Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
Killers of the Flower Moon
David Grann
  • Category:Non-Fiction
  • Date Read:13 September 2018
  • Pages:291 (main text) 336 (including acknowledgements, Notes and Selected Bibliography)
  • Published:2017
  • Prize:Edgar Award 2018
  • 4.5 stars

David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon documents a period in the 1920s referred to as The Reign of Terror, when many Osage Indians were murdered in Oklahoma for their vast wealth.

The wealth of the Osage Indians was the result of a strange history of dispossession from their land as white civilisation moved west. The Osage had first been persuaded by President Thomas Jefferson in 1804 to cede almost a hundred million acres of their land to the government. They moved to a new home in Kansas, but with the push west by white settlers they were forced to move again in the 1870s. They bought new territory in what was later to be the state of Oklahoma. But again, in the 1890s, the United States government wanted the land. The Osage, having seen the crazy spectacle of whites racing each other and even killing each other to claim title on Cherokee land, decided to negotiate terms. They cut a deal whereby they were individually allotted portions of land which they could then sell to whites. However, most unusually, the crucial point was that they also negotiated their right to the mineral wealth of their land: their underground reservation.

After the largest oil fields in America were discovered under this land the Osage became some of the wealthiest people in the world, as each Osage Indian with a headright – like a share in the money earned from leasing the land to prospectors – earned millions.

Grann’s book documents the systematic murder of the Osage Indians for their headrights. Whites who targeted the Indians could benefit in several ways by murdering them. Headrights could be inherited, so it was possible to benefit if you were sure to be bequeathed the headright. Other murders directed headrights to other Osage Indians, who might accumulate them and therefore become an ever more valuable target for their white spouses, who may have wanted the money for themselves or alternatively, may have been controlled by third parties themselves. Exploitation of Indian wealth by whites while they lived was made easier through the paternalistic laws of the time. Many Indians were forced to have white guardians who, in law, were responsible for their welfare. The assumption was that an Indian, particularly a full-blood Indian, was like a child incapable of managing their vast wealth. However, the guardian system played to the worst in human nature, allowing the Osage’s possessions to be stolen, their money syphoned and their autonomy limited. Guardians were also in an easier position to make claims on Osage wealth once their ward was dead.

Grann’s story begins with the murders of Charles Whitehorn and Anna Brown. Both disappeared in separate incidents. Each was later found executed with a bullet from behind. Eventually, there would be twent-seven murders acknowledged during the period that the Bureau of Investigation under J.Edgar Hoover investigated the crimes and brought some perpetrators to justice. Osage Indians were shot, but a common method was poison, which, with the collusion of local doctors, was easier to pass as a natural death. Other times the methods were more dramatic. Rita and Bill Smith’s house was blown up while they slept. And white people who tried to investigate the crimes were also murdered: shot, poisoned, or in one case, thrown from a train.

Local lawmen and even private investigators hired by the Osage failed to make headway in the case. A conspiracy to claim the Osage wealth seemed the most likely explanation, since powerful local figures seemed to be able to silence and manipulate families, lawmen and even juries.

Grann’s account of the Osage murders is well told and not burdened by the extensive and detailed investigation he himself conducted while writing the book. The minutiae of detail – of testimonies, financial accounts, medical records etc – is distilled into a very readable text from what is a potentially complex story spanning decades. Part of the attraction of the book is that it is well illustrated with contemporary black and white photographs of key figures, locations and crime scenes. The title page is headed with a wide panoramic shot of many of the Osage Indians from 1924 which Grann recounts seeing in the Osage Nation Museum in the latter section of the book. It’s a fascinating picture made more interesting for Grann when he spots a section that has been excised. When he asks Kathryn Red Corn, the director of the museum, what has happened to it, she replies, The Devil was standing right there. It’s a sobering moment. The unexpurgated panoramic photograph is reproduced on the title page, and so features the man responsible for many of the murders.

The Osage Panoramic shot from 1924

Grann’s story is also helped by clearly definable types like this. There are villains, of course. There are victims; many victims. And there is a clearly defined hero, Tom White, the Bureau of Investigation officer heading the investigation in Oklahoma, who has to contend with a population who are either scared or bought, with a police force that is sometimes complicit in crime and a justice system stacked against him, since even juries are susceptible to bribes and threats of the perpetrators. Grann recounts an amazing court scene in which a prosecution witness is taken aside by defence lawyers with the permission of the judge and persuaded to recant their story – clearly an act of intimidation – with the prosecution looking on helplessly. As such Grann’s book is also a memorial to the work of Tom White who overcame these obstacles but whose own attempt to publish a book on the subject before he died failed.

In telling White’s story Grann also tells an interesting parallel story to the Osage murders: the birth of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as it became known during this period, and J.Edgar Hoover’s professionalisation of an industry that had been represented by untrained lawmen, well-meaning citizens and private eyes whose integrity was not always absolute. Grann documents the evolution of law-keeping in the west from the days of town sheriffs with a star and a gun through to the scientific methods insisted upon by Hoover who had never arrested anyone. Hoover’s role, in comparison to Tom White’s, is not large in the book, but his presence and the methods he imposed upon the nascent organisation reveal something of the political nature of the case, and slowly changing attitudes in American culture. Grann points out that whatever Hoover’s personal failings (and peccadilloes) may have been, he was astutely aware that the credibility of the organisation rested upon his men’s ability to bring a suspect to trial and to secure a conviction. What is surprising, for those like myself who do not have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the FBI, was that during the period of the Osage murders, agents from the Bureau of Investigation did not have the power to make an arrest and were not authorised to carry weapons. Restrictions like this are just another example of the complex relationship Hoover’s men had with the local lawmen upon whom they relied for support; men they could not always trust to be on their side. As Grann points out, on more than one occasion, private detectives colluded with the conspiracy. One was even hired as a hit man.

There was one question that the judge and the prosecutors and the defense never asked the jurors but that was central to the proceeedings. Would a jury of twelve white men ever punish another white man for killing an American Indian? One skeptical reporter noted, The attitude of a pioneer cattleman toward the full-blood Indian ... is fairly well recognized. A prominent member of the Osage tribe put the matter more bluntly: It is a question in my mind whether this jury is considering a murder case or not. The question for them to decide is whether a white man killing an Osage is murder - or merely cruelty to animals.
- Killers of the Flower Moon, pages 214 - 215

Given all this, it goes without saying that the book provides insights into the social attitudes against Indians at the time – the contempt the Osage inspired because of their wealth, in particular – to the extent that the conspiracy against the Osage was, if not explicitly undertaken by a majority of the white population in the area, it may have been implicitly accepted by a majority through inaction or silence. Grann captures the outrageous nature and scope of the perpetrators’ actions by his documenting the threats made against officials, Bureau agents and even jury members for the sake of stealing the Osage’s wealth. Even more shocking is the evidence that Grann unearths in his research for the book that shows the scope of the crimes extended far beyond the official period and number dead. The murders seem to have predated the four-year period known as The Reign of Terror, as well as continued past the conviction for Anna Brown’s murder. And rather than twenty-seven dead, there were potentially hundreds of Osage Indians killed.

Grann’s book reveals a shocking history which is well told and believable, despite the almost unbelievable nature of what was being done. It is well documented with a select bibliography and extensive endnotes on sources, although there is no index for this book, unlike Grann’s previous book, The Lost City of Z. I thought an index was needed since I found myself looking for one when I needed to find a specific reference to cross reference from earlier in the book.

Despite this drawback, the book captures, as its predecessor did, the sense of an historical moment and a culture struggling to come to terms with challenges to its identity through its assumptions about race. Highly recommended.

The Movie by Martin Scorsese based on David Grann's book was released in 2023, after this review was writtern, and was nominated for Best Film at the 2024 Academy Awards
Anna Brown
Anna Brown's murder was the second of only two murders for which a conviction was achieved by the FBI. After the trial for her murder the FBI closed the case, assuming, it seems, that the many other murders then documented were by the same perpetrators
Tom White and J.Edgar Hoover. Tom White was instrumental in the FBI's early success, but in later life Hoover neglected their relationship
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