Killers of the Flower Moon

This is a tremendous, haunting story about the Osage tribe in the 1920s. There is a little back story, about how they were pushed off their original land a couple different times, and were ultimately settled on the most desolate land the white people could find — only to discover there was oil beneath the land, making the Osage one of the wealthiest communities in the world. The story then delves into a four-year murder spree, exploring the murders and actors and mystery surrounding it all. It was gripping and I would highly recommend it to anyone.

David Grann does a spectacular job at recreating scenes from the 1920s, explaining the Osage history, traditions, and relationships. He also talks through the white people who had moved into the area — some wildcats, some ruffians, some farmers — and explains how they fit into the hierarchy of society. He walks through probably a dozen incidents of murder, the circumstances, and the subsequent results and how it affected people. The structure of land rights, and how revenue from oil was divvied up amongst the Osage, was of particular interest, and seemed to be the source of the murders. There were also awful, embarrassing-as-an-American policies in place that allowed very few Osage to manage their own money, because the government believed they were incapable of handling it. So administrators were put in place to manage their funds, and more often than not pilfered much of the income into their own coffers. At every turn, opportunistic white people seemed to be taking advantage of this tribe, and with the government established by white people, they had very little recourse.

The second part of the book is told about the FBI joining the case, after dozens of Osage had been murdered and nobody (including local officers, state officers, and state AG) had been able to solve the murders. Tom White, a former Texas Ranger (lawman, not baseball player!), assembles a team to investigate. After a few months, they discover ever-more depth and cover-up, and ultimately identify one of the most respected white men in the county as the brain trust behind many of the murders. With accomplices, the FBI ultimately convicted this influential outsider of having arranged multiple murders of the Osage people. This case had the full attention of J. Edgar Hoover, and he received weekly if not daily updates; the case proved the importance of having a federal bureau capable of investigating and arresting, and literally set the table for subsequent laws passed to empower the FBI. Hoover took great pride in this, and the FBI told the story widely to show the value of their presence throughout America.

The book finishes with a fascinating turn. Grann, while researching the Osage murders, comes to find a lot of open leads that were never completed by the FBI. He also found there were over 100 murders during this reign of terror, and that it lasted much longer than the FBI’s story had told. Through research and interviewing the grandchildren of these people, he identified other influential whites of the time who were likely just as guilty in the murder and theft as those who were convicted. He discovered what we would today call a culture of graft and violence, where many whites were involved in killing off members of the Osage as a way to acquire their oil money. That while the FBI did get a powerful man behind bars, it was a narrow victory, and not one that resolved the problem of murders among the Osage. Not until the oil money dried up did the murders slow down.

My big takeaway is that our nation was settled by people who did terrible things (not all, but an unpleasant majority). This was well after slavery was abolished, but theft and murder to create a visceral fear throughout a community is nearly as terrible. To think that people living today could have lived through this is horrible. The lessons of winning the lottery — or being forced onto land that eventually makes you rich — shines a light onto the uglier versions of ourselves. Today’s version is only slightly different; now much of the graft and theft has been worked into case law, and those who commit these crimes are often celebrated for their work.

All the while, we as an American people strive to create a ‘more perfect’ union, and I do believe in that progress; we just shouldn’t look to our past for what that means.