Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (Doubleday, 2017)
A shocking series of murders among the Osage Indian tribe in Oklahoma in the 1920s left families terror stricken. Shootings, suspected poisonings, unexplained accidents, and a violent bomb blast killed over 20 people, and everyone wondered who would be next. Killers of the Flower Moon is the true story of people devastated by the violence and the lawmen who would seek justice for the victims and their loved ones.
The Osage at that time were the wealthiest people per capita in the world because they had retained mineral rights to their land in their treaties with the United States. The discovery of oil beneath that land meant that tribal members owned impressive homes and automobiles and employed servants. But their money made them targets for unscrupulous people who would see opportunities to make their own fortunes in what came to be known as “the Indian business,” systematic exploitation of the legal system to pocket the Osage wealth. Racism in the system afforded the tribe limited means to protest. Then the murders began.
Killers of the Flower Moon focuses on the story of Mollie Burkhart, whose sisters and mother died between 1921 and 1923. A quiet, churchgoing mother, married to a white man, Mollie was stunned when, one by one, her family members died by violence. Their deaths, along with others in the tribe, resulted in the tribal elders calling for the federal government to investigate. Perhaps the Bureau of Investigation, recently reorganized by young J. Edgar Hoover, could succeed where local, state, and private investigators had failed.
The agent in charge was Tom White, a former Texas Ranger and second-generation law enforcement officer. Hoover authorized White to put together a team to find the murderers and resolve this troublesome case. The investigators followed a trail of misdirection, scapegoats, and lies as they untangled the conspiracy to its awful end. Killers of the Flower Moon is true crime at its best, narrative nonfiction based on thousands of hours of research.
Author David Grann, in an interview after the book was named a National Book Award finalist, explained that he was inspired to write it by a panoramic photo at the Osage Nation Museum in Oklahoma—“a photograph on the wall which was taken in 1914 and showed a seemingly innocent gathering of white settlers and members of the Osage Nation. But part of the picture had been cut out. When I asked the museum director why, she said that it contained the image of a figure so frightening that she had removed it. She then pointed to the missing panel and said, ‘The devil was standing right there.’”
The photo and the missing piece do appear in book. In fact, the inclusion of many historical photos is another of the book’s strengths, as readers unfamiliar with the Western setting in the early 20th century can better grasp the context for this grim and compelling read.
The final section of the book which features Grann’s interviews with descendants of Mollie Burkhart and other principals in the case is a chilling reminder of how violent acts echo through succeeding generations, leaving their mark even on those whose knowledge is secondhand. As Grann demonstrates, for too many of the victims and their families, justice was not just delayed but ultimately denied.
Fans of Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City will not want to miss this one. Killers of the Flower Moon is available for check out at the Moon Lake Community Library.
— by Anne McLeod