In 1921, the famously wealthy Osage Native American tribe in Oklahoma began to suspect that a serial killer was in their midst. Not long after a fortune in oil was discovered beneath their land, Osage millionaires began to die in a variety of suspicious ways. In the pages of a novel or projected on the big screen, a potboiler starring such a boogeyman would be chilling enough. But imagine the real-life terror if your neighbor, your friend, or your husband is not only rooting for the serial killer to get you but conspiring with him to finish the job.
That is the insidious conspiracy resurrected in David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, a meticulously researched and masterfully spun chronicle of the “Osage Reign of Terror” that may have claimed more than 100 victims. The Osage had been driven from their ancestral lands, but the reservoir of oil that rested under their otherwise barren new home made them exorbitantly rich. It also inspired hostility from a white America that resented this anomaly in the established social and economic order. “An orgy of graft and exploitation” sprang up around the tribe, dedicated to soaking them dry. When corruption, swindling, and interracial marriages weren’t enough, the plague of murders came.
Grann centers his story on Mollie Burkhart, a full-blooded Osage whose sister’s shocking death prompted the first major investigation into the killing spree. Mollie’s husband, a white man named Ernest Burkhart, and his well-connected uncle, William Hale, promised justice, but initial investigations proved fruitless. All the while, more Osage were shot, poisoned, or bombed — as were white people who attempted to solve the mystery. It was only after the fledgling FBI, led by the ambitious J. Edgar Hoover, got involved, sending an undercover team led by an incorruptible Texas Ranger named Tom White, that a horrible truth emerged.
The Osage murders are a mostly forgotten chapter of American history, but Grann, who also wrote The Lost City of Z, does more than just summarize the ghastly headlines that made the murders and subsequent trials front-page news in major cities across America. The Roaring ’20s in Oklahoma were the Wild West, replete with bootleggers, horse thieves, and bank robbers, all making life hard for respectable God-fearing citizens in oil boomtowns like Whizbang. Times were changing, technology was changing, and the federal government was changing. Grann incorporates all that detail into a rich page-turner with a tangible frontier twang.
The book’s final chapter is a storytelling risk: Grann inserts himself into the narrative, recounting his research visits to Osage County that led to a final piece of the puzzle that White’s investigators missed. While he encounters several Osage descendants in his hunt for clues, the reader might miss White and his heroic detectives. But the extended epilogue proves a worthwhile—and ultimately poetic—jaunt, necessary for the dark face of evil to come into focus across the morass of time. A