From The Record, August 11, 2017
One of the most memorable films of my youth was a The FBI Story starring Jimmy Stewart (1959 release).
One of the first scenes showed a few (shameless cultural appropriation alert!) well-tanned actors with braided hair wearing some items of beaded buckskin clothing sitting around a table eating a meal. The camera then backed out through the window to show a wider shot of the whole house. Two men wearing cowboy hats were digging furiously at the base of a side wall. When the hole was large enough, they shoved a box filled with dynamite sticks into the hole, lit a fuse, and exited rapidly screen right. In a few minutes the house and its unfortunate occupants went up in a huge fireball.
It is deaths like these that are the subject of David Grann’s recent book Killers of the Flower Moon: the Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. (Doubleday, 2016, available via inter-library loan). Grann is a native of New York and a staff writer for the New Yorker. He has written two other books: The Devil and Sherlock Holmes (2010) and the bestselling The Lost City of Z (2009, both also available through ILL). Grann has also won several prizes for his journalism, including the 2009 George Polk Award for magazine reporting.
Grann starts out by explaining why and how members of the Osage tribe in Oklahoma became the targets of murderers. Basically it was a matter of oil money, lots of it. After being forced to abandon their traditional hunting grounds in the 1870s, they wound up in the northeast corner of Oklahoma on rocky land that no one thought any white settlers would want to steal for farming. But this territory was sitting on huge oil deposits, and as the automobile became more popular, the demand for gasoline and crude oil drove up prices and volumes. One of the highlights of this book is Grann’s description of the annual auction of drilling rights which brought the oil barons and their entourages out to rural Oklahoma. The Osage, as owners of the land, were entitled to royalties and rents which grew into the tens of millions of dollars per year (hundreds of millions in today’s prices). By the early 1920s, the Osage had the highest per capita incomes in the United States, and by extension, anywhere on earth.
The Osage may have owned a lot of money on paper, but that didn’t mean they got to use it. While whites complained about the ostentatious lifestyles of the Osage, many of the tribe were in debt because the federal government had imposed a program of financial guardians. Congress did not think that the Osage could be trusted to handle their money, so the Interior Department assigned whites to manage their wealth, a service for which the whites charged handsome fees. The Osage petitioned for the right to control their own money, but in 1921 Congress enacted an even more restrictive law. When the Osage started to die in mysterious circumstances, these whites were losing valuable clients.
Grann tells the story of these deaths from the perspective of the Osage survivors. What started as a series of seemingly unrelated deaths in 1919 began to show elements of a pattern by 1922. And that pattern pointed toward Mollie Burkhart, who was married to a white man named Ernest Burkhart. As her relatives died, she inherited their shares in the tribal money. Law enforcement agents dismissed the early deaths as accidents, suicides, or death from natural causes. But the increasingly emboldened killers began to resort to beatings, shootings, or stabbings that were unquestionably murders. There was even a bombing, as depicted in the film (although it happened in the middle of the night when the victims were asleep in their beds). White people who attempted to intervene to help the Osage bring the perpetrators to justice found their own lives in peril. Citing lack of evidence and lack of witnesses, local and state police and prosecutors showed little interest in pursuing these cases with any vigor. This led the Osage to petition the federal government to intervene.
The Bureau of Investigation, as it was first called, was created by Teddy Roosevelt near the end of his term as president in 1908. However, Hampered by a lack of budget and a lack of authority the agency became a cesspool of corruption and incompetence under subsequent administrations.
Things changed dramatically when Calvin Coolidge was elected in 1924. The new Attorney-General, Harlan Stone, recognized the value of a national police force and the need to clean up the agency. He appointed the young and ambitious J. Edgar Hoover to be the Director.
Grann goes into great detail showing how the new men of the FBI carried out the Oklahoma investigation. Hoover appointed men with proven records in law enforcement from outside Oklahoma who were unknown to officials from that state. They took undercover civilian jobs which would permit them to travel about and talk to many different people. Grann shows how much trouble they encountered in obtaining evidence that could actually be used in court. It was easy to find people who knew stories and had heard rumors. But when the agents tried to track down anyone with first-hand knowledge of the killings, they usually ran literally into a dead end. The organizers of the killings had been careful to eliminate any white people who could link them to the conspiracy, for that clearly was what it was.
Grann reveals how the agents were finally able to convince a witness to testify. But even then there was no conviction. Two jurors later confessed that they had been paid to vote against conviction. A retrial put the entire state on trial. Would a white jury convict white men for having killed indigenous citizens?
Grann thought that would be the end of his story. But his investigations pried open another door. It wasn’t just the police, sheriffs, and prosecutors who were part of the conspiracy. The doctors were in on it too. Pathologists and toxicologists had falsified the cause of death of many victims. Furthermore, the killings had started earlier and ended later than anyone had acknowledged. So instead of a couple of dozen deaths, there were probably a couple of hundred, many of the victims being children.
The title of the book comes from the behavior of flowers on the plains. In April, millions of tiny flowers blossom across the hills and prairies, so it looks like the gods have left confetti. In May, taller plants spring up, robbing the small ones of their sunshine and water. So May is referred to by the Osage as the time of the flower-killing moon.