his­to­rian ob­served that the 1926 Osage mur­der tri­als gar­nered more me­dia at­ten­tion than the Scopes “mon­key trial” of the pre­vi­ous year, and cen­tral to the pub­lic in­ter­est in the pro­ceed­ings was one ques­tion: Would a jury of white men pun­ish an­other white man for killing an Amer­i­can In­dian? As a tribe mem­ber opined, “The ques­tion for them to de­cide is whether a white man killing an Osage is mur­der — or merely cru­elty to an­i­mals.” A news­reel about the mur­ders, “The Tragedy of the Osage Hills,” was shown na­tion­wide in the­aters and sub­ti­tled “A Story of Love, Ha­tred and Man’s Greed for Gold.” Grann’s prose does not quite al­ways rise above the sen­sa­tion­al­ism in­her­ent in the me­dia’s orig­i­nal cov­er­age of the mur­ders; he’s fond of cliffhanger chap­ter end­ings, hero-and-vil­lain-style de­scrip­tions (one bad­die smokes a corn pipe and has a “smudge of a mus­tache”), and an over-re­liance on metaphor­i­cal lan­guage thick with mist and blood-steeped soil. One chap­ter is called “The Quick-Draw Artist, the Yegg, and the Soup Man” — sadly, we don’t get enough details on the iden­tity of the yegg, or safe­cracker, to fully flesh out that par­tic­u­lar plot. But the most ef­fec­tive tools in

are sim­ply its re­port­ing, sto­ry­telling, and pub­li­ca­tion. The fact that the killings were even fully in­ves­ti­gated in such a racist cli­mate is re­mark­able — and raises ques­tions about other un­solved crimes against Na­tives (Canada’s High­way of Tears case, for in­stance, cen­ters on the nearly two dozen mur­ders and dis­ap­pear­ances of First Na­tions women be­tween 1969 and 2011). Though the Osage bear the frac­tures of the mur­ders to this day, this chap­ter of In­di­anAmer­i­can re­la­tions has been long for­got­ten by his­tory. Grann’s pierc­ing look at its le­gacy is heartrend­ing and nec­es­sary. — Molly Boyle

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