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Saturday, February 03, 2018

Killers of the Flower Moon

It's funny how American history works. Some sensations are remembered well, for example the Scopes Monkey Trial, which was really just a farce. No one died. But the deaths of scores of Osage Indians, and the subsequent trial of the accused, was a major news story in the 1920s that is largely forgotten today, but has been brought back to the fore in David Grann's meticulously researched book, Killers of the Flower Moon.

"In the early 1870s, the Osage had been driven from their lands in Kansas onto a rocky, presumably worthless reservation in northeastern Oklahoma, only to discover, decades later, that this land was sitting above some of the largest oil deposits in the United States." The reservation "underground" made them the richest people per capita in the world.

Of course, white Americans couldn't stomach this. Many of the Indians had "guardians" and couldn't spend their own money. Starting in 1921, members of the Osage community died in extraordinary circumstances, either murdered or perhaps poisoned. An entire house was blown up, killing three. Was this to get at their oil money?

Grann, who wrote The Lost City of Z, has resurrected the case, which was once so well known it was included in the film The FBI Story (I'll have to check that out). The Osage refer to the period as "The Reign of Terror," and 21 people died, although Grann suspects there may be more.

The book is twofold; much of it is about the murders, and much of it is about the investigation. The latter edges into the second half of his subtitle, "the Birth of the FBI." This part is less successful, because the beginnings of the FBI are a book in its own right. Grann discusses how the Osage hired private detectives: "During much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, private detective agencies had filled the vacuum left by decentralized, underfunded, incompetent, and corrupt sheriff and police departments." But the private eyes were borderline criminals themselves. It wasn't until J. Edgar Hoovers Bureau of Investigation (it became the FBI later) got involved did the investigation get humming.

The lead agent on the case was Tom White, who wore a cowboy hat and was not the college boy that Hoover wanted in the bureau. But he eventually cracked the case, and the perpetrators were arrested and convicted (I won't spoil who they were). But Grann maintains that many of the murders weren't solved, and he does a little investigation and thinks he knows who threw a lawyer who had information thrown off a train to his death.

As this is a true story, there are lots of characters and reversals that would be consolidated in a movie version. I liked this book, but I think if he had stuck to the Osage it would have been a tighter book. At one point I needed to take notes to keep everyone straight.

This is a sorry chapter of American history. The plight of Indians has always gone under the radar, even to today. Grann is to be commended for shining a light on this sordid affair. Oh, and because the Osages aren't nearly as rich today, as drilling has stopped. Nearby there are windmill farms.

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