Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Flowers blanket the hills of Osage country in April. Little bluets, Johnny-jump-ups, spring beauties everywhere, as though the “gods had left confetti” wrote John Joseph Mathews, himself an Osage. May brings black-eyed Susans, which corner the market on sunlight, starving their smaller cousins. The Osage call Maytime’s queen of the night the “flower-killing moon.” Then came May of 1921 and the Osage-killing moon.

David Grann, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the deft, dashing, and doomed story of Percy Fawcett in The Lost City of Z, brings a keen reporter’s instinct to this sordid episode—the (known) murder of twenty-four Osage people, this time not directly out of Manifest Destiny or racism, but greed—another blot on the historical landscape of the United States. Like a veteran of the crime beat, Grann has sweated the details: dug into the archives, interviewed surviving principals and peripherals, thought long and hard about what he has heard and read, and—despite his relative youth—displays an old-school, learned hand in Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.

He is also a canny raconteur, providing both the play-by-play and the color commentary, following one thread, then picking up another, and so the tapestry of the story takes shape. The book opens with the displacement of the Osage, American Indian people who once found a home stretching from what is now Missouri to what are now the Rockies. But wars, settlers, and U.S. government policies ate away at that expanse. The Osage ceded—that is the polite term—100 million acres and found themselves confined to a small patch of southeast Kansas. White settlers wanted that land, too. Finally the Osage bought 1.5 million acres of rocky, sterile land from their Cherokee neighbors to the south, unincorporated land at the end of the Trail of Tears, convinced that even the land-devouring settlers wouldn’t want this ugly terrain. The Osage signed on the dotted line, purchasing the ground above and the ground below: mineral rights. That’s called foresight.

That worthless reservation in what would become Oklahoma sat atop black gold, and a great deal of it. The Osage collected royalties that grew and grew, but only those Osages who were inscribed on the Osage Roll—registered members of the tribe—could benefit from the mineral trust, and the shares, known as headrights, could not be sold. This rankled the white sense of superiority. Every manner of racist trash was heaped upon the Osage. “Lo and behold!” trumpeted New York’s Outlook. “The Indian, instead of starving to death…enjoys a steady income that turns bankers green with envy.” For goodness sake, the Osage had white servants. Osage girls “attended the best boarding schools and wore sumptuous French clothing, as if ‘une très jolie demoiselle of the Paris boulevards had inadvertently strayed into this little reservation town.’” Being on the receiving end of irony can be a bitch.

There was, of course, no surcease of meddling by the U.S. government. In 1921, since it was obvious to the powers that be that the Osage could not be trusted to handle their newfound wealth wisely—and Osage adult was, in the eyes of the Department of the Interior, “like a child of six or eight years old, and when he sees a new toy he wants to buy it”—the U.S. federal government assigned the Osage white guardians. There are guardians of probity and good will, and there are predacious guardians. The Osage, almost to man and woman, found themselves with the latter, prominent whites who referred to the fleecing of their charges as “Indian business.”

The above state of affairs is the backdrop to a tragedy that disappearance of Anna Brown jump-starts this sad mystery tale. One of four sisters, Anna was the scapegrace. She had been known to spend a night in parts unknown, to frequent “the dark side of the street,” but as the days wore on a search was initiated. She was found in a creek bed outside the boomtown of Whizbang, shot in the back of the head. To say that forensic science was in its infancy was true, but such newfangled tools as fingerprinting (a bottle was found at the scene) and ballistics (the bullet was never found, although there was no exit wound) were available. None were deployed. As Grann notes, for a century after the American Revolution, the citizenry were wary of a formal police force, and its formation began only “after dread of the so-called dangerous classes surpassed dread of the state.” Until then, sheriffs—decentralized, underfunded, incompetent—were just as likely to be on the wrong end of an investigation than the other, and popular justice took care of many matters.

Anna’s sister Mollie knew there were two routes to take: hire a private investigator—Allan Pinkerton had left his mark, but this was the heyday of the William J. Burns International Detective Agency, whom Mollie hired—and offer a reward, in this case $2000.00. That’s serious-talking money in 1921. But there was plain too much collusion and corruption for any of these forces to make headway. It would turn out that many of the white population were guilty of lockjaw, brought on by a bad case of the swindles or simple racial envy.

Meanwhile, members of the Osage community began to discern a pattern, the threads that Grann sets to braiding. Before Anna’s death, her sister Minnie had died of a baffling wasting disease. Then their mother Lizzie died in the same fashion. On the same day Anna was found, the body of Osage Charles Whitehorse was discovered a mile north of the reservation capital in Pawhuska, shot between the eyes. Bill Smith, who had been married to Minnie, and married her sister Rita after Minnie’s death, voiced his suspicions that Minnie and Lizzie had been poisoned. Even though the coroner in Osage County was not trained in the evidence of poison, the culprits must have thought it best to be safe. An explosion leveled Rita and Bill’s house, and them with it.

The deaths continued: between February and July of 1922 two Osage men and one women were killed with strychnine poison, while in February 1923, the Osage Henry Roan was found murdered in his car. An attorney returning from taking the deathbed testimony of an Osage man wired the sheriff of Osage County that he had sewn up the case: he was thrown off the train on the way home, and died. A well-known Osage rancher was killed falling down a flight of stairs, and another was murdered on the street in Oklahoma City while on his way to brief state officials about the case. Small wonder the Osage call this time the “Reign of Terror.”

The Bureau of Investigation swung into action in 1925, then an obscure branch of the Justice Department, which a decade later would be christened the Federal Bureau of Investigation — much on the merits of this case, conducted by Tom White, though J. Edgar Hoover, already at the helm, as megalomaniacal and paranoid as he ever was, quickly took credit, as he would in breaking the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the Kansas City Massacre. (As well as a history of this crime, Grann offers a well-tempered history of local, state, and federal policing in the United States.) The case turns on a bit of serendipity—and there will be no spoilers here. Let it be said that Killers of the Flower Moon follows the painstaking disentangling of all those threads. It is deeply gratifying when the last thorny knot comes loose, the villains such a surprise. Still, the story is deeply saddening, and though Grann plays it like a violin, it is mournful tune.

The Barnes & Noble Review

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