Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
Of all the famous gangsters of the 1920s, the men behind the murders of more than two dozen Osage Indians in Oklahoma are certainly the least well known, although arguably the most despicable. In his new book, Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann digs into the true and mostly forgotten story of the Osage Reign of Terror.
In the early 19thC, the Osage Indians were forced from their ancestral lands in the Ohio Valley to a parcel in southeastern Kansas. By the 1870s, white settlers began to encroach on this land too, and the Osage sold the land for $1.25 an acre and searched for a new place to settle.
For $1,000,000, the tribe eventually purchased some rocky land that the whites didn’t want in northeastern Oklahoma including the mineral rights. Decades later, it was discovered that the Osage land sat atop some of the largest oil deposits in the United States. And the Osage got rich, really rich. In 1923 alone, the tribe collected over $30 million in lease payments and royalties, more than $400 million today.
But the tribe’s new-found wealth came with a heap of problems. First the Federal government, ostensibly concerned about the Osage’s ability to manage their sudden riches, created a system of guardianships. Any indian classified as “incompetent,” a loosely defined term at best, was assigned a guardian to oversee his/her financial affairs. Most full-blooded Osage were assigned a guardian, and those of mixed blood, no matter how blockheaded, were allowed to manage their own affairs. The Osage became easy targets for theft, graft, and mercenary marriages.
But as bad as this situation was, it got worse. The Osage started dieing. Mysteriously and in droves. Poisoned, blown-up, shot, stabbed, or thrown from a train, the Osage were disappearing. And their white neighbors, guardians, and spouses were the beneficiaries.
But justice for an indian was impossible to get in Oklahoma. The vast majority of the white population was cheating the Osage and could be counted on or bribed to stay quiet.
But as the bodies piled up, national newspapers picked up the story. Eventually the FBI was called in. It was new FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s first big case, and his chance to strengthen the reputation and resources of the still fledgling agency.
After significant missteps, which Hoover covered up, the most notorious perpetrators were convicted, but not before at least twenty-four Osage were dead, including entire families. And sadly, as Grann points out in the final chapters of the book, many more mysterious deaths went unrecorded and unsolved.During one trial, a member of the Osage tribe said,
“It is a question in my mind whether this jury is considering a murder case or not. The question for them to decide is whether a white man killing an Osage is murder –or merely cruelty to animals.”
A fascinating if unsavory slice of American history.