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Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI Kindle Edition
In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage 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, the Osage began to be killed off. The family of an Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, became a prime target. One of her relatives was shot. Another was poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more and more Osage were dying under mysterious circumstances, and many of those who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered.
As the death toll rose, the newly created FBI took up the case, and 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 a Native American agent who infiltrated the region, and together with the Osage began to expose one of the most chilling conspiracies in American history.
Look for David Grann’s new book, The Wager, coming in April 2023!
From the Publisher
“A marvel of detective-like research and narrative verve.”
“A shocking whodunit…What more could fans of true-crime thrillers ask?”
“A master of the detective form…Killers is something rather deep and not easily forgotten.”
—Wall St. Journal
You’d think the Osage Indian Reservation murders would have been a bigger story, one as familiar as the Lindbergh kidnapping or Bonnie and Clyde. It has everything, but at scale: Execution-style shootings, poisonings, and exploding houses drove the body count to over two dozen, while private eyes and undercover operatives scoured the territory for clues. Even as legendary and infamous oil barons vied for the most lucrative leases, J. Edgar Hoover’s investigation – which he would leverage to enhance both the prestige and power of his fledgling FBI - began to overtake even the town’s most respected leaders.
Exhuming the massive amount of detail is no mean feat, and it’s even harder to make it entertaining. But journalist David Grann knows what he’s doing. With the same obsessive attention to fact - in service to storytelling - as The Lost City of Z, Killers of the Flower Moon reads like narrative-nonfiction as written by James M. Cain (there are, after all, insurance policies involved): smart, taut, and pacey. Most sobering, though, is how the tale is at once unsurprising and unbelievable, full of the arrogance, audacity, and inhumanity that continues to reverberate through today’s headlines. --Jon Foro, The Amazon Book Review--This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.
- ASIN : B01CWZFBZ4
- Publisher : Vintage (April 18, 2017)
- Publication date : April 18, 2017
- Language : English
- File size : 91234 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Sticky notes : On Kindle Scribe
- Print length : 347 pages
- Best Sellers Rank: #10,205 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
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New York: Doubleday
$28.95 - 339 pages
“The whites have bunched us up down here in the backwoods,
the roughest part of the United States, thinking ‘we will drive these
Indians down to where there is a big pile of rock and put them there
in that corner.’” Now that pile of rock has turned out to be worth millions
of dollars; now everybody wants to get in here and get some of the money.”
--Osage Chief Bacon Rind.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon is the fact that despite the author’s painstaking research, and his marvelous use of period photographs and documents, this factual account of historic events attending “The Osage Murders” contains the atmospheric suspense and tension that is normally associated with a classic murder mystery. In fact, Grann has written a murder mystery - One that asks who methodically killed hundreds of Osage Indians during a four-year reign of terror (1920-24). Osage history reveals the tragic details of how and why.
Forced to move from Kansas to Oklahoma, the Osage tribe seemed to be destined to lives of abject poverty when they suddenly found itself catapulted into a world of excessive wealth. Oil is discovered on tribal land. Suddenly, every member of the tribe is potentially wealthy. In an attempt to control the chaos that ensued, the federal government created a document called a “headright” which gave each Osage household legal rights to the oil on their land. After a period of uncontrolled spending in which members of the Osage tribe acquired mansions and fleets of automobiles, the government attempted to control the excessive spending by establishing a “guardian system” which assigned a “legal guardian” to each Osage family.
This “guardian” (usually a white banker, businessmen or “civic-minded citizen” was given the power to approve or deny all expenditures for the Osage tribal member (who had been judged to be “incompetent”) by the government. The system was badly flawed, and many of the guardians used their position to embezzle huge sums of money. In time, the guardian documents became bargaining chips in investing in business ventures. Hundreds of guardians used their position as a means of acting as a “middle-man” who would purchase items on behalf of Osage tribal members. The guardian would then sell the item to the Osage for an inflated price. For example, guardians could purchase automobiles on behalf of the Osage tribal member for $250 and then sell them to the Osage member that they represented for $2,500.
As the wealth of the Osage grew, so did the schemes for exploiting the tribe. Hundreds of criminals were drawn to the region with schemes designed to acquire a portion of Osage wealth. Many of these new arrivals openly stated that they had come to Oklahoma “to marry an Osage squaw.”
It was a method that frequently succeeded.
However, some of these opportunists sought a more direct method: murder. Author Grann’s research discovers one individual, William Hale who had arranged for the murder of 24 members of the Osage tribe. By soliciting the help of associates, Hale became one of the wealthiest men in Oklahoma. The astonishing catalogue of slaughter is carried out by men willing to resort to any means to accomplish Hale’s goal. Dozens of victims were poisoned with tainted moonshine and corrupt medical personnel performed autopsies that listed “acute alcoholism” as the cause of death. Others were dispatched with a bullet to the back of the head or between the eyes and the victim’s body was found in his new car on a remote road. One family was killed by a dynamite blast that demolished their home. Often, Hale simply paid an assassin to kill a designated victim. Then, Hale would frequently hire a second assassin to kill the first. In those instances in which murderers were apprehended, Hale bribed juries and law officials and if all else failed, he simply paid another killer.
Time and time again, government agents are assigned to investigate and in some instances, just as they uncover significant evidence, they are murdered and the evidence destroyed. One dedicated investigator called the FBI headquarters to report that he was on his way back with conclusive evidence against Hale. The next day his mutilated body is found near a railroad track. He had been murdered and thrown from the train. Another investigator’s body was found in another state, hundreds of miles away. What is most disquieting about the crimes in Killers of the Flower Moon is the awesome extent of corruption that is revealed in the book. State and government officials, medical personnel and lawyers - all are contaminated with the vice of greed. The corruption is so pervasive, the few moral and courageous individuals seem helplessly outnumbered.
However, there are two remarkable people in this gruesome tale. One is Molly Burkhart, and Osage who survived the systematic murder of her family...murders in which her husband was implicated. Molly was diagnosed as a diabetic by two doctors who poisoned her insulin injections, in an attempt to slowly kill her. Molly survived and divorced her husband. The second remarkable character is Tom White, the FBI agent that pursued Hale until he brought him to justice. Much of the credit of for this amazing piece of investigative work went to the Director of the newly-created FBI agency, Hubert Hoover who turned out to be a man dedicated to his own self-interest. Through much of the investigation conducted by Tom White, Hoover managed to take credit for White’s courageous work. Jealous of any publicity directed toward agents other than himself, Hoover invariably succeeded in manipulating the factual data to his advantage.
This is a remarkable work. Most noteworthy is Grann’s comprehensive account of the primitive nature of investigations in a time before forensics emerged. As a consequence, much of Tom White’s heroic pursuit of a villain who seemed to have the protection of most of Oklahoma’s judges, lawyers and public officials. However, Grann’s greatest achievement is the fact that he uncovers evidence that the total number of victims in the Osage murders exceeded the original 24 and possibly exceeded over 200.
“The wealthiest people per capita in the world”
In most respects, the Osage Nation was typical of the more than 600 North American Indian “tribes.” Once numbering tens or hundreds of thousands, the Osage were masters of a vast territory spanning what are now the states of Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Recurrent smallpox epidemics and waves of settlers dramatically reduced their numbers and forced them from the first reservation they were allocated in Kansas early in the 19th Century. Following a treaty in 1870, the survivors were forced to move into a new reservation in north-central Oklahoma that is their current home. They purchased the land, deliberately selecting an arid, hilly area unsuitable for farming in hopes that white men wouldn’t take it away from them.
In 1907, a brilliant chief negotiated an agreement with the U.S. government allowing the Osage to retain all mineral rights, even if the land itself were sold. Soon afterward, oil was discovered there. The reservation sat on “some of the largest oil deposits in the United States.” By the 1920s, some three thousand Osage—a third of the number 70 years earlier—had become fabulously wealthy. “In 1923 alone, the tribe took in more than $30 million [in royalties], the equivalent today of more than $400 million. The Osage were considered the wealthiest people per capita in the world.”
Corruption, sponsored by the federal government
Killers of the Flower Moon by New Yorker staff writer David Grann reveals the consequences of this new wealth. Many Osage spent their money ostentatiously, attracting thieves, con men, and profiteers to the reservation; some white men married Osage women in what seemed an obvious ploy to gain control of their wealth. In 1921, a new federal law was passed requiring “any Osage of half or more Indian ancestry to be appointed a guardian until proving ‘competency.’ Minors with less than half Osage ancestry were required to have guardians appointed, even if their parents were living.” Prominent local white men such as lawyers, bankers, businessmen, and ranchers were appointed as guardians. The scene was set for corruption. “One government study estimated that before 1925 guardians had pilfered at least $8 million directly from the restricted accounts of their Osage wards.” But even that massive thievery didn’t satisfy the local powers-that-be.
Two dozen murders in four years, none of them solved
In 1921, two Osage unrelated to each other were found murdered, and more than 20 others followed by 1925. Investigations by the local sheriff were bungled badly. “Virtually no evidence had been preserved from the various crime scenes.” Private eyes brought in to investigate failed to discover the killers. A local lawyer obtained documentary evidence pointing to at least one of the murderers, but both he and the man who had given him the documents were themselves murdered; the documents disappeared.
Enter the FBI
Pleas from the Osage council to Washington for federal intervention finally bore fruit in 1925. The Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI) under its newly appointed director, J. Edgar Hoover, dispatched a team of investigators headed by a former Texas Ranger named Tom White, who proved to be a perfect choice. Incorruptible, dogged, and knowledgeable about the new “scientific” methods of policing, White uncovered a conspiracy led by a “domineering cattleman” named William K. Hale, who was known locally as the “King of the Osage Hills.” Hale and two nephews, both of them married to Osage women, were clearly responsible for at least four murders. White put them on trial—and encountered a “litany of dead witnesses,” crooked doctors and undertakers, witness tampering, manufactured evidence, and a local jury’s reluctance to convict a white man of murdering an Indian. Only in a second trial the following year did he succeed in gaining a conviction for Hale, one of his nephews, and an accomplice.
More murders than ever revealed
In researching the “Osage Reign of Terror” eight decades later, Grann came across claims again and again that the 24 murders that brought in the FBI only hinted at the scope of the killing. Through exhaustive digging in archival records, he turned up evidence that the murders had begun at least three years before 1921 and lasted for six years after 1925. “Scholars and investigators who have since looked into the murders believe that the Osage death toll was in the scores, if not the hundreds.” Grann ends this deeply engrossing and troubling book quoting Cain after he killed Abel: “The blood cries out from the ground.”
Killers of the Flower Moon is David Grann’s second book. The first, a New York Times bestseller, was The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon.
Top reviews from other countries
Secondly, the tale it tells works so well because while it is at heart a 1920s crime story it uses the backdrop of the history of Native Americans and their treatment at the hands of the US government and white settlers to provide a much wider panorama to the events and the crimes. In this case the sudden growth of the domestic US oil industry at the turn of the century, created the situation that one of the largest oil reserves was found on the reservation of the Osage Indian nation in recently established Oklahoma. Ironically the tribe had only ended up there because of being forced off its original tribal lands by the government but had wisely in negotiating its purchase preserved its mineral rights. This quickly led to untold wealth and inevitably attracting interest from numerous white persons keen to acquire a share of the new wealth, given the historic approach in the USA to Native Americans.
While the attempts by politicians in Washington, early oil magnates and local business and financiers in such a corruptible frontier environment to acquire personal gain provides the backdrop, the central story is the increasing use of cross marriage and murder to try and inherit family interests and ownership of such wealth which takes up the first two thirds of the book. Add into that mix the foundling National Bureau of Investigation (later to morph into the FBI) under its first appointed head Edgar J. Hoover and a scandal that in 1920s USA could not be tackled by openly corrupt local and state law enforcement was a heaven sent opportunity to prove the new national policing approach.
The real hero of the tale is Tom White, originally a Texas Ranger who had recently joined the Bureau and was in retrospect the wise choice by Hoover that by his team's success helped make the reputation of his Bureau in leading the investigation. Sadly as with all such examples Hoover's autocratic approach reflected little subsequent gratitude but what moves the story beyond its crime plot is the final third where without giving the details away the proving of a wider conspiracy many years later after events had been forgotten is the real revelation.
This is a well written - factual but in a flowing narrative, which takes you on a journey of first hand experience of how the First Nation people have been shamefully treated by the American's and their institutions and legal systems.
David Grann has done a wonderful job of investigating these murders. Though some people were incarcerated for the crimes back in the 1920s, the more Grann dug, the more threads he found that led to other guardians who should have been investigated more thoroughly as well.
It's an enlightening read in many ways while its unusual to read J Edgar Hoover and the FBI as the heroes of the piece - at least initially. The problem is that what is a story about racial injustice - of this there can be no doubt - it does veer into a heavy-handed polemic. It's been fashionable in post-60s writing to simplify the story of America as 'White Christian Man Bad' - and we've all seen the joyous division that's sown! - but in a case as unfair as this, we really do not need the blanket statement seeping into everything. At one point an interesting discussion of how new-money Osage natives were patronisingly given overseers - it was deemed that they were too silly to cope with the riches on their own - verges into some nonsensical point about gender politics. It suggests that these overseers created specific gender roles that were alien to the people (Christian White Man Bad time) whereas even a cursory look at history would show that Osage culture already had defined gender roles. This was a bad thing, an evil thing or an incursion of 'patriarchy' on the Osage - it was just a simple fact of tradition. To use that as a stick to beat the settlers with is disingenuous. Ultimately, this is still a recommended book - it's worth paying the extra for the audiobook to hear some of it read in Will Patton's exquisite South Carolina drawl - but any sense of balance often disappears in tendentious writing.
The book is a mix of crime, who dunnit and history, both of the time in the US and also the development of the FBI. Most of my problem with popular history books, and I would put this book in that genre, is that the author writes with confidence about private conversations and thoughts that they cannot possibly know about. This book keeps that to a minimum as the archives provides lots of information so, while there is a bit of poetic license taken in places, on the whole you do feel like you are reading about the facts rather than the author's imagination.
The actual events desribed are interesting and shocking, particularly when you think about how recently these events took place.
I would recommend this book to a lot of different readers as it is well paced and certainly brings out the human drama in these historic events and covers lots of different subject areas.
Imagine then, my great surprise when I ran across this book and realized the story was actually true. The Osage were indeed a very wealthy tribe, based on their ownership of mineral rights on their land in Oklahoma which is, if you know your geology, oil country. Since the idea of rich Indians offended the sensibilities of the right-thinking folk in old Oklahoma, there followed a long drawn out campaign to separate the Osage from their money, ultimately culminating (but not actually ending) in at least two dozen savage murders between 1921 and 1925, a period referred to by the Osage as the "reign of terror".
It's a shocking and almost unknown story, and the full extent of what happened during that period is not fully and publicly known to this day. Grann, a staff writer at the New Yorker, does make a manful attempt to let the light in, and to be fair, he does a good job on that aspect of the case. He covers the background of the terror, how the Osage came to be in the position they were and how local forces conspired to relieve them of what was theirs, by any means. It should be a mesmerizing read, and yet, it isn't. It's good, and you'll finish it, but somehow it doesn't grip like a book of this nature should. Perhaps it's the sheer, jaw-dropping extent of the conspiracy against the Osage, requiring the reader to keep track of large numbers of people in their minds. Perhaps it's the autonomous actions of different groups and individuals which makes for a somewhat incoherent narrative. Whatever it is, I couldn't go above three stars for this one. Maybe three and a half. A pity, because this is an important story which should be out there, and Grann has done a decent job bringing all the facts to light.