In the true crime masterpiece Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann overtakes fiction once and for all: Truth is just that much stranger. The revelations here come from a once well-known case, one of the FBI’s very first—the murders of many wealthy Osage Indians by covetous white settlers, some of whom had married their oil-rich Osage victims.
Grann, who previously authored the bestselling Lost City of Z, has taken a cruel tragedy, and paced the telling of it like a thriller-mystery. He extracts the truth not just from unpublished case files but the living legacy of the Osage tribe, his ultimate source for reopening countless more cold cases. Those whose family lines weren’t extinguished altogether in what’s now known as the “reign of terror” lost at least one relative.
Men and women of the tribe know more from their parents and grandparents than the groundbreaking agents of the early Federal Bureau of Investigation ever managed to uncover—and they cracked the case. What the bureau pinned on one mastermind, drifter turned de facto mayor William Hale, aka “The King of the Osage Hills,” and his handful of lackeys, was really a racist killing spree.
Forgotten FBI History
After the case’s lead FBI investigator, the stalwart and upstanding former Texas Ranger Tom White, has convicted Hale and his nephews—thereby sealing his slot in history as the lawman who broke the Old West, as none of J. Edgar Hoover’s new crop of college-educated desk-trained agents ever could—the story takes a turn.
Beneath what history has told us about the FBI’s mostly forgotten first big case, there lay an altogether untapped well evil: “For a moment, before he receded from history, too, White was eulogized as a good man who had solved the murders of the Osage,” Grann writes, mounting toward a present-day denouement. “Years later, the bureau would release several of its files on the Osage investigation in order to preserve the case in the nation’s memory. But there was something essential that wasn’t included in these and other historical records, something that White himself had missed. There was another layer to the case—a deeper, darker, even more terrifying conspiracy, which the bureau had never exposed.”
Every frontier hero, frontier villain, every Osage victim, every vile conspirator who got off scot free was not a character in a vivid drama but a living witness enmeshed in one. Each had his motive to murder or a weakness (love, drink, misplaced trust) exploited in the killing campaign. White husbands and wives dosed their Osage spouses’ whiskey with strychnine. The often unsuspecting victims deteriorated over months of poisoning—and even those who feared foul play found no recourse in seeking treatment for their symptoms. The two brothers who maintained a medical practice in the Osage Hills were co-conspirators in the many murder plots, and although the FBI agents questioned them, they were never convicted.
In the Osage Hills, the reservation settlements of Gray Horse and Fairfax, the Osage capital Pawhuska, and the freewheeling oil boom town of Whizbang, Oklahoma were “like a fevered vision,” Grann writes. Oil-rich tribal land, where the earning rights to all mineral legally belonged to the tribal natives, created these towns torn between two worlds. “The streets clamored with cowboys, fortune seekers, bootleggers, soothsayers, medicine men, outlaws, U.S. marshals, New York financiers, and oil magnates. Automobiles sped along paved horse trails, the smell of fuel overwhelming the scent of the prairies. Juries of crows peered down from telephone wires. There were restaurants, advertised as cafés, and opera houses and polo grounds.”
The Unkillable Mollie Burkhart
The wealth of the Osage—their ability to profit so immensely on the “underground reservation” of black gold—depended, of course, on the white man’s modern uses for a rabid oil economy. Newspapers gawked at the “red millionaires” and described expensive automobiles parked around a prairie campfire where finely dressed Osage draped in traditional tribal blankets were “cooking meat in the primitive.” This was tribal land, under the jurisdiction of the Great Mystery, the god Wah’Kon-Tah, whom the Osage—even those who’d become devout Christians, like tragic heroine Mollie Burkhart, who’d been taken from their families by missionaries and made to attend Catholic boarding school—beseeched in ceremonial dances.
Grann builds the terrors that befell them around the powerful character of Mollie Burkhart, as her mother and siblings die off around her. It’s with the mysterious disappearance of Mollie’s sister Anna, her body discovered days later in the stream where she was murdered, that the plot begins to unravel. But many more murders unfold in the next four years while a negligent sheriff and Pinkerton private investigators fumbled in the dark, foiled by conspirators. Finally, in 1925, Hoover dispatches White to take over the FBI’s field office in Oklahoma and the embarrassingly inconclusive investigation into mounting Osage murders.
Pressed into literature from life, Mollie is as central to Grann’s telling as she ever was to an extended family that depended on her. And Mollie, alone among her, siblings survived the murderous plot she married into—her husband, Ernest Burkhart, was William Hale’s nephew. Burkhart and his brothers did Hale’s bidding: They killed off Mollie’s sisters, so that she inherited their fortunes, which would all flow to her husband upon her death. When White and his team of investigators arrived, Mollie was a “marked woman.”
Greed, Envy, and Wrath
Overvalued oil rights and countless deaths due to their neighbors’ and purported friends’ unaccountable greed, envy, and wrath sets up an alarming contrast to the lives they led before, when they would save every last sinew from the bison carcass and eschewed land ownership according to an ancient philosophy. The “underground reservation” was a twinkle in savvy Osage lawyer Joe Palmer’s eye when, in 1904, he negotiated the Indians’ exclusive hereditary headrights to “the oil, gas, coal, or other minerals covered by the lands… hereby reserved to the Osage Tribe.”
But white “guardians”—the Bureau of Indian Affairs deemed many Osage, including Mollie’s mother and sister, insufficiently competent to execute their own estates—routinely fleeced them, embezzling and grossly overcharging for major and minor purchases alike. Joe Palmer had pleaded with Congress to abandon the guardianship rule, by which independence often depended on how much or how little Indian blood an member of the tribe had—but to no avail. Rich enough to buy their “guardians” a dozen times over, the Osage were less than human in the eyes of the law. Grann writes, “One Osage who had served in World War I complained, ‘I fought in France for this country, and yet I am not allowed even to sign my own checks.’”
One reading lets the cut-throat oil economy itself play the enemy. Sucked into this line of thinking as I was, I waited for a fourth quarter reveal. Until the final pages even, when Grann writes of life today in the Osage Hills, revealing hidden histories long overlooked to the popular one-villain narrative, I held onto a more cinematic red herring: There was a sinister cabal of oil barons behind it all, a conspiracy too big and shadowy and deep-pocketed and tied up in government for the twentieth century’s methods ever to root out. Eat your heart out, Teapot Dome. Grann would find out these vicious titans, I trusted: Literary journalism delivers ultimate justice to the untouchable emperors of the late gilded age.
Evil Implicates Everyone
But then there were finally too few pages left for anything like my prediction to unfurl. White, having long since convicted Hale and Burkhart, led a full life beyond the Bureau and even wound up warden to Hale at Leavenworth. Hale would be granted parole in the 1940s, and Ernest as early as 1937, which was also the year Mollie died. The FBI was by then already, under Hoover, a bloated monarchy within the federal government, and Osage case all but forgotten fodder for newsreels that had propped up the Bureau’s tightly-controlled image as a modern crime fighting machine. During the Great Depression, the Osage saw their fortunes further diminished when the wells dried up and the price of a barrel nose dived. By the time the remaining members of the Osage tribe were permitted by Congress to run their own estates, the headrights were virtually worthless.
In the end, the truth is so much darker. Among the many murderers of the Osage there were Old West outlaws, the moral equivalent of tumbleweeds. But most, by far, were ordinary citizens who believed themselves more deserving of the Osages’ wealth, and for whom murdering an Osage Indian was not an equal crime to killing a white man. During the trials, “A prominent member of the Osage tribe put the matter more bluntly: ‘It is a question in my mind whether this jury is considering a murder case or not. The question for them to decide is whether a white man killing an Osage is murder—or merely cruelty to animals.’”
The early FBI proved its mettle breaking the lawless Old West. Modern crime-fighting, Hoover’s suited college graduates and high tech methods, had conquered the last frontier when White and his men cracked the case and brought it Hale. In the version of events Hoover advertised, modernity outmoded the evil of the old world. In landing a marketable narrative, the Bureau miss the point.
The Osage murders are not such a timely topic as some would have it. Claiming a Trumpian villain, finding for an alt-rightish nativism in the murderers’ motive, diminishes the evil exposed. In the stubborn way of true stories, this one does not conform to our hot-trending themes.
A bloody conspiracy left cold by a century’s morally careless cover-up reveals more of those hideous truths we wish we could avoid. The single bogeyman dissolves under Grann’s scrutiny and storytelling. There is no one black-hatted villain. But with so many at fault we’re left, in the end, with the human heart’s susceptibility to those grave sins that drive a man to destroy his neighbor. The scarily forgettable nearness of evil implicates everyone. It’s reason enough to tell true stories, to look to the past, in the first place, in just pursuit of what is too terrifying not to be true.