Killers of the Flower Moon
Author: David Grann
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian 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, they began to be killed off. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, watched as her family was murdered. Her older sister was shot. Her mother was then slowly poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances.
In this last remnant of the Wild West—where oilmen like J. P. Getty made their fortunes and where desperadoes such as Al Spencer, “the Phantom Terror,” roamed – virtually anyone who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll surpassed more than twenty-four Osage, the newly created F.B.I. took up the case, in what became one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations. But the bureau was then notoriously corrupt and initially bungled the case. Eventually the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including one of the only Native American agents in the bureau. They infiltrated the region, struggling to adopt the latest modern techniques of detection. Together with the Osage they began to expose one of the most sinister conspiracies in American history.
In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann revisits a shocking series of crimes in which dozens of people were murdered in cold blood. The book is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction, as each step in the investigation reveals a series of sinister secrets and reversals. But more than that, it is a searing indictment of the callousness and prejudice toward Native Americans that allowed the murderers to operate with impunity for so long. Killers of the Flower Moon is utterly riveting, but also emotionally devastating.
Over the last few months I have been focusing more on reading non-fiction books because I’ve been feeling so burnt out on the vast majority of the fiction books that I’ve been reading (or trying to read). So when the quarterly reading challenge picked this book for the Summer reading challenge, I knew without a doubt which of the 3 choices I was going to read (the other options were Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel or Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead). What drew me to this was not on another series of events in history that I’d never heard about, but also because it was how the FBI came to play such an important role in law enforcement (in fact when the events in this book took place, FBI agents couldn’t legally arrest folks, they needed local law enforcement to actual arrest the folks).
The mystery surrounding the deaths of multiple Osage Indians was one that had spanned many years and different types of death, from execution style shootings, to a bombing to poisoning that appeared to mimic illness. There were few commonalities between the victims and witnesses and people trying to solve the murders were also being killed – it was a mystery that would take many years to solve. But there was one commonality between all the victims (but don’t worry, I’m not cruel enough to tell you what or who that is)…I will admit that for me, the solving of the murders and the steps that the FBI took to solve it, was more interesting to me than the background of the FBI (probably because I’ve read enough about J. Edgar Hoover to really not care too much although in part, his personality and persistant was key in the eventual solving of the murders).
More interesting to me was how the US government treated the Osage Indians who were all individually wealthy because of the discover of and subsequent selling of oil leases for their land and yet were treated like (for lack of a better term), delinquent children. Having guardians assigned to these Indians as a way to control them (needing approval to access funds that were rightly theirs, people marking up merchandise the Osage wanted to purchase 4-5x the normal cost and other shady business practices). This was another of those dark periods in history that are valuable to study and yet have been hidden away until an enterprising researcher discovers it and decides to start unraveling the mystery.
Killers of the Flower Moon was an solid mystery and intriguing examination of a lost time period. I found the pictures that were sprinkled throughout of the victims and the FBI agents who eventually solved the crime, as well as the murderer(s) themselves. A solid 4 star read.