Book Reviews

David Grann

Doubleday

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.

…In early March, the dogs in the neighborhood began to die, one after the other; their bodies slumped on doorsteps and on the streets. Bill was certain that they’d been poisoned. He and Rita found themselves in the grip of tense silence. He confided in a friend that he didn’t “expect to live very long.”

                from Killers of the Flower Moon

 

In the 1870s, amid its westward expansion, the US government moved the Osage Indian nation from their traditional lands on the rich and fertile Kansas prairie to a rocky, infertile area in Oklahoma that no one wanted. By that time, the tribe had dwindled to about 3000 members due to the white man’s diseases, like Smallpox, and forced migration.

In the following years, vast deposits of oil were discovered beneath the tribe's territory. Each member received a “headright,” basically, a share in the Osage mineral trust, and by the early part of the twentieth century, they had become the richest people per capita in the world. In 1923 alone, they earned $30 million in oil leases and royalties, the equivalent of $400 million today. They lived in mansions, were chauffeured around in cars, hired white people as their servants. This is history at its ironic best.

And then something strange began happening: Osage people began mysteriously dying, the deaths variously put down to “consumption,” “wasting illness,” or “causes unknown.” It was suspected that some were poisoned; some were found shot to death. As David Grann writes in Killers of the Flower Moon, “The world’s richest people per capita were becoming the world’s most murdered.”

Two prominent white citizens attempted to speak on behalf of the Osage and draw attention to these deaths. They, too, were mysteriously killed. As the deaths mounted up, the local authorities could find no reason or pattern to the murders; it turns out they weren’t trying very hard. As Grann dryly notes, in those days “the boundary between good lawmen and bad lawmen was porous.”

The Osage community sought help from the federal government. Enter a young and ambitious J. Edgar Hoover. He had recently been appointed director of the “Bureau of Investigation” and he set out to use the Osage’s case to bring legitimacy and respect (and power) to what would become the FBI.

An Osage leader observed, “There are men amongst the whites, honest men, but they are mighty scarce.” One of those scarce men was Tom White, a Texas Ranger who Hoover sent to investigate the murders.

Grann, staff writer for the New Yorker and bestselling author of The Lost City of Z, tells a taut and tense story, riveting like the best detective novels, as White pieces together the evidence and the clues. (Interesting clue: The Osage headrights could not be sold or given away. They could only be inherited. A number of Osage women were married to white men.)

What White found was not the work of some deranged serial killer, but “a culture of killing.”

 


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (September 15-October 14, 2017.) Reprinted with permission.