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

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Release Date: 
April 17, 2017
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Attributed to President Harry Truman, and perhaps paraphrased here, is the expression that “the only thing new is the history you don’t know.” In this case, there is considerable truth here. This publication is an account of an event in United States history with which, it would probably be safe to say, most people are unaware.

Chances are that the vast majority of people don’t know that the Osage Indians were once the wealthiest people in the country. By virtue of their reservation’s location in Oklahoma, it turns out that they were sitting on top of one of the largest fields discovered during the early days of the oil boom.

Even though they didn’t necessarily own the land comprising their reservation (explained in the text and another black mark against the United States in its dealings with Native Americans), the treaty that they negotiated with the United States reserved all of the mineral rights to the tribe. It was not unusual for them to employ servants, ride in the finest automobiles—and buy a new one when theirs broke down rather than having it repaired—and live in the best houses.

Being flush with oil wealth, consequently, it didn’t take long for the cheats, frauds, hustlers, criminal elements, and others to come calling and take advantage in multiple ways, whether marrying into the tribe or simply charging the proverbial arm and a leg for products and services when operating a business in the Indian community.

The worst of these was a conspiracy, beginning in May, 1921, the Osage month of the flower-killing moon, which resulted in the murders, by multiple methods, of many tribal members over a period of years. It was a virtual reign of terror and intimidation as no one in law enforcement seemed able to solve the case; if, indeed, any legitimate effort was made to ascertain the perpetrator(s), given the prevailing and ongoing racism against Indians in general.

As a result, the case made its way to the FBI which had just come under the directorship of one J. Edgar Hoover. Even in those early days, Hoover manifested the singular and personal traits which came to characterize his administration of the Bureau until his death in 1972.

Hoover put a former Texas Ranger in charge of an investigative team, through many twists and turns, who was eventually able to solve the case and arrest the primary culprits through incredible pressure put on one of the lower level conspirators to identify the individual behind the killings.

Not surprisingly, the case was among the earliest to put the FBI on the map as the go-to agency for honesty, integrity and investigative ability; however, it wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be.

As it turns out, not all of the loose ends were tied up. There continued to be lingering questions surrounding the results of the investigation and, considering the then relative lack of technological, forensic, and other investigative sophistication, there lacked certainty as to whether all of the necessary answers had been obtained. But it was still a feather in Hoover’s cap as many of the case’s failings and shortcomings were kept out of the public eye and records.

To be expected, there is also lingering bitterness among the Osage, not the least of which is the fact that many innocent forebears were killed simply to obtain the wealth which was rightfully theirs, resented by many Americans less fortunate than they, and that the oil field has been depleted for many years thus eliminating that wealth.

This is a very interesting, informative account of a virtually unknown episode in American history, not to mention well written and cogent by bestselling author, David Grann. Although there seems to be a trend recently toward notes based on quotes and other terms and expressions in the text, the research is there that underlies this story.

Relevant photographs, with illustration credits listed, are interspersed throughout the text of locales, personages, and others who figure prominently in the story. Although there is no map, it is easy enough to search online for Osage County, Oklahoma, for geographic context.

Finally, how many other mysteries and unknown stories, tragic and otherwise, are there in United States history that need to see the light of day? One can only wonder.