From New Yorker staff writer David Grann, #1 New York Timesbest-selling author of The Lost City of Z, a twisting, haunting true-life murder mystery about one of the most monstrous crimes in American history
In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.
Then, one by one, they began to be killed off. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, watched as her family was murdered. Her older sister was shot. Her mother was then slowly poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances.
In this last remnant of the Wild West—where oilmen like J. P. Getty made their fortunes and where desperadoes such as Al Spencer, “the Phantom Terror,” roamed – virtually anyone who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll surpassed more than twenty-four Osage, the newly created F.B.I. took up the case, in what became one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations. But the bureau was then notoriously corrupt and initially bungled the case. Eventually the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including one of the only Native American agents in the bureau. They infiltrated the region, struggling to adopt the latest modern techniques of detection. Together with the Osage they began to expose one of the most sinister conspiracies in American history.
In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann revisits a shocking series of crimes in which dozens of people were murdered in cold blood. The book is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction, as each step in the investigation reveals a series of sinister secrets and reversals. But more than that, it is a searing indictment of the callousness and prejudice toward Native Americans that allowed the murderers to operate with impunity for so long. Killers of the Flower Moon is utterly riveting, but also emotionally devastating.
“The best book of the year so far.” —Entertainment Weekly
“A marvel of detective-like research and narrative verve.” —Financial Times
“A shocking whodunit…What more could fans of true-crime thrillers ask?” —USA Today
“A master of the detective form…Killers is something rather deep and not easily forgotten.” —Wall St. Journal
“Extraordinary” —Time Magazine
“A conspiracy is everything that ordinary life is not. It’s the inside game, cold, sure, undistracted, forever closed off to us. We are the flawed ones, the innocents, trying to make some rough sense of the daily jostle. Conspirators have a logic and a daring beyond our reach. All conspiracies are the same taut story of men who find coherence in some criminal act. ” —Don DeLillo, Libra
“We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales; we exhume from old trunks and boxes and drawers letters without salutation or signature, in which men and women who once lived and breathed are now merely initials or nicknames out of some now incomprehensible affection which sound to us like Sanskrit or Chocktaw; we see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting, in this shadowy attenuation of time possessing now heroic proportions, performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable.” —William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
The dark stain of man’s doing, the greed, the need, and thirst for power.
The corruption, the taking of that which is not his, the lands crying of the blood that pours forth from it and these pages the reality of what measures man would stoop to.
I was not in know when it came to the fate of the Osage, the dead, now with the great meticulous research of this capable writer readers can be educated.
The FBI and Hoover come under the microscope here in the dealings with the murders and the first days of their forming and policies.
The writer captivates the reader with the tragedy and the search for the guilty parties layered in a well done work of fact.
“Webb walked me outside, onto the front porch. It was dusk, and the fringes of the sky had darkened. The town and the street were empty, and beyond them the prairie, too. “This land is saturated with blood,” Webb said. For a moment, she fell silent, and we could hear the leaves of the blackjacks rattling restlessly in the wind. Then she repeated what God told Cain after he killed Abel: “The blood cries out from the ground.”
“In May, when coyotes howl beneath an unnervingly large moon, taller plants, such as spiderworts and black-eyed Susans, begin to creep over the tinier blooms, stealing their light and water. The necks of the smaller flowers break and their petals flutter away, and before long they are buried underground. This is why the Osage Indians refer to May as the time of the flower-killing moon.”
“In the early 1870s, the Osage had been driven from their lands in Kansas onto a rocky, presumably worthless reservation in northeastern Oklahoma, only to discover, decades later, that this land was sitting above some of the largest oil deposits in the United States.”
“Automobiles sped along paved horse trails, the smell of fuel overwhelming the scent of the prairies.”
“Since then, she’d spent more and more time in the reservation’s tumultuous boomtowns, which had sprung up to house and entertain oil workers—towns like Whizbang, where, it was said, people whizzed all day and banged all night. “All the forces of dissipation and evil are here found,” a U.S. government official reported. “Gambling, drinking, adultery, lying, thieving, murdering.” Anna had become entranced by the places at the dark ends of the streets: the establishments that seemed proper on the exterior but contained hidden rooms filled with glittering bottles of moonshine. One of Anna’s servants later told the authorities that Anna was someone who drank a lot of whiskey and had “very loose morals with white men.”
“Lawmen were then still largely amateurs. They rarely attended training academies or steeped themselves in the emerging scientific methods of detection, such as the analysis of fingerprints and blood patterns. Frontier lawmen, in particular, were primarily gunfighters and trackers; they were expected to deter crimes and to apprehend a known gunman alive if possible, dead if necessary. “An officer was then literally the law and nothing but his judgment and his trigger finger stood between him and extermination,” the Tulsa Daily World said in 1928, after the death of a veteran lawman who’d worked in the Osage territory. “It was often a case of a lone man against a pack of cunning devils.” Because these enforcers received pitiful salaries and were prized for being quick draws, it’s not surprising that the boundary between good lawmen and bad lawmen was porous. The leader of the Dalton Gang, an infamous nineteenth-century band of outlaws, once served as the main lawman on the Osage reservation. At the time of Anna’s murder, the Osage County sheriff, who carried the bulk of responsibility for maintaining law and order in the area, was a fifty-eight-year-old, three-hundred-pound frontiersman named Harve M. Freas. A 1916 book about the history of Oklahoma described Freas as a “terror to evil doers.” But there were also murmurings that he was cozy with criminal elements—that he gave free rein to gamblers and to bootleggers like Kelsie Morrison and Henry Grammer, a rodeo champion who had once served time for murder and who controlled the local distribution of moonshine. One of Grammer’s workers later admitted to authorities, “I had the assurance that if I was ever arrested … I would be turned out in five minutes.” A group of citizens from Osage County had previously issued a resolution—on behalf of “religion, law enforcement, home decency and morality”—stating, “That the people who believe a sworn officer of the Law should enforce the Law are hereby urged to see or write Sheriff Freas, at once, and urge upon him to do his sworn duty.”
“To some Osage, especially elders like Lizzie, oil was a cursed blessing. “Some day this oil will go and there will be no more fat checks every few months from the Great White Father,” a chief of the Osage said in 1928. “There’ll be no fine motorcars and new clothes. Then I know my people will be happier.”
“The Osage searched for a new homeland. They debated purchasing nearly 1.5 million acres from the Cherokee in what was then Indian Territory—a region south of Kansas that had become an end point on the Trail of Tears for many tribes ousted from their lands. The unoccupied area that the Osage were eyeing was bigger than Delaware, but most whites regarded the land as “broken, rocky, sterile, and utterly unfit for cultivation,” as one Indian Affairs agent put it. Which is why Wah-Ti-An-Kah, an Osage chief, stood at a council meeting and said, “My people will be happy in this land. White man cannot put iron thing in ground here. White man will not come to this land. There are many hills here … white man does not like country where there are hills, and he will not come.” He went on, “If my people go west where land is like floor of lodge, white man will come to our lodges and say, ‘We want your land.’ … Soon land will end and Osages will have no home.” So the Osage bought the territory for seventy cents per acre and, in the early 1870s, began their exodus. “The air was filled with cries of the old people, especially the women, who lamented over the graves of their children, which they were about to leave forever,” a witness said. After completing their trek to the new reservation, members of the tribe built several camps, the most significant one being in Pawhuska, where, on a prominent hilltop, the Office of Indian Affairs erected an imposing sandstone building for its field office. Gray Horse, in the western part of the territory, consisted of little more than a cluster of newly built lodges and was where Lizzie and Ne-kah-e-se-y, who married in 1874, settled.”
“By 1877, there were virtually no more American buffalo to hunt—a development hastened by the authorities who encouraged settlers to eradicate the beasts knowing that, in the words of an army officer, “every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”
“Unaccustomed to the white man’s agricultural methods and deprived of buffalo, the Osage began to go hungry and withered until their bones looked as if they might break through their skin. Many members of the tribe died.”
“In 1894, when Mollie was seven, her parents were informed that they had to enroll her in the St. Louis School, a Catholic boarding institution for girls that had been opened in Pawhuska, which was two days’ journey by wagon to the northeast. An Indian Affairs commissioner had said, “The Indian must conform to the white man’s ways, peacefully if they will, forcibly if they must.” Mollie’s parents were warned that if they didn’t comply, the government would withhold its annuity payments, leaving the family starving. And so, one morning in March, Mollie was taken from her family and bundled into a horse-drawn wagon. As she and a driver set out toward Pawhuska, in the center of the reservation, Mollie could see Gray Horse, the seeming limit of her universe, gradually disappear until all that was visible was the smoke rising from the tops of the lodges and fading into the sky. In front of her, the prairie stretched to the horizon like an ancient seabed. There were no settlements, no souls. It was as if she’d slipped over the edge of the world and fallen, to borrow Willa Cather’s phrase, “outside man’s jurisdiction.”
“Mollie had to remove the Indian blanket from her shoulders and put on a plain dress. She wasn’t allowed to speak Osage—she had to catch the white man’s tongue—and was given a Bible that began with a distinct notion of the universe: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.”
“The tribe knew that there were some oil deposits under the reservation. More than a decade earlier, an Osage Indian had shown John Florer, the owner of the trading post in Gray Horse, a rainbow sheen floating on the surface of a creek in the eastern part of the reservation. The Osage Indian dabbed his blanket at the spot and squeezed the liquid into a container. Florer thought that the liquid smelled like the axle grease sold in his store, and he rushed back and showed the sample to others, who confirmed his suspicions: it was oil. With the tribe’s approval, Florer and a wealthy banking partner obtained a lease to begin drilling on the reservation. Few imagined that the tribe was sitting on a fortune, but by the time of the allotment negotiations several small wells had begun operating, and the Osage shrewdly managed to hold on to this last realm of their land—a realm that they could not even see.”
“The official death toll of the Osage Reign of Terror had climbed to at least twenty-four. Among the victims were two more men who had tried to assist the investigation: one, a prominent Osage rancher, plunged down a flight of stairs after being drugged; the other was gunned down in Oklahoma City on his way to brief state officials about the case. News of the murders began to spread. In an article titled “The ‘Black Curse’ of the Osages,” the Literary Digest, a national publication, reported that members of the tribe had been “shot in lonely pastures, bored by steel as they sat in their automobiles, poisoned to die slowly, and dynamited as they slept in their homes.” The article went on, “In the meantime the curse goes on. Where it will end, no one knows.” The world’s richest people per capita were becoming the world’s most murdered. The press described the killings as being as “dark and sordid as any murder story of the century” and the “bloodiest chapter in American crime history.” All efforts to solve the mystery had faltered. Because of anonymous threats, the justice of the peace was forced to stop convening inquests into the latest murders. He was so terrified that merely to discuss the cases, he would retreat into a back room and bolt the door. The new county sheriff dropped even a pretense of investigating the crimes. “I didn’t want to get mixed up in it,” he later admitted, adding cryptically, “There is an undercurrent like a spring at the head of the hollow. Now there is no spring, it is gone dry, but it is broke way down to the bottom.” Of solving the cases, he said, “It is a big doings and the sheriff and a few men couldn’t do it. It takes the government to do it.”
“The revelations of the arrests and the horror of the crimes held the nation in their grip. The press wrote about “an evidently well-organized band, diabolic in its ruthlessness, to destroy with bullet, poison, and bomb the heirs to the oil-rich lands of the Osage”; about crimes that were “more blood-curdling than those of the old frontier days”; and about the federal government’s effort to bring to justice the alleged “King of the Killers.”
“The jurors were willing to punish the men for killing an Indian, but they would not hang them for it.”
“The Osage have found new sources of revenue, including from seven casinos that have been built on their territory. (They were formerly called the Million Dollar Elm Casinos.) They generate tens of millions of dollars for the Osage, helping to fund their government, educational programs, and health-care benefits. The Osage were also able to retrieve at least a portion of the oil funds mismanaged over decades by the U.S. government. In 2011, after an eleven-year legal battle, the government agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by the Osage for $380 million.”