Book review: 'Killers of the Flower Moon' examines the Osage murders in 1920s Oklahoma
"Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI" by David Grann (Doubleday, 291 pages, in stores Tuesday)
Members of the Osage Nation, now rich with oil, were turning up dead. They were shot. They were poisoned. They were bombed.
In the 1920s, after oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage people were the richest per capita in the world. They also were being murdered for their newfound wealth.
Author David Grann tells the story of one of the more sinister crimes ever committed in Oklahoma in “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,” which goes on sale Tuesday.
In what was called a four-year “Reign of Terror” in the early 1920s, the FBI identified 24 Osage members who were murdered.
Grann, a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of "The Lost City of Z," makes a compelling case in the book that the number of murders was far greater than the 24 the FBI classified as homicides. At the time, members of the Osage Nation were dying at a rate much higher than the national average.
Grann writes that hundreds of Osage Indians died under mysterious circumstances and their cases were covered up or never investigated, the result of a corrupt system where tribal members were appointed white “guardians” to manage their money and forced to send their children to schools to be assimilated into white society.
If you are not familiar with the Osage murders, a story that shocked the country and made for sensational newspaper headlines, I won't provide spoilers with this review.
Because first and foremost, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is a great whodunit, a murder mystery as good as any piece of pulp fiction.
And if you are familiar with the story, chances are you will know much more after reading Grann's meticulously researched book.
The New Yorker staff writer spent years poring over case documents: thousands of pages of FBI files, secret grand jury testimony, court documents, investigator logs, private correspondence, tribal records and more.
He interviewed and obtained private records from descendants of the murder victims. His research was exhaustive, which is evident from reading the book. From his own sleuthing into the case, he even identifies another likely accomplice in the “Reign of Terror” who was never prosecuted.
Along with detailing the criminal case and investigation and subsequent prosecution, the book is a story of systematic racial injustice that the Osage Indians suffered, the history of oil and wildcatting in the Osage territory and the beginning of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover.
The 29-year-old Hoover had just been named director of the newly created FBI and wanted to showcase the bureau by solving the Osage murders, in what became one of its first major investigations of homicide.
At a time when forensic science was in its infancy, Hoover turned to an old-style lawman to head up the investigation, former Texas Ranger Tom White. He and other former Texas lawmen like him were mockingly called “Cowboys” by the younger agents in the FBI, but their old-school investigative techniques obtained results.
While White was the public face of the investigation, he slipped undercover agents into Osage County to begin unraveling the mysteries that local and state officials were unable, and most of the time, unwilling to solve.
In the beginning of the book, you will be enthralled by the murder mystery. By the end, you will be dismayed by the callousness and inhumanity inflicted on the Osage people. One FBI agent described it as a culture of killing.
Greed was the motivation for the crimes, but it was racial prejudice that allowed the slayings to remain unsolved and for the killers to escape justice for so long.
Grann ends the book with stories from some of the descendants of the victims. The Osage are still tormented today by the nearly century-old murders and the swindling of their wealth.
In the book, Grann quotes Louis F. Burns, the eminent Osage historian, as saying, “I don't know of a single Osage family which didn't lose at least one family member."
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is a fascinating and compelling read and a sad piece of Oklahoma history.