Presents a true account of the early twentieth-century murders of dozens of wealthy Osage and law-enforcement officials, citing the contributions and missteps of a fledgling FBI that eventually uncovered one of the most chilling conspiracies in American history. In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, they rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe. Then, one by one, the Osage began to be killed off. The family of an Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, became a prime target. Her relatives were shot and poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more and more members of the tribe began to die under mysterious circumstances. In this last remnant of the Wild West--where oilmen like J.P. Getty made their fortunes and where desperadoes like Al Spencer, the "Phantom Terror," roamed--many of those who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll climbed to more than twenty-four, the FBI took up the case. It was one of the organization's first major homicide investigations and the bureau badly bungled the case. In desperation, the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including one of the only American Indian agents in the bureau. The agents infiltrated the region, struggling to adopt the latest techniques of detection. Together with the Osage they began to expose one of the most chilling conspiracies in American history.
Less than 100 years ago members of the Osage tribe were being murdered. Chances are that you never heard about this in history class despite how recent it was and how the case played such a large part in the emergence of the FBI as the nation's top investigative agency. Perhaps it isn't covered because it is a history of greed, racism, and evil, one that we would surely want to distance ourselves from. But it's a history that shouldn't be ignored. In the 1920s, the Osage people were some of the wealthiest people in the US. After being driven out of their ancestral lands and relocated several times, they finally settled on what appeared to be a worthless piece of land in Oklahoma. In negotiating to create the reservation, their chief was smart enough to retain all mineral rights for the tribe members so when a large oil reserve was discovered under the reservation, the Osage struck it rich. But then they started to die, shot, poisoned, bombed. And no one was looking into these murders.
Told in three sections, this is narrative non-fiction at its best, both well-researched and thorough as well as engaging. The first section of the book focuses on Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman whose family is mysteriously dying before her very eyes. Local law enforcement investigates only very cursorily and allows obvious murders to remain unsolved. The so named Reign of Terror becomes so overwhelming that the Osage themselves finance an investigation into the untimely deaths. And then the people investigating start to die as well. The second portion of the book deals with the elaborate investigation, including that by the emerging FBI in its early days under J. Edgar Hoover. This piece of the book is centered on former Texas Ranger Tom White, whose dogged investigation, including using people and tactics that Hoover didn't always approve of, resulted in a trial despite local obstruction and prejudice. The third part of the book deals with Grann's speculation about the breadth of the case, all the pieces that have gone unpunished or unsolved, and the further evidence that he uncovered in the course of researching the book. The narrative sometimes bogs down a bit in the midst of the second piece, especially since the mastermind is never in doubt but over all, the story is a fascinating one and the path to justice is disturbing and byzantine. True crime aficionados will enjoy this immensely but those who rarely or never read true crime will find this completely engrossing as well. If you like narrative non-fiction, I highly recommend it.
There's a lot going on in Killers of the Flower Moon and David Grann writes the events like a thriller. There's no question as to why this has been such a popular book. Grann does a good job of untangling a complex set of issues as well as a complex criminal case. He also centers the story with the Osage people themselves, spending time showing who some of the affected Osage were as people, as well as drawing a shocking picture of how the American government and racism worked together to keep the Osage from controlling their own lives and allowing for them to be exploited. I would have liked more on that than on the adventures of the FBI agents who came in to save the day, but I suspect that many would have liked more adventure and less about the details of Osage life in the 1920s. Grann did a good job striking that balance, and in writing a fast-paced and exciting account about a facet of American history that few people today know about.
President Thomas Jefferson had promised treat the Osage fairly, but within four years, he compelled them to relinquish their territory between the Arkansas River and the Missouri River. The Osage chief stated his people "had no choice, they must either sign the treaty of declared enemies of the United States.” During the next twenty years, the Osage were forced to move from their ancestral land, (more than 100 million acres), to a 50 x 125 mile (800,000 acres) area in southeastern Kansas. In the 1870s, they were driven to a rocky, worthless area of northeast Oklahoma.
That move would dramatically change their lives when oil was discovered under their land. Oklahoma opened up territory for allotment starting at noon September 16, 1893. There were 42,000 parcels of land available. They would go to the people who got there first. That’s how Oklahoma became to be called “The Sooner State.”
By the early 20th century, the Osage knew that they could no longer avoid what government official called the great storm gathering. The US government plan to break up Indian territory and make it a part of what would be a new state called Oklahoma. (In the Choctaw language, Oklahoma means red people.)
The good news was that the Osage became exceedingly wealthy. (In 1923 alone, the tribe took in more than $30 million, the equivalent today of more than $400 million.) The bad news was they quickly became a target for white people trying to get access to their money. A reporter from Harper's Monthly magazine wrote, “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."
Because the Osage and purchased their land, it was hard for the government to impose a policy allotment. The tribe, led by one of its greatest chiefs, James Big Heart – who spoke seven languages, among them Sioux, French, English, and Latin--was able to forestall the process but it mounted. Theater Roosevelt had already warned about would befall an Indian who refuses allotment: "Let him, like these whites, who will not work, perish from the face of the earth which he cumbers."
To some Osage, oil was a cursed blessing. "Someday this oil will go in there will be no more fat checks every few months from the great white father," the chief of the Osage said 1928. "They'll be no fine motor cars and new clothes. Then I know my people will be happier.”
As part of the process, merchants charged them inflated prices (A funeral could cost more than $6,000 ($80,000 today.) The government declared many of the Osage, including those who had served in the US Armed Forces, incompetent to handle their own financial affairs and appointed local white guardians for them. In 1921, Congress implemented draconian legislation controlling how the Osage could spend their money. The guardians had to approve all expenditures, including toothpaste. Guardians would not only continue to oversee their wards’ finances; under the new law, these Osage Indians with guardians were also restricted, which meant that each of them could withdraw no more than a few thousand dollars annually from his or her trust fund. It didn't matter if these Osage needed their money to pay for education or sick child's hospital bills.
Even though their money and high standard of living should have provided a lower death rate, between 1907 and 1923, the annual Osage death rate was about 19 per 1000 people. It was about 12 per 1000 for white people.
Many corrupt government officials and individuals did all they could to gain control of all the money. Among them were the doctors, lawyers, law enforcement, and elected leaders who were supposed to be protecting the members of the tribe. In addition, unscrupulous white men married Osage women and then proceeded to kill their wives and relatives so they could inherit the money. The mother and three sisters of Mollie Burkhart, one Osage woman, were all killed–two by gunshot, one by an explosion, and one by poison.
Molly pressed authorities to investigate her sister Anna's murder, but most officials seem to have little concern for what they deemed a "dead Injun."
Since the Revolutionary War, Americans had always feared police departments because the police would oppress them. That attitude changed in the mid-19th century following the growth of industry in cities and urban riots. The fear of lawlessness created support for police departments. By the time the Osage members began to be murdered, the informal system of citizen police he had been displaced, but vestiges of it remained, especially in places that still seem to exist on the periphery of geography and history.
Teddy Roosevelt created the FBI in 1908 hoping to fill the void in federal law enforcement. It had only a few hundred agents and only a smattering of field offices. Its jurisdiction over crimes was limited and agents handled hodgepodge of cases. Twenty-nine-year-old J. Edgar Hoover, who had no experience in law enforcement, became the Acting Director. He raised the employment qualifications for new agents, requiring them to have some legal training or knowledge of accounting. Many of the agents who had been involved and knew their jobs were dropped.
Hoover did, however, push to resolve the murders. It became part of the movement that turned the force into the powerful movement it was to become.
In 2012, David Grann visited the Osage nation to learn more about what had happened. He was able to discover that there were more deaths and murders than had been officially reported. Many were not even investigated. He was able to get information that named many of the people responsible. That information is related in the final portion of the book.
KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON is not an easy book to read because of the subject matter. But it is an important one. The US government is still trying to take over the land owned by Native Americans and turn it over to companies who want to destroy it to get rich. The Native Americans are fighting back.
The book is very well written and very important. This year, Paramount bought the rights to make it into a movie with the talents of Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio.
In its infinite wisdom, the federal government decided that full-blooded Osage were incapable of handling their own financial affairs, and appointed "guardians" for them, usually white businessmen or lawyers. Many of these guardians were dishonest and abusive, for example, requiring their wards to purchase everything at businesses they owned at hugely inflated prices. There were also instances of guardians denying necessary expenses, such as for medical care, resulting in the deaths of their wards.
In addition, those Osage with headrights were sought after as "spouses" and these fortune hunters hoped for huge inheritances when their spouses passed on.
Some of these so-called "guardians" or spouses, decided to expedite their access to the Osage fortunes. For some of these fortune hunters their spouse's share of the oil income was not enough, and they decided to increase their spouse's share by insuring that their spouses became even wealthier by inheriting additional shares of income from their relatives who died suddenly and unexpectedly.
Grann opens this engaging narrative nonfiction account with a cluster of suspicious deaths within the family of Molly Burkhart. Her sister Minnie had died a few years previously of a "peculiar wasting illness." Her mother Lizzie was also weakening and dying of an unknown malady. Then her sister Anna is found in a ravine with a bullet in her head. Not surprisingly Molly began to fear for her life, along with many other Osage, including those who were attempting to investigate, as unexplained deaths continued to pile up. Ultimately, at least 60 full-blood Osage were murdered between 1921 and 1925.
Many of the murders were solved when the fledgling FBI moved in, mostly undercover, and investigated. However, many of the murders remain unsolved until the present day. During the course of his writing this book, several of the descendants of some of those who had died under mysterious circumstances sought David Grann's research skills to find answers, and their stories are also included in this book.
This was a fascinating and eye-opening account of the greed and corruption of those taking advantage of these wealthy Indians, from the guardians to the law enforcement officials to medical doctors to store owners and even to spouses. This was a real indictment of the prejudice against Native Americans and the atrocities committed against them.
My thanks to Nancy and the folks at the The Mystery, Crime, and Thriller Group for giving me the opportunity to read and discuss this and many other fine books.
The basics of the tale are the Osage moved onto land in Oklahoma that no one thought had any value. A wise tribal leader had it written into the land agreement that the tribe would maintain the rights to what was underground as well. This proved to be very smart as soon oil was discovered – a LOT of oil. Each headright as they were called was worth quite a bit of money as time went on. Soon the Osage were rolling in money and this led to fair amount of resentment.
Then the bodies started piling up. At first the investigations were haphazard and less than productive. As the death toll rose the outcry was such that the Federal Government sent in an investigator – from the nascent FBI – to sort out what was going on. This was the first big case for the bureau after J. Edgar Hoover took charge after the Teapot Dome Scandal. He wanted (and needed) to prove the Bureau could do a good job.
The man sent in for the job, Tom White, a former Texas Ranger found himself trying to solve a case that seemed to lead to more and more murders. As he investigation led to its conclusion he found a long list of people taking advantage of the Osage people.
But the end of White’s investigation is not the end of the story. As Mr. Grann was investigating the story he found many more stories of death and abuse of Osage at the hands of white people in town; either family members or the guardians who were supposed to be protecting people. He discovered there is still a lot left unsettled in this Oklahoma community.
I was shocked, horrified, appalled and disgusted at this piece of history. Not to mention the general, political corruption described within. It seems that money truly is an evil influence and for certain people they are truly willing to do anything to amass large quantities of it. I wanted to cry for what was done to these families for oil and the money it brought in. The Osage that pushed for investigations were often left with a feeling of no one cared because they were just Indians so was it really murder anyway?
The book is well written, very well researched and decidedly hard to put down. It reads in parts likes like a novel because it’s truly hard to believe that people can behave this way but truth, as they say is stranger than fiction and this book proves that for sure. All I can write is read this book. I think it is important that abuses like this should not be lost to history. They need to be remembered so as to not be forgotten.
Read this book.
Over a period of a few years in the early 1920s a surprising number of Osage died under suspicious circumstances. This book focuses on one family that was decimated by these deaths, by poison, by gunshot, by an explosion. Why were they targeted??
The author uses unpublished documents from the FBI, the Osage Museum etc. to uncover the cause, beginning with the unimaginable riches received by the Osage from oil reserves under their land. Follow the money.
I particularly liked the followup at the end of the book that took place while writing this book, long after the Reign of Terror. This chapter made it clear that the incidents of nearly a hundred years ago are still very real to the Osage and all the families, which are all of them living in that county, that suffer still.
You can't read this book without feeling shame, anger, incredulity, and extreme sadness. Highly recommended.
I have to say, I think I Grann's writing is best in short form. Some of the pieces in his collection The Devil and Sherlock Holmes are phenomenal. But I found this one a little rambly (something I remember also thinking about his The Lost City of Z, although I liked that one overall), and not as compellingly written as I might have hoped, with some attempts to zazz things up with vivid writing that seem a little overdone to me and not entirely effective. I also had some real trouble keeping track of all the relevant people, their names and their relationships, although that probably has as much to do with the complexity of the events as with Grann's ability to convey them clearly.
I do, however, very much admire the thoroughness of Grann's research. And the story he's telling is a fascinating one, in its own depressing way, full of violence, betrayal, conspiracy, greed, corruption, racism, and loose ends left to dangle for the better part of a century. If it were a novel instead of a true story, you might almost find some of the details too sensational, but truth really is sometimes stranger than fiction.
Rating: I'm giving this a 3.5/5, but I feel a little uncharitable about not rating it higher.
As with other chapters of our treatment of Native American nations, we did our best to cheat and steal and even kill. We treated the Osage like children, incapable of taking care of themselves and given guardians who did not have their best interests at heart.
It seems a common practice was for a “white” man to marry an Osage, and kill her or have her killed either quickly or slowly so the money would come to the white person. And the white leaders of the community were behind it and benefiting greatly from it.
The book is well researched, and the author has uncovered new information, or tied together some old bits and pieces that make for a sinister whole. However, many of the murders were never solved, and it seems, many never investigated at all, not even sham investigations.
For me, this was an eye-opening book, and in a way I wish I hadn't read it because once again, it's a tale of those in power abusing those not in power because of greed and because they could or thought they could get away with it. But we cannot change history by closing our eyes to it, and I recommend this book to anyone interested in the country's history.
Part of that exploitation involved murder. Which introduces us to the birth of the FBI and the evolution of J. Edgar Hoover to the top of that organization.
The story is well written, informative, and populated with some well known names in the early petroleum industry. Sadly the victims in the story are not as well known, though they should be.
In the late 19th century, the Osage Nation was forced from their traditional lands on the plains to a reservation on the rocky ground of Northern Oklahoma. In the early 20th century, oil was discovered under this inhospitable land, and as the owners of the mineral rights, the people of the Osage Nation became the richest people per capita in the World.
Then in the 1920's, during what the Osage call the Reign of Terror, people start being murdered. Local law enforcement is ineffectual and the leader (a young J. Edgar Hoover) of what will become the FBI sends a former Texas Ranger to solve the case.
Its an incredible story of conspiracies, bigotry and jealousy. It had twists and turns and villains that even Hollywood's best screenwriters wouldn't come up with. Its a black mark on our history and one that I didn't even know existed. Its a worthwhile and important read.
S: 4/22/18 - 5/6/18 (15 Days)
This book is engaging and terrifying at the same time. It's sadly too easy to believe that people appointed to be "guardians" would act so despicably, as well as disgusting and bigoted that the federal government claimed the Osage needed guardians to getting with. Such a tragic story. But one that I think every American should read to understand how the government has treated Native Americans.
Grann has carefully researched "The Reign of Terror", when the Osage both gained riches and lost their lives. Examining the search for the perpetrator or perpetrators of the heinous homicides, Grann also tells the tale of how the FBI became involved.
This is such a multi-layered book. It is a murder mystery, as readers follow along with the FBI to learn the twists and turns. It is an examination of racial prejudice, the Osage having to ask their white guardians for permission to use their own money, all while being poisoned, shot, and blown to pieces. It is a history of a section of the Wild Wild West, and of the FBI, and of families who lost so many. And it is Grann's search for answers to the overarching conspiracy that swept so many up in its wake.
There is really nothing not to like about this book. Grann writes non-fiction like a novel, and it flows so beautifully.
I definitely recommend this read.