If you’re a reader, you’ve probably heard the buzz about the recently published book by David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. If you haven’t heard of the book, you may consider adding it to your summer reading list. It’s a true crime tale of greed, racism, discrimination and injustice, set in our very own backyard. In short, Killers of the Flower Moon tells the story of an important, albeit, dark chapter of Oklahoma’s past that, until now, has been widely omitted from the history Oklahoma children learn in school.
After decades of being forced off their native and ancestral land, in the 1870s the Osage tribe settled on a rocky, undesirable parcel of land in northeast Oklahoma. They purchased the land that was considered unsuitable for cultivation for one million dollars and negotiated ownership of the mineral rights. Forty years later, the Osage tribe found themselves millionaires as a result of the discovery of a lucrative oil reserve under their reservation land (in the Pawhuska area of modern day Osage County). In 1923 alone, the tribe earned 30 million dollars (roughly the equivalent of 400 million dollars today).
Shortly after their collective wealth exploded in the 1920s, members of the tribe began dying under mysterious circumstances — gunshot wounds, bombings, and suspicious illnesses, believed to be poisonings. Local law enforcement was rife with corruption, which blocked any real investigation into the murders. The killings continued, including nearly wiping out the entire family of Mollie Burkhart, the central character in the book. The US Government prevented the Osage from managing their own wealth and assets, which contributed to the collusion and fraud tribe members were subjected to by greedy guardians. When the murder rate became too great to be ignored, a young J. Edgar Hoover was forced to send in federal agents from the then-named Bureau of Investigation to investigate the crimes and bring the killers to justice. The Bureau was a young agency and the Osage murders was the first real test of its abilities.
It’s a tale that seems too Hollywood to be true. There are good guys in white hats (one of the central heroes is a Texan named White) and extraordinarily evil guys who used any means necessary to embezzle and steal from the Osage. The book traces the history, the murders, the investigation, and the dramatic court proceedings that ultimately brought justice to this embattled tribe.
Grann, an investigative reporter for The New Yorker magazine (and author of The Lost City of Z, currently in movie theaters), spent five years investigating the Osage murders. Much of that time was spent in Oklahoma and the federal archives in Fort Worth, Texas. I had the opportunity to hear Grann speak about the book and his research process at a standing room only event in Tulsa last month. Many descendants of the Osage tribe were present, as well as a descendant of one of the killers. It was fascinating to hear from those whose family history was so dramatically affected by this sad tale. Grann’s reporting is deeply factual, supported by extensive documentary research and interviews with survivors and their descendants.
Lisa Stone, ACP
Communications Officer and NALA Liaison, TAPA Board of Directors