Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (History/Investigative Journalism, April 2017).
An award-winning journalist and author of the great best-seller The Lost City of Z, Grann delivers another painstakingly researched and fascinating piece of historical investigation with this book. Among the many terrible betrayals greedy whites inflicted on Native Americans, the events Grann details here have to be among the most brutal and outrageous of all.
In the late 1800s the Osage Indians were, like so many Native tribes, exiled to what seemed a barren and worthless section of Oklahoma. But then oil was found there and suddenly they were rich–in fact, they were per capita the wealthiest people on the planet, with each tribal member holding one share (called a ‘headright’). The only way to be part of it all was to be born into the tribe or inherit a headright (although patronalistic attitudes toward “uneducated” Indians did allow whites to be appointed to “manage” many of these headrights–leading inevitably to much corruption). The Osage were systematically overcharged at every turn and used, while white oil men (Getty, Sinclair, etc) got rich and famous.
But this wasn’t enough for some. The sudden wealth inspired massive envy and resentment among many non-Indians. In the 1920s, an Osage woman named Mollie Burkhart saw her entire immediate family mysteriously dying, one after another–until only she (and the white man she was married to) were left. Some succumbed to odd illnesses (poisoning suspected, but mostly unproved due to primitive, careless and corrupt police practices), while others met undeniably violent/intentional deaths (a sister and her white husband were blown up by a bomb under their house). There were many other deaths and the population was terrified; local cops did little or nothing (paid off?), so the desperate tribe called for help from Washington.
The FBI was a fairly knew outfit (and in fact wasn’t even called that till the 1930s, when “Federal” was added to “Bureau of Investigation”). It was still trying to recover from its part in the many corruption scandals of the Harding Administration. A young career bureaucrat named J. Edgar Hoover had just been put in charge and was instituting his idea of modern, scientific police work (as well as some seriously silly rules that included a rigid dress code). The first team of Hoover’s shiny new “college boys” sent to check all this out bungled the job, but at least they weren’t as overtly corrupt as the local authorities.
In desperation, Hoover turned to Tom White, a serious ex-Texas Ranger, to head a second effort. White proves a fascinating figure–both principled and capable, a man who disapproved of capital punishment, was proud of never killing a suspect and put together an undercover team that, through both steady police work, courage and a bit of luck eventually uncovered the shocking truth: Millie’s beloved husband Ernest, his brother (who had been married to another of Mollie’s murdered sisters) and their uncle (the richest white man in the county, who pretended to be a great friedn and supporter of the Osage) were at the center of a deadly conspiracy–killing family members off till they’d eventually inherit all that ‘black gold’ generated loot. Many others were involved (including potential witnesses who were also silenced). In the end, at least two dozen people died–and Mollie would’ve been next, if White and company hadn’t gotten her treatment before she succumbed to the slow poison being fed her instead of proper diabetic treatments.
Hoover milked the success of White in closing this spectacular case to further his own reputation and that of the agency he would soon build into his own private empire (and lead into his own sorts of corruption). Typically, he underplayed his subordinates’ vital contribution while White went on to have a pretty extraordinary career (well-detailed by Grann) before dying in relative obscurity.
As Grann’s meticulous journalism makes clear, solving the plot to eliminate an entire Osage family was a triumph. But he also notes and details that this horrid plot was only part of a broader problem. The system that made tribal members rich also allowed (even encouraged) abuse and there were plenty of (technically) unrelated shady dealings, outright embezzlements and killings with similar motives dogging the Osage and a few honorable white folks who tried to actually help them. These happened as early as 1907 and continued well into the ’30s (though the falling oil prices from the Great Depression and the oil fields being gradually exhausted combined to end the boomtime days of the Osage nation). These went mostly unnoted by the powers that be and the press, as they lacked the unusual aspect of an entire family being annihilated in one grand conspiracy.
A superior piece of journalism, dramatic and compelling work.