By David Grann, Doubleday, 338 pages
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