Book Review: Killers of the Flower Moon

One hundred years ago, the members of the Osage tribe of Oklahoma were some of the wealthiest people in America.  Their stretch of hills and prairie in the northwestern part of the state sat on a massive oil reserve and, thanks to the clever work of a tribal lawyer, the mineral rights belonged to the Osage and could not be sold.  This put the Osage in an excellent position…to be murdered.

David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon tells a story that few Americans know today, but that was absolutely sensational a century ago.  It began when a young Osage woman named Anna Brown was found dead in a ravine in 1921, a bullet in her skull.  Over the course of the next few years, at least twenty other Osage would meet untimely ends.

The Osage understood all too well what was happening: the tribe was bringing in something like $400 million a year in today’s money in oil revenues, and thousands of people had descended on Oklahoma in order to profit off the oil boom.  But scalawags and outlaws weren’t the only ones the Osage had to fear: the federal government had a rule in place that placed many Osage under guardianship.  White bankers, lawyers, and other powerful men  in the region had full control of the finances of individual members of the tribe, and it was a well-known fact amongst the Osage that many of these men were stealing the tribe’s wealth away.

Local and state officials did nothing about the deaths; they were part of the corrupt system, and racist to boot.  And so, the Osage reached out to the Department of Justice.  J. Edgar Hoover, who had recently come to power as head of the Bureau of Investigation, sent a former Texas Ranger and Bureau agent named Tom White to Oklahoma to look into the murders.

Killers of the Flower Moon is the story of White’s investigation.  While White — an honest and upstanding lawman who was determined to see justice done — knew that what he would find in Oklahoma would be ugly, the scope of the conspiracy he uncovered was astonishing.  And, thanks to the entrenched power of white men in the state, the conspirators very nearly got away with murder.

But Grann’s book doesn’t end with the events of the Roaring Twenties.  After looking through thousands and thousands of records, Grann discovered that the Reign of Terror in Osage territory was far worse than even White and the FBI knew.  It ran from at least 1918 to 1931 (the dates had originally been put at 1921 to 1926), and it is probable that hundreds of Osage died.  While some were violently murdered, many others were poisoned, and some — especially children — died of sickness or starvation when the men who were supposed to be their guardians refused to release the funds that were rightfully theirs, and that they needed to survive.

By the end of the 1930’s, much of the storied Osage wealth was gone.  The oil had run out, and the Great Depression had siphoned away whatever money the tribe had left.  With the oil boom over, the Osage were no longer targets.  Only when there was no profit to be made from their deaths did the murders stop.

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