Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
Published by: DoubleDay
Publish Date: April 2017
Genre(s): Non-Fiction, History, True Crime, Mystery
HB&W Rating: 4
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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, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.
Then, one by one, they began to be killed off. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, watched as her family was murdered. Her older sister was shot. Her mother was then slowly poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more Osage 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 such as Al Spencer, “the Phantom Terror,” roamed – virtually anyone who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll surpassed more than twenty-four Osage, the newly created F.B.I. took up the case, in what became one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations. But the bureau was then notoriously corrupt and initially bungled the case. Eventually the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try to unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including one of the only Native American agents in the bureau. They infiltrated the region, struggling to adopt the latest modern techniques of detection. Together with the Osage they began to expose one of the most sinister conspiracies in American history.
A true-life murder mystery about one of the most monstrous crimes in American history.
Synopsis source: Goodreads
It’s no secret that the atrocities and injustices perpetuated against people of color in our country have long gone unpunished. However, none are more sinister than those perpetuated against the Osage peoples, and in particular one Osage family.
David Grann attempts to untangle the web of lies and coverups, red herrings and false leads to bring to light one of the darkest parts of our white-washed history in this country. He follows the story of Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman who was not expected to live long due to her diabetes, but in an ironic horror show of events, Mollie becomes the only living member of her family, as those she loves are killed off one by one in a plot conceived by a man who claimed to be the truest friend of the Osage.
Truly, reading this true crime story was bone chilling. It is both amazing and disturbing in equal measure what people will do in the name of money. As if the theft of their land, the introduction of diseases that killed off massive numbers of their population, the Trail of Tears, and oh so much more wasn’t enough, the general perception of native people as a base and weak race allowed even more injustices to prevail. When it was discovered that the plot of land in Oklahoma these peaceful people were “given” to live on, miles and miles away from their native lands in the Kansas area, a plot of dirt deemed worthless by the federal government, held one of the richest untapped reserves of oil, their white neighbors plotted to relieve them of their wealth.
When the oil was discovered, all of a sudden these people that were seen as an inferior were in possession of a fortune. But because they were seen as inferior and feeble-minded, the federal government stepped in to appoint “guardians” for the Osage. If an Osage person wanted to buy a car, they had to ask their guardian’s permission, then the guardian would purchase the car with their charge’s money. The Osage people were not allowed to be in control of their own money. Instead, they relied on their “guardians” to manage their money…their WHITE guardians.
Needless to say, this made the Osage fortunes easy pickings. Guardians would purchase things for their charges then sell those items to them at inflated prices, pocketing the difference. But for some, that wasn’t enough and a man playing the long-game concocted a plan to amass a fortune. Criminal investigations and scores of private investigators were unable to turn up any leads. Finally, in an attempt to get help, the Osage petitioned the newly formed FBI and J. Edgar Hoover’s help in solving the string of murders of the Osage. Hoover agreed, for a price. Yup, the Osage had to PAY for help from the federal government that so crippled them and put them in this situation in the first place. After some bad press and looking to establish his fledgling federal police force, Hoover saw this case as a make or break, and he was determined that it be a “make.” Enter Tom White, a former Texas Ranger, and his motley crew of agents.
It took years, and a lot of undercover work to get to the bottom of things, but White and his men finally untangled the web of lies spun by one man and an entire town. When the conspirators were tried for their crimes, there was of course the question of what punishment would be.
There was one question that the judge and the prosecutors and the defense never asked the jurors but that was central to the proceedings: Would a jury of twelve white men ever punish another white man for killing an American Indian?….A prominent member of the Osage tribe put the matter more bluntly: “It is a question in my mind whether this jury is considering a murder case or not. The question for them to decide is whether a white man killing an Osage is murder–or merely cruelty to animals.”Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann, p 233.
David Grann did a phenomenal job researching this book, and while this one major plot was uncovered and the parties perpetuating the crime were held accountable, there were still so many that were not. Grann discusses numerous other instances of murder for greed and the cover ups that so long buried make it difficult to unearth. The ripples of the Osage murders continue to be felt generations later, and family members of those killed still seek justice, sadly, a justice that may never come.
If you enjoy history, true crime, and are interested in sanding down some of our white-washed history, I highly recommend this book. It can be a bit dry at times, but ultimately the story itself is just so compelling, that you almost don’t notice.
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