Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
I don’t mean to sound churlish, but it’s hard not to sort of hate David Grann, or, at least, not be monumentally jealous of the guy. I try to teach his essay “Man on Fire” as often as I’m able, which essay’s the terrifying story of Texas’s execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, and while it’s an absolute monster of an essay—bracing and challenging and frightening in seeming pretty clearly to show that Texas executed an innocent man—every time I read it I find myself in the same rut. That rut is, I’d guess, one all writers feel for whoever’s on their list of Big Hitters; these are the folks whose work you read and just sort of sit back, spellbound at not just what they’re able to do, but how easy they make it look. Certainly Grann’s work isn’t easy (if it is, Mr. Grann, please don't correct the record), but his work ends up feeling so natural that I finish his stuff more often than not both deeply energized and mildly pissed. I want to be able to do what he does.
And it’s not just his essays: The Lost City of Z, his debut book (2009), was not only named a top-ten New York Times book, and it’s not only being made into a movie that by the time this runs should be available for viewing, but it’s a stellar, stellar book: inquisitive and detailed to a degree that it’s hard to read without wondering why the folks who came before Grann couldn’t have sussed everything out much, much earlier.
All of which is preamble to his latest, Killers of the Flower Moon, which is subtitled The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. The subtitle’s somehow both accurate and misleading: the story Grann writes is, for most of the book here, about the Osage murders and the establishment of the F.B.I., at least as we understand it now. The story at the heart of Grann’s inquiry’s direct, simple to relate: in the 1920s, many Osage Indians, living in Oklahoma, started getting killed. The many killed just so happened to have what were called headrights—meaning they earned a percentage of the oil money that was at that point washing incredibly and voluminously over the community—and the manner of death ranged from brutal (bullets in heads) to less obvious but sinister (poisoned alcohol). Significantly, many of the murders happened to make it so that one woman—an Osage named Mollie Burkhart—inherited the headrights of her deceased family members.
But there’s another whole wrinkle to the story, which is that, at that point, the U.S. government didn’t allow the Osage access to their own oil funds, insisting (through 1921 legislation) that the heathens have guardians—white businessmen and lawyers—to oversee their finances. Spoiler alert: the guardians often fleeced their charges, doling out pittances as allowances and charging ridiculous fees for doing so. The guardian aspect was they key element that allowed the Osage murders to be so terrible, and terribly profitable.
So there’s all that, but there's also the fact that, in the ’20s, especially in the West, the legal system, often as not, was mired in a frontier past: a couple big guys ran things, keeping lawyers and sheriffs on their paywall. Past that, the federal justice system was still only slowly morphing into modern techniques. As has been documented well elsewhere, J. Edgar Hoover was crucial in overseeing the Bureau of Investigation (as it'd been established in 1908; it’d become the F.B.I. we now know in ’35), forcing the fledgling group toward regimentation and professionalization. The changes he sought were understandable—a desire to make certain aspects of the job (reports, say) uniform; a desire to utilize scientific methods in place of old cowboy-culture lawman mentality (the shift, from here, seems akin to the shift in baseball from the old scouting system to Moneyball). As we all likely know, the actual lived experience of working through a substantive system change is charged and shaky at best.
And so it was that, in the 1920s, for the Osage, they bore witness to a federal Bureau trying to find its footing against entrenched interests. The story itself, of how the crimes against the Osage were solved, merits its own book, and my one knock against Grann’s book is that he somehow does such an exceptionally good job making clear how to the crimes were eventually solved that it’s easy for the reader to lose track of the severity of the crimes, the significance of the murders. Hoover appointed a former Texas Ranger named Tom White, tasking him simultaneously with solving the crimes and also with furthering the Bureau of Investigation’s rep: had White failed, it’s a fairly open question if Hoover would’ve been able to continue helming the Bureau, or if the Bureau would’ve even been able to keep existing.
Fortunately, for all involved, White was able to crack the case—not, coincidentally, without the help some old-school cowboy lawmen whose style was far out of synch and fashion with the newer notions undergirging the Bureau of Investigation. White was able to build a case that showed that Mollie Burkhart's husband, Ernest, was under the thumb of his town-controlling uncle, William Hale, the murderous and dark mastermind behind the murders. Hale had been planning the murders for the purposes of getting all the headrights; he was in it for the money, and had employed dozens of other men to make sure he got what he wished.
And so the reader of Killers of the Flower Moon will read the book’s first 230-plus pages, enraptured by this you-can't-believe-it story of thievery and malice. And, absolutely, Grann shines throughout: while the story itself is so compelling you can't imagine anything other than flying through the pages, you come to moments of just resplendent writing that knocks you back almost physically (on page fifty-seven of the ARC, Grann writes: “The term ‘to detect’ derived from the Latin verb ‘to unroof,’ and because the devil, according to legend, allowed his henchmen to peer voyeuristically into houses by removing their roofs, detectives were known as ‘the devil's disciples.’”). But even with all that—knowing how well Grann writes, how natural his work comes off the page—you can’t really be prepared for the book’s third or final section.
It’s here I’d like to pause and simply say: you need to read the third section for yourself. A spoiler would be unfair. I got through the first two sections glad and grateful to have had such a thorough, well-written guide to yet another American atrocity, and I wondered, around page 240, what the rest of the book could be filled with. But let me say here that the final third of the book is filled with yet more diligent, crystal-clear Grann writing that shows not only how harrowing this series of events were in the 1920s, but how shockingly under-examined they remained. Truly, it’d be unfair to give more away, but be aware that, if you’re willing to pick up Grann’s masterful new book, you’ll be forced to reckon with the awful price America has demanded of all of us, for decades. The ending is a stunner, and is vague and open-ended, weirdly incriminating and awfully, sadly unfinished. In this way, Grann comes across as the most patriotic writer in America, praising the great moments, few though they may be, and damning the uglier tendencies, which tendencies, he shows, will require all of us to bear witness to and uncover. He’s gotta be among the very best there is, Grann; you’re wise to read him as soon as possible.