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Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI Hardcover – April 18, 2017
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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
From School Library Journal
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Chronicle Two describes in detail the role of the Bureau of Investigation (the early FBI) to unravel the murders during what became known as "the Reign of Terror." The Bureau was formed under Teddy Roosevelt in 1909. By 1924, J. Edger Hoover became head of the Bureau. He wanted to highlight the expertise of the Bureau by solving the Osage murders. He hired a former Texas Ranger, Tom White, to lead the investigation. The reader discovers clues along with White as he methodically collects evidence and interrogates witnesses and suspects . This is the most exciting part of the book. Many, but not all of the culprits are brought to justice.
How are the Osage doing now? This is the gist of Chronicle Three and it is, unfortunately, the weakest part of the story. Grann checks in with the descendants of some of the murdered Osage. Their sense of unease and lack of justice is palpable. The oil has dried up and the tribal population has diminished. Some press Grann to help them bring closure to the holes in their family histories. But the ancestors are in their graves along with the murderers and the paper trail is weak or inconclusive. As Grann runs out of answers, this reader ran out of interest. It is a compelling and important story up to this point. Now that wind turbines dot the prairie of the Osage reservation, their future seems as bleak as their past and the lack of justice seems as limited as their future. Despite Grann's extensive notes and lists of resources, the reader is left, like the Osage themselves, with more questions than answers.
I'm horrified and ashamed of the atrocities people will commit to gain extra cash in their pockets. This story needed to be told, and it fascinating the amount of detail that went into describing the horrors of that period of time. Certainly a lot of jumping off points into further readings from history.
Reads quickly, easily, and is highly thought provoking. Worth the time. I highly recommend it.
One aspect that had it been included, would have really helped solidify some of the information is a time line with events and people. There are so many people involved, and so many connections and mysteries, that I was beginning to forget when something happened and who was involved, or how someone was related, or what their role was. Its not that I forgot, but I would love to refer back to that in conversations about the book. I suppose I could have taken notes, but that didn't occur until later. And so I just leave that as a suggestion. A couple of pages at end of book with a quick who's who.
The first three quarters of the book are spent in minute details. That was interesting, but too long. That case had little to do with the birth of the FBI, other than it was one of their first (if not the first) investigation and coincided with the rise to power of J Edgar Hoover. The final quarter rushes through the implications and unsolved mysteries of the murders, then the book abruptly ends.
In short, far too much detail about one case, then not enough detail about what it all meant and the larger picture.
Not terrible, but unlike The Lost City of Z, not great.
author of Razor Wire Karma: a novel, available on Amazon
Having been a huge horse racing fan when I was a teenager, I knew about the wealth of the Osage Nation in the 1920s. One of the Osage owned a winner of the Kentucky Derby. But that knowledge was just cursory. I had no idea how rich the Osage really were, and I certainly didn't have a clue that the government didn't trust them with all that money. I should not have been so naive. It had to madden many whites that, although they'd shoved the Osage onto a piece of land they deemed unfit for themselves, oil would be discovered and the Osage would turn out to be the wealthiest people in the world. The one way they had of trying to horn in on this wealth was by declaring that the Osage were not fit to use their own money wisely. In many cases whites were put in charge of the families' money, and they gave their wards allowances (and themselves large fees for their business knowledge).
Why on earth should I be so surprised that this greed would escalate to murder? It is the natural progression after all. To this day, the Osage have trust issues, and who can blame them? They tried to get dozens of murders investigated, but instead the killings were covered up. What Grann did in Killers of the Flower Moon was to dig deeper and deeper and expose just how huge the problem actually was. As I read, words like horrifying, unspeakable, and several others flashed through my mind. This is an uncomfortable read for anyone with a conscience; nevertheless, it is a fascinating and important one.
(Review copy courtesy of NetGalley)
Top international reviews
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.
The story reads well, and it was difficult to put the book down once started.
This is certainly a story to make you think, and wonder just how much of the attitudes of the white settlers continues to prevail in the modern USA.
It provides some fascinating insight into the early workings of the FBI (not least Hoover's nascent megalomania) for whom this was a celebrated case and a valuable reminder for folk who thought the persecution of American Indians ended in the late 19th century.
Well worth reading
The tribe became an object of fascination in the press due to their spending and ostentation (although the point is made here that what they did with their money wasn’t so out of place with the rest of The Roaring Twenties). However, the institutional racism of the time meant that the US government often didn’t think of them as capable of looking after their own cash – regarding them as little better than children – and put white guardians in place. As horrifying as that sounds all by itself, these white guardians would to often try to skim off, or even outright steal, as much of the money as they could. But even worse (and if you’re looking for the pits of human nature, this book will provide it), a plot was soon hatched to kill the Osage and try and to take control of the land and the rights.
Grann is a master in bringing this world and these people back to life – but it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by man’s inhumanity to man. (Particularly the postscript which reveals how much further the crimes went.) I’d recommend it to anyone, although you should be aware that this is a sobering, brutal, if ultimately fascinating read.
The author links this investigation to the development of the FBI, with agent White working with J. Edgar Hoover to pursue justice for murdered Osage tribal members.
While a few of the murderers were eventually brought to trial and convicted, (spoiler alert) their sentences were commuted so that they never served the full “for the term of their natural lives” punishment they were originally sentenced to.
The author subsequently, after the FBI closed the case, found considerable documentary and anecdotal evidence of prior and ongoing murders off Osage tribal members, for their money. It is a tragic account of a shameful period of American history.
If you buy this book (which you must), note that the writer builds the story at a slow pace, so stick with it. Even with this initial slow pace you will appreciate the fabulous character development, and detailed historical background that the author majestically weaves into what is a compelling story. Which provides a glimpse into the dark and shameful part of American history, that is so offen not told or simple over looked. It a story of race, injustice, money and corruption, and to what dark place people will go to exploit their fellow man to acquire money and power.
David Grann explains how the Osage were evicted from their homeland to the supposedly worthless lump of rock in Oklahoma. When vast reserves of oil were discovered on their new land, the Osage sudenly became rich. Of course, the white invaders wanted the money for themselves and used every means possible to cheat the Osage out of their new found wealth. When the Osage start dying in suspicious circumstances, every effort is made to hamper investigations until the fledgling FBI steps in.
Killers of the Flower Moon is a fascinating account of a shameful period in North America's history. It is generally well written and a good read. There are many references and an extensive bibliography at the end. My one complaint is that it gets a bit "wishy-washy" in places. What I mean is that sometimes Grann makes statements such as, "A witness commented that he overheard a suspect telling an unknown man..." and other such vagaries. Apart from that, this is a highly recommended read.
I wasn't totally taken by Grann's writing style, but that's fairly personal, and the subject matter and depth of research more than makes up for it. It's not a happy story, I'm afraid, but I enjoyed learning it, especially since it was something I previously knew almost nothing about.