Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

By David Grann

Review by Paula Jones

 

As a high school senior, after reading William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,” I was left enraged by the overwhelmingly selfish motivations of Anse Bundren, incredulous that any person could act with such flagrant disregard for others. I well remember that first time I learned how powerfully disturbing a book could be––how it could take hold of you, how it could unsettle you, how it could unnerve your days and haunt your nights..

I’m there again, except this time the book is not a work of fiction, and that makes it all the more bitter. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI is an exceptionally well-researched piece of investigative reporting by David Grann, staff writer for The New Yorker, and it is a heartbreaker. It first caught my attention because I am a lover of good mysteries, and none other than John Grisham had recommended it on a morning talk show.

Within its pages I discovered a piece of American history of which few are aware. I am no fan of conspiracy theories, but there is no doubt that a widespread conspiracy existed in the early part of 20th century in Oklahoma, a conspiracy to rob and murder dozens––if not hundreds––of Osage Indians.

Throughout the 1800’s, although the US government repeatedly assured them that their land would be theirs forever, they were systematically stripped of all but a small portion. Believing they would eventually lose it also, in 1870 the tribe sold what was left for pennies on the dollar and used the proceeds to purchase a few thousand acres of hilly, rocky, sterile land that was useless to farmers. They purposely chose to buy this inhospitable land that no one else wanted

figuring they would be left alone, but they were wrong––literally dead wrong.

Ironically, oil was discovered on the property. Owning not only the land but also the mineral rights to the largest oil reserve ever discovered on American soil, the Osage suddenly found themselves rich beyond their wildest imagination. It is estimated that the oil on Osage property generated more money for the tribe than the combined value of the California gold rush, the Pike’s Peak gold rush, the Black Hills gold rush, and the Klondike gold rush. With their unexpected windfall, the Osage built beautiful homes, bought automobiles and airplanes, and perhaps in their most dangerous indulgence, hired servants. Since many of the most needy residents of the surrounding towns were white, many of the servants working for the Osage were white. Jealously of their newfound wealth was fueled by racism. A journalist reporting on the situation wrote, “Every time a new well is drilled, the Indians are that much richer. The Osage Indians are becoming so rich that something will have to be done about it.”

Thus began a four-year period of systematic land theft and murder, covered up by some of Oklahoma’s most respected citizens and law enforcement personnel. Grann brilliantly personalizes the story by centering it on the family of one Osage woman (Mollie Burkhart) who had married a white settler. In 1918 her 27 year-old sister had died of what doctors would only call “a peculiar wasting illness.” In 1921, a second sister was shot point-blank in the back of the head and left in an open ravine. A few weeks later, Mollie’s mother died of the same ‘wasting illness’ as her sister. The next year, a powerful nitroglycerine bomb destroyed the home of a third sister, killing both the sister and her husband.

In what became known as “The Osage Reign of Terror,” other Indians were dying in suspicious accidents, of mysterious illnesses, and out-and-out murders. Because Sheriff Harve M. Freas was barely even pretending to investigate the crimes, the Osage sent trusted friend and rancher Barney McBride to Washington to appeal for federal help. The day after McBride arrived in Washington, he was abducted, stabbed 20 times, and his naked body was dumped in a ditch.

When the feds responded to the plea for help, they did so by assigning the case to what was then an unknown organization called the Bureau of Investigation and it’s newly named 29 year-old director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover delegated responsibility for the investigation to former Texas Ranger and outsider agent Tom White. White assembled a team of four other misfits who worked undercover (as a retired cattleman, a rancher, an insurance agent, and an Indian medicine-man). Because of their relentless pursuit of justice, eventually charges were filed and convictions were made. But the story does not end there. As Gann researched the book, he discovered hence unknown information that proves there is even more to the story than first thought.

There is no need for me to include a spoiler alert in this review. I would not do the interested reader the disservice of revealing the alarming, almost unbelievable truth behind the brutal crimes. I would highly recommend the book to lovers of history or mystery.

I have found myself humming a song from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast as I have written this review––not as a love song but as a lament.

Tale as old as time True as it can be . . .

Ever just the same, Ever a surprise, Ever as before, Ever just as sure As the sun will rise . . .

Racism and greed––ever just the same––are perhaps the most primitive and universal motivations for all the very worst of human behavior. Recent events such as the stand off and violence at Standing Rock and the accelerating racial tension vocalized by rallying white supremacists prove that they are just as powerful today as they ever were. Followers of Jesus simply cannot accept this status–quo sin in their own lives or in the lives of their churches. Thankfully, because Jesus is all about challenging business as usual, even a “tale as old as time” does not have to remain “ever just the same” when we allow “the Son to rise” in our lives and communities.

Father, forgive us when we don’t.