David Grann – Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (352 pages, Simon & Shuster, £20) – review
11 August 2017
Years ago, I recall seeing Mervyn LeRoy’s hagiographic The FBI Story (1959), a fictionalised account of the birth and development of the FBI. It might not have been the greatest film ever but, as always, the presence of Jimmy Stewart made it palatable. One episode, however, stood out for me: the FBI’s role in putting an end to the killing of Osage Indians in Oklahoma, who had suddenly been transformed by the discovery of oil on their reservation to the richest people per capita in the world in the early 1920s.
Former New Yorker staff writer David Grann expands on the events of that period, highlighting the spate of murders which enabled local white men to bilk the Indians out of their new-found wealth, stories of which had spread far and wide, not always eliciting admiration: a feature in Harper’s Monthly Magazine warned, “The Osage Indians are becoming so rich that something will have to be done about it.”
When oil was discovered on the reservation, prospectors had to lease lands from the Osage, who weren’t thought capable of handling their own financial affairs, so white ‘guardians’ were appointed to supervise them. These men were, it will come as no surprise to learn, often unscrupulous, money-grabbing crooks, who, despite being leading citizens among the local white communities and despite their profession of friendship to the Indians, would purchase items for their new best friends from either their own companies or those owned by friends or relatives at ridiculously inflated prices.
Tales in the national press of Indians spending thousands on luxury items were soon supplanted by those of an altogether darker nature.
The headrights to the oil remained with the Osage, but they could be inherited by family members, so whites married into the tribe and that’s when their venality plumbed new depths.
Grann’s story revolves around Osage women in the Smith family. Minnie died of a mysterious wasting disease at age 27; her sister Anna was murdered with a gunshot to the head in 1921; another sister, Rita, was killed alongside her husband in a bomb attack which blew up their home; their mother, Lizzie, died under similar conditions to Minnie. The remaining sister, Mollie, also took ill but managed to let a local priest know that she felt her life was in danger, not knowing that her husband, Ernest Burkhart, was one of the men at the heart of her family’s misfortunes.
The authorities who initially investigated the case were stymied by graft and corruption and were sometimes involved themselves; in two cases, white men who got near the truth were murdered – one in Washington DC where he was seeking help, indicating the extent of the corruption and the rich rewards at stake.
If all this sounds straight out of the roaring twenties – corrupt officials and businessmen; gangsters, huge amounts of money; the murder of innocents; heroic FBI agents; national press coverage – it has never captured the imagination of the public and the popular media to the same degree as Al Capone, Elliott Ness and contemporary events in Chicago, although the chief antagonist, businessman William K. Hale, uncle of Ernest Burkhart and self-styled ‘King of the Osage Hills,’ was a charismatic figure who had the support and admiration of many of his neighbours, including – initially – the Osage, who had at first sought his aid in getting to the bottom of these mysterious deaths.
This is also the story of the nascent FBI. Even at this early stage, the bureau had been tainted by corruption during the Harding administration in the early 1920s; its new director, appointed in 1924, was the ambitious and zealous J. Edgar Hoover, who was keen that to make an impact and to this end, he appointed Tom White, an intrepid Stetson-wearing former Texas Ranger, who headed up a small group of similarly dedicated undercover agents to work with the Osage and investigate what became known as the ‘Reign of Terror.’ White was clearly a formidable-but-just character and was able to root out and bring to trial the villains of the piece in face of constant threats and appalling corruption. The FBI bathed in White’s glory and claimed to have solved the murder of 24 tribal members; in fact, the success of the investigation created an atmosphere of trust between the Bureau and Indians in general up until the late 1960s and early 70s when civil rights activism at Alcatraz and Wounded Knee brought them into conflict.
The final section of the book sees the author in Oklahoma visiting relatives of those killed, learning about the tribe’s own investigations and digging a little deeper himself to unearth more guilty parties, including the doctors who were 'treating' the Osages by poisoning them, and he comes to the conclusion long held by the tribe itself that the number of victims far exceeded the FBI’s figures and actually ran into the hundreds...
This well-researched book is part thriller, part journalistic account – and I have to say that I wish there had been a little more of Grann’s own enquiries amongst the modern day Osage – that shines a spotlight on a series of events almost forgotten outside of the Osage tribe and while this sort of thing has been going on in the Americas since 1492, it seems particularly pertinent considering the current struggle over the Dakota pipeline.