Killers of the Flower Moon:
The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
By David Grann
326 pages, Doubleday, $28.95
“They’re scalping our souls out here.”
As one white Oklahoma businessman put it, “The Osage Indians are becoming so rich that something will have to be done about it.”
Journalist and author David Grann’s bestselling nonfiction book, “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” tells the stranger (and darker) than fiction story of what was done to the Osage in the wake of their sudden oil wealth, in the 1920’s. Long story short, they were, in many cases, married or befriended for it, then, instantly or over time, in time-honored fashion or creatively, murdered. No one can say definitively how many were murdered, but the number was certainly in the scores, if not the hundreds. The FBI, or, as it was originally called, just Bureau of Investigation, came to investigate these murders because, it seemed, every single local and state official was either in on the plots, receiving payments to keep quiet about them, or couldn’t be bothered to expend energy on the death of an Indian.
Grann zeroes in one particular white murderer and his Osage victims, but the killing spree involved many others, featured some common methods, and was dependent on a system of corruption. In a characteristic case, “…the perpetrators of the crime would get an Indian intoxicated, have a doctor examine him and pronounce him intoxicated, following which a morphine hypodermic would be injected into the Indian….The doctor’s certificate would subsequently read ‘death from alcoholic poison.’ ” Then helpful undertakers would quietly bury the bodies.
Among other causes of death commonly listed was wasting disease, consumption or “causes unknown.” Between 1907 and 1923, the Osage death rate was more than one and a half times higher than the death rate for whites, when, with their higher standard of living, should by all rights have been lower.
The ancestral lands of the Osage were in present-day Kansas, from which they were driven, in the 1870’s, onto the presumably useless, rocky land due south. When oil was discovered, prospectors had to pay drilling leases and royalties to the Osage, whose capital was Pawhuska. In 1923 alone, tribe members collectively earned $30,000,000 in payments. At one point the Osage were, per capita, considered the richest people on earth. But full-blooded Osage were also assigned a white “guardian” who was supposed to look after his or her interests. And so the stage was set for unscrupulous and, in some cases, truly evil, whites to scheme for access to an Osage “headright,” their oil inheritance.
The Osage victim with whom Grann initiates us, and whose family we follow most closely, is Anna Brown, divorced from her white husband. The book follows the course of the investigation into her death, and the subsequent deaths of many of her relatives and acquaintances. The bodies keep piling up in numbers and by methods that extend beyond a fictionist’s imaginative reach. Every time the agents who were eventually assigned the Osage cases would get close to witnesses or other with firsthand knowledge, “it would turn out he’d died alone in a car crash, or drunk bad alcohol, or been bludgeoned to death, or been shot by a storeowner in a setup robbery.”
Anna’s sister Mollie, the family matriarch, was married to another white man, Ernest Burkhart, and sister Rita was married to another, Bob Smith. Burkhart’s uncle was Bill Hale, self-made cowboy turned business leader/ self-proclaimed lawman and “King of the Osage Hills.” When Anna went missing one night, it was Mollie who tried to find her. In July 1921 the inquiry into Anna’s death was closed for lack of evidence. Her body had been found in a ravine, but no one could turn up the bullet that killed her. In less than three years, Anna’s cousin Henry Roan, her sister Rita, Rita’s husband and a servant would also be dead. By 1925 at least 60 Osage had died mysterious or unnatural deaths, and their fortunes had passed into the hands of their white “guardians.”
An Oklahoma reporter observed in that era, “Travel in any direction that you will from Pawhuska and you will notice at night Osage Indian homes outlined with electric lights, which a stranger in the country might conclude to be an ostentatious display of oil wealth. But the lights are burned, as every Osage knows, as protection against the stealthy approach of a grim specter — an unseen hand — that has laid a blight upon the Osage land and converted the broad acres, which other Indian tribes enviously regard as a demi-paradise, into a Golgotha and field of dead men’s skulls….The perennial question in the Osage land is, ‘who will be next?’ ”
Grann is nothing if not an exhaustive researcher, and he introduces a huge cast of characters I had no chance of keeping straight. He also indulges tangents on various ancillary subjects: for instance, the history of private eyes, the boarding school educations of young Native Americans, and the state of forensic pathology in the early 20th century. At times this explication slows down the otherwise brisk narrative, but I came to appreciate the context. (Would that all history were put across this way, and would that Americans were taught the simple, brutal, unadorned truths of our collective pasts, as they happened, and not as we would want them to have happened.)
Certain side stories might have been borrowed from one of today’s headlines. Several oil magnates helped get Warren Harding elected president in 1920 (“oilmen licked their chops”) and subsequently bribed his Secretary of the Interior for favorable treatment. I just listened the other day to an interview with Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA, former serial litigator against the EPA, who wants the agency to “go back to basics,” and stand apart from the environmental issues that are interfering with coal and oil and gas businesses.
One detail resonated immediately with the current state of integrity in public service. The man who emerged as the criminal mastermind cunningly used “the media to sow doubt about the bureau, to claim that agents had electrocuted him.” The only mistreatment he’d received was being kept up past his bedtime, yet this outrageous accusation of course made headlines in Washington, and Hoover himself read them over his poached-egg-on-toast breakfast.
At times the seemingly untouchable fiend of the Osage murder stories sounds a fair like our president might, were our laws less robust and he less distractible. He, I imagine, would have fit right into this story, throwing money around to keep people loyal and quiet.
But back on Osage land in 1922, corruption at the federal level had not yet been revealed, and the oil barons who bought up drilling rights at auction on Osage land “were treated as princes of capitalism, the crowds parting before them.”
The Bureau of Investigation, renamed in 1935, was at that time an “obscure branch of the Justice Department.” In 1923, agents from out of state were called to the reservation at the urging of Osage officials after it became clear that the county sheriff had given up any pretense of pursuing an investigation. The agent looking into Anna Brown’s and others’ murders was a former Texas Ranger named Tom White. His team’s mandate was to gather facts. They were, at that time, not permitted to arrest suspects or to carry firearms.
As Grann writes, “Its [the bureau’s] jurisdiction over crimes was limited, and agents handled a hodgepodge of cases: they investigated antitrust and banking violations; the interstate shipment of stolen cars, contraceptives, prizefighting films, and smutty books; escapes by federal prisoners; and crimes committed on Indian reservations.”
Edgar Hoover came on the scene having made his mark by spying on politically suspect individuals. He wanted to move away from “frontier lawmen” agents, and replace them with “college boys who typed faster than they shot.” In fact, after convictions had been won in the Osage investigation, and much credit done the bureau, thanks to the hard work of Tom White, frontier lawman, Hoover had to be prodded to respond to White’s letters.
Plot-wise, about a third of the way through the story, the mastermind of the murders is revealed without fanfare, in the middle of a paragraph. This made me wish that Grann would have signaled to us, with chapter separations, or a more explicit use of suspense, when to expect that big news. All the most significant revelations flow along just the same as the less significant details.
At any rate, from that point on I shook my head steadily in you-can’t-make-this-up disbelief as Grann described a depraved murder plot for financial gain in which the evil-doer plotted his moves, chess master-like, way ahead of his opponents, until his apprehension. He had law enforcement and the business community in his pocket, and dirt on anyone who knew anything about his extracurricular killings. His prey didn’t stand a chance, and, without an outside, disinterested party of investigators, the victims’ families stood no chance of justice.
Racism as a motivating factor becomes more clear as the plots unfold, with agent White observing after one confession, “…the way Ramsey kept saying ‘the Indian,’ rather than Roan’s name. As if to justify his crime, Ramsey said that even now ‘white people in Oklahoma thought no more of killing an Indian than they did in 1724.’ ”
The Osage Tribal Council wondered whether the all-white male jury even thought they were deciding a murder case, stating, “The question for them to decide is whether a white man killing an Osage is murder — or merely cruelty to animals.”
Yet the American public, as evidenced through its media, seemed less concerned with what boiled down to a massacre of Native Americans than entranced by the romance of the Wild West. Newspapers from that time ran headlines like this one, from the Reno Evening Gazette: “OSAGE INDIAN KILLING CONSPIRACY THRILLS.”
I did take hope in this proclamation of a judge, who eventually issues long-term prison sentences to the perpetrators of Anna Brown’s murder. He warned, “There never has been a country on this earth that has fallen except when that point was reached…where the citizens would say, ‘We cannot get justice in our courts.’ ”