Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI was utterly infuriating. I read it in anticipation of the movie that’s set to be released in a few months, and I knew it wasn’t going to be a terribly happy story. But I felt myself getting worked up about it none the less.
The Osage once possessed a territory that covered much of modern-day Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma. But encroaching expansion from the US government lead to the Osage being mostly displaced to a reservation in located in Oklahoma from the late 19th century. However, it wasn’t until a few decades later that its was discovered that this land was sitting on one of the biggest oil deposits in the US. This made the Osage, in very short order, one of the post prosperous peoples in the United States.
This new-found prosperity made certain groups—mostly made up of White Americans—very upset, and the media started pushing stories about all the outlandish things the Osage were supposedly doing with their money. However, truth be told, the Osage were often NOT free to spend their money how they pleased; the United States government held the Osage mineral estate in trust for tribe members who were entitled to headrights. And while these headrights (shares) could not be traded— they could be inherited. This was a system that turned out to be easily manipulated, and in the 1920’s, some of the nation’s richest people became some of the most highly murdered; the conspiracy to funnel headrights in certain directions, it turns out, was genuine.
David Gran explains much of the political background behind the events leading tot he murders in Osage country in the first third of the book. Alongside this, we are introduced to the family of Mollie Burkhardt. Mollie’s sister Anna is first found shot in the head. Then her mother, Lizzie, dies is suspicious circumstances. Then, in an act that drops all sense of subtly, her sister Rita’s house is bombed. And, suspiciously, it was her white husband’s family that ended up with her estate.
In the second part of the book, Gran introduces us the members of the Justice Department (Or really the incipient FBI). The man J Edgar Hoover assigned to investigate the murders, Tom White, a former Texas Ranger based in Houston, is a fascinating character. Often referred to as one of the ‘Cowboys ’, White actually tried to model himself on Sherlock Holmes. The fact that White chose to model himself on a fictional character, and not anyone he know through the Justice Department, may have been indicative of the state of the investigative field at the time White is sent to Oklahoma. Rigour was not always the name of the game, and many investigators were reckless with their choices. This, ironically, included another man was given the moniker of ‘America’s Sherlock Holmes’—William Burns—who perhaps better served as a model of what not to do. (Coolidge had to deal with the aftermath of that.)
If this book had been a fictional novel, kit would have ended at the two-thirds mark. Tom White and his men, through rather diligent work, identified the key players in the conspiracy to kill Mollie Burkhardt’s family; some of who were heartbreakingly close to Mollie herself. But the factor the matter is, the investigation was really only interested in the murders; the circumstances that lead to such crimes being planned and carried out were of very little interest to them at all. But the conspiracies against the Osage, it turns out, were deeper and darker than previously thought.This is where I feel the US government failed the Osage yet again—they first drove them from their lands and then they set up the paternalistic system that lead to them becoming vulnerable targets. And then they failed in their duty to protect them once these actions had been carried out. The last part of the book shows us, outside of the Burkhardt family, just how widespread these killings were. And sadly, many of their modern-day decedents still don’t have closure.
This was a deeply depressing and almost rage inducing read, and I’m glad I got to it before the movie release. I only hope that with the widespread publicity behind the film adaption, more work is carried out on investigations what happened to other members of the Osage tribe who may have fallen victim to the rampant greed and racism during this time.
For my passport, still doing genre—so here’s one for crime
And for cbr15bingo, this is North America. I’m trying to burn through the Continents.