Murders in Indian Country and the FBI’s Beginnings

Book review: Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann

It’s a deeply unfortunate, painful characteristic of American history that crimes against Native Americans are often lost to history. If you read a book like Dee Brown’s classic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, you’re hit with wave after wave of frustration with each successive incident of their treatment at the hands and laws of white Americans. Killers of the Flower Moon is similarly maddening.

It details the spree of murders of the Osage Indians of Oklahoma, thought to have begun in 1921 and continuing over the next five years, and the equally rampant corruption widespread through the ranks of white-controlled bureaucracy and government.

The Osage were wealthy beyond imagination at this time, thanks to the oil boom and a ready supply of it on their lands. It’s clear from the beginning that the crimes perpetrated against them were connected to acquiring or funneling the inheritance path of the victim’s “headrights”, their stake in the funds generated from their land’s oil. As brutal and horrific as these crimes were, especially as the details are sifted through, it’s incredible that so little is known about them today, outside of the Osage Nation.

But despite their falling into relative obscurity over time, these killings helped to bring into the spotlight a newly formed branch of the Justice Department headed up by J. Edgar Hoover, which would eventually become the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This new investigative agency was finally able to identify several suspects and bring them to some sort of justice, while taking baby steps with new forensic methodology.

What measure of justice could be given considering what the killers were able to get away with is tenuous at best. As the story unfolds and the scheming goes deeper, it’s clear that corruption has touched every corner of life in this part of Indian country, including the medical, investigative, funerary businesses and beyond. It’s like a surreal horror movie; like they didn’t stand a chance and didn’t even know it.

A standout, if also a little sad, figure in the book is the dedicated and kind former Texas Ranger Tom White, appointed by Hoover to head an investigative team looking into the murders, and who was able to finally apprehend some of those responsible. Early forensic techniques were just beginning to come into play, like Alphonse Bertillon’s anthropometric methods for criminal identification, which makes a helpful and interesting side story to the main narrative of the Osage Reign of Terror.

The inclusion of excellent historical photographs throughout, in connection to the flow of the text, was very helpful in illustrating the many characters and relationships necessary to understanding the story. It was otherwise easy to get lost in all the names and connections, but it ends up being a thoroughly readable history.

New Yorker writer David Grann writes an excellent nonfiction narrative exploring the crimes and how the fledgling FBI unit led by White pursued answers, but he really goes above and beyond in the book’s final chapters, when he reveals that the case wasn’t finished where history closed it until now. Doing some digging of his own, he’s able to pick up where investigators left off decades ago, to trace and tie up some of the loose ends still lingering.

After reading about the treatment of the Osage Indian Nation during this terrifying time by the government and many of those ostensibly assigned to help them, it’s hard to imagine that those threads would have been left if the victims had been white. An account of this part of history was long overdue; Grann’s is a worthy treatise.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
by David Grann

published April 18, 2017
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.

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