David Grann’s true crime tale, “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,” is our second pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club, “Now Read This.” Become a member of the book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. See an FAQ on how book club works here. Below is a review of the book, written by author Dave Eggers. It originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review in April 2017.
KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON
The Osage Murders and the Birth of the F.B.I.
By David Grann
338 pp. Doubleday. $28.95.
In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson hosted a delegation of Osage chiefs who had traveled from their ancestral land, which Jefferson had recently acquired — from the French, not the Osage — in the Louisiana Purchase. The Osage representatives were tall, many of them over six feet, and they towered over most of their White House hosts. Jefferson was impressed, calling them the “finest men we have ever seen.” He promised to treat their tribe fairly, telling them that from then on, “they shall know our nation only as friends and benefactors.”
Over the next 20 years, the Osage were stripped of their land, ceding almost 100 million acres, and were forced onto a parcel in southeastern Kansas that measured about 50 by 125 miles (four million acres). This land would be theirs forever, the United States government told them.
And then — as David Grann details early in his disturbing and riveting new book, “Killers of the Flower Moon” — this promise, too, was broken. White settlers began squatting on Osage territory, skirmishes ensued and eventually the tribe had to sell the land for $1.25 an acre. Looking for a new home, the Osage found an area of what was to become Oklahoma that no one else wanted. It was hilly and unsuited to cultivation. The Osage bought the parcel for roughly a million dollars, later adding a provision that the land’s “oil, gas, coal or other minerals” would be owned by the Osage, too. Thus they owned the land above and whatever was below, as well.
No one argued the point at the time. No one but the Osage knew there was oil under that rocky soil. The Osage leased the land to prospectors and made a fortune. “In 1923 alone,” Grann writes, “the tribe took in more than $30 million, the equivalent today of more than $400 million. The Osage were considered the wealthiest people per capita in the world.” They built mansions and bought fleets of cars. A magazine writer at the time wrote: “Every time a new well is drilled the Indians are that much richer. … The Osage Indians are becoming so rich that something will have to be done about it.”
Indeed. The federal government, ostensibly concerned about the Osage Indians’ ability to manage their windfall, required many Osage Indians — those it classified as “incompetent” — to have a guardian oversee the management and spending of their money. Full-blooded Indians could expect to be deemed “incompetent” and in need of oversight, whereas those of mixed blood were allowed to manage their own affairs. Not surprisingly, the Osage became popular targets for theft, graft and mercenary marriage. A white woman sent a letter to the tribe, offering herself to any willing Osage bachelor: “Will you please tell the richest Indian you know of, and he will find me as good and true as any human being can be.”
Grann approaches his narrative by way of Mollie Burkhart, a full member of the Osage tribe and one of four sisters who all became wealthy and married white men. But despite their windfall, their lives were fraught and ended too soon. Her sister Minnie died at 27 of what doctors ruled a “peculiar wasting illness.” A few years later, her sister Anna, who was known to enjoy speakeasies and whiskey, left one night and never came home. Her body was found a week later in a ravine. She had been shot in the head.
Another Osage member, Charles Whitehorn, was found shot within days of the discovery of Anna’s body. Both he and Anna had been killed with small-caliber bullets. “Two Separate Murder Cases Are Unearthed Almost at Same Time,” a newspaper headline declared. Two months after Anna’s body was found, her mother, Lizzie, also died of the same vague wasting “disease” that had claimed Minnie. When another sister turned up dead in a suspicious fire, leaving Mollie as the last of her family alive, she was terrified. Someone or something was killing not just the members of her family but Osage Indians en masse — hence the first half of Grann’s subtitle, “The Osage Murders and the Birth of the F.B.I.”
Nine months after the deaths of Anna Brown and Charles Whitehorn, a champion Osage steer roper named William Stepson died of an apparent poisoning. Two more Osage died in the ensuing months, both of suspected poisonings. A couple was blown up by a nitroglycerin bomb while they slept in their bed. The killing continued, with more than two dozen people — not just Osage Indians but also white investigators sent to look into the crimes — killed between 1920 and 1924. It became known as the Osage Reign of Terror.
The second part of Grann’s subtitle nods to the fitful investigation into the killings and their role in shaping the modern F.B.I. In the 1920s, law enforcement was typically conducted by a patchwork of sheriffs, private detectives and vigilantes. The sheriff of Osage County at the time was Harve M. Freas, 58, who weighed 300 pounds and was rumored to cavort with bootleggers and gamblers. He had done nothing to determine who was killing the Osage Indians, so the tribe asked Barney McBride, a white oilman they trusted, to go to Washington, D.C., to insist the federal government intervene. A day after he arrived, McBride’s body was found in a Maryland culvert. He was naked and had been stabbed over 20 times. “Conspiracy Believed to Kill Rich Indians,” The Washington Post’s headline read.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation was created by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, to fill in gaps in jurisdiction and assist where local enforcement was overmatched. By the 1920s, though, it was still relatively small, with only a few hundred agents and a handful of offices around the country. Most important, the bureau’s agents were not trusted. Known for bending laws and getting cozy with criminals, the Department of Justice, Grann writes, “had become known as the Department of Easy Virtue.”
That changed in 1924, when J. Edgar Hoover was appointed the director of the F.B.I. He was not a likely choice. He had been deputy director under Burns, but was only 29 and had never been a detective. He was diminutive, struggled with a stutter and a fear of germs, and lived with his mother. But he was zealous and organized, and had a vision for the bureau. He insisted that all agents have some background in law or accounting; that they wear dark suits and ties; that they abstain from alcohol and be models of personal propriety; and that they use new, scientific methods of sleuthing, including fingerprint identification, ballistics, handwriting analysis and phone-tapping.
The Osage murders would be Hoover’s first significant test of the new F.B.I.’s abilities.
Given that so many investigators had already failed or had been murdered in pursuit of the killers, Hoover needed the sturdiest and most incorruptible of agents to head up the investigation. He chose Tom White, a Texan myth of a man. White’s father was the local sheriff in Austin, so Tom grew up in a home attached to the county jail. He and two brothers eventually became Texas Rangers. Looking for a more stable life, White became an F.B.I. agent.
White was empowered to put his own team together, most of whom would insinuate themselves into Osage undercover. One older agent entered town as an elderly cattle rancher. Another agent, a former insurance salesman, set up a real insurance office in town. And John Wren, part Ute Indian — one of the F.B.I.’s few Native Americans — arrived as an Indian medicine man hoping to find his relatives.
If this all sounds like the plot of a detective novel, you have fallen under the spell of David Grann’s brilliance. In his previous two books, “The Lost City of Z,” about the search for the golden Amazonian city of El Dorado, and “The Devil and Sherlock Holmes,” a varied collection of journalism, Grann has proved himself a master of spinning delicious, many-layered mysteries that also happen to be true. As a reporter he is dogged and exacting, with a singular ability to uncover and incorporate obscure journals, depositions and ledgers without ever letting the plot sag. As a writer he is generous of spirit, willing to give even the most scurrilous of characters the benefit of the doubt.
Thus, when Tom White and his men solve the crime, and the mastermind behind the murders is revealed, you will not see it coming. You will feel that familiar thrill at having been successfully misdirected, but then there are about 70 pages left in the book. And in these last pages, Grann takes what was already a fascinating and disciplined recording of a forgotten chapter in American history, and with the help of contemporary Osage tribe members, he illuminates a sickening conspiracy that goes far deeper than those four years of horror. It will sear your soul. Among the towering thefts and crimes visited upon the native peoples of the continent, what was done to the Osage must rank among the most depraved and ignoble. “This land is saturated with blood,” says Mary Jo Webb, an Osage Indian alive today and still trying to understand the crimes of the past. “History,” Grann writes in this shattering book, “is a merciless judge.”
Dave Eggers is an author, most recently, of “The Monk of Mokha.”
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