Review: Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann. New York: Doubleday, 2017.

Summary: The true crime account of a series of murders of Osage tribal people motivated by money and the FBI agent who arrested some of the major figures involved in the deaths.

In the 1920’s, members of the Osage Nation were among the richest people on earth. They held the rights to the oil beneath their land and each tribal member had “headrights” that resulted in growing payments and wealth. That wealth was the object of numerous unscrupulous actors from those who sold vehicles for far more than their worth to “guardians” who siphoned off proceeds for themselves. Then a number of Osage began dying, some mysteriously wasting away, others dying from “hits,” a bullet in the head.

The book centers around the deaths surrounding Mollie Burkhart. Her former husband, Roan, was murdered with a bullet through his head. Her mother and sister appeared to be poisoned. Another also died of a bullet into the head, never found by the doctor doing the autopsy. And one died in a spectacular house explosion. Then Mollie’s own health began deteriorating, even though she was under a doctor’s care for diabetes.

Local and state investigators failed to find the killers, and at points may have been in league with them. Finally, the case landed on the desk of a young J. Edgar Hoover, trying to build what would become the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Failure could deal a blow to his ambitions. He turned to Tom White, a former Texas Ranger, who didn’t fit the mold of the Bureau, but knew the territory. White, in turn, recruited a team of undercover agents who were crucial to the success of the investigation.

The book details White’s determined pursuit of those responsible, despite the death of witnesses and other intimidation tactics. He saved Mollie’s life, getting her different medical care, under which she immediately improved, raising questions about her own husband’s part. The book traces the trail to a powerful figure in Osage country, seemingly upstanding, but truly evil, who was lining his pockets with Osage wealth.

While White was able to see the killers of Mollie’s family to justice, David Grann also tells a darker story of many other deaths and other killers never convicted. He concludes the account with his meetings of descendants of the families who had suffered loss as he attempts to provide some account to satisfy the “blood that cried out.”

I found this an engaging, page turning account of a monumental injustice, one more of a litany injustice done to the First Nations of North America. Grann shows the ruthless and unscrupulous efforts to deprive the Osage of what was rightfully theirs. It is too bad that Tom White did not head up the FBI. The contrast between him and Hoover is striking. It would have been a very different agency. White and his family treated their work as a sacred calling worthy of their excellence and courage, defying a corrupt version of “the machine.”