Just across the border
Deceit was occurring
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (Doubleday, $28.95)
I’ve lost so many books that influenced me as a kid. One of them was something called True Tales of Murder or something like that. It was basically a book version of today’s Investigation Discovery channel, which has programs with titles like “Unusual Suspects,” “Homicide Hunter,” “A Crime to Remember” and “Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?”
Most tales in that book seemed of far-off lands or cities I couldn’t imagine knowing, but one story I recall happened in Oklahoma. I knew that state across the Red River. We visited relatives there at least once a year, briefly learning about things like riding horses, painting barns, finding arrowheads and such.
We were visiting Greer County, in the southwest part of Oklahoma, but this story I read took place near Tulsa, around the town of Pawhuska. The grisly story told in the book’s pages wove a tale of several men who marry Native American women from the Osage tribe, then kill them and take their land and by extension their oil money. Eventually, the chisel-jawed, straight-laced men from the FBI ride to the rescue and restored truth, justice and the American way.
A few years later, I graduated to a book called The FBI Story by Don Whitehead (basically a coy love letter to FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover) that included the Osage saga. In the film version of the book, Jimmy Stewart solves the whole thing in about 10 disappointing minutes.
A curious and unabashed kid, I asked a few Oklahoma relatives about the Osage tale and was generally met with blank stares, taken to a corner by an older relative who would whisper to me: “Polite people don’t talk about such things.”
The “such things” in a nutshell are these: The Osage tribe, having been booted out of their promised territory, bought basically unwanted land near Pawhuska, for roughly $1 million, as well as the mineral rights. Those mineral rights began to pay off with, as author David Grann says, the tribe taking in “more than $30 million,” in 1923 alone. That’s about $400 million in today’s cheddar. “The Osage were considered the wealthiest people per capita in the world,” according to the book.
Because Native Americans surely couldn’t handle that much money themselves (sarcasm intended), the federal government stepped in and allowed many of the Osage to be declared “incompetent.” Meanwhile, several white men suddenly became big fans of Osage women, courting and marrying them. But then the wives – and their family members – began mysteriously and not-so-mysteriously dying off, either via poison, bullets, explosive devices or, in at least one case, being thrown from a train. There were investigations, but with so much moolah flowing, those investigations tended to get nowhere as the investigators bought new cars and such.
Eventually, the FBI, then a backwater of an agency of little import or impact, sends in a former Texas Ranger, Tom White, who was straight-laced, but about as determined as a bird dog on the opening day of hunting season. He, along with an undercover agent and one of the FBI’s few Native American agents, finally crack the case and live to tell about it. That, despite more than a little backstabbing and double-dealing from the locals and some less-than-helpful suggestions from J. Edgar.
Serendipitously, I ran across several people from Pawhuska in my life. They were all perplexed when I began peppering them with questions about the Osage matter. I recall one woman from college who said, “How do you know about that? My grandmother used to talk about that, but it happened years ago.”
So when I saw a book called Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann, it might as well have been titled: A Book for Bob Francis.
While that trashy, tawdry paperback I read as a child was as grisly, bloody and vile as my mother suspected it was, it may have just scratched the surface. What went down in Osage territory in the 1920s wasn’t pretty and didn’t lift one’s spirits with hope for mankind. There was nothing kind about it. People married, made love and had children with people they murdered with seemingly no afterthought. Sadly, some of the survivors of these murder attempts still loved the very people who attempted to kill them. Humans, yeah, we’re messed up.
The murders aren’t all in Oklahoma either. The Osage, not confident – with good reason – in the sheriff, ask a trusted white oilman to take their concerns to Washington, D.C. The oilman is then mysteriously killed, his body found in a Maryland ravine with 20 stab wounds.
Grann is a good writer who picks his details carefully and knows when to tell a good story just because it’s a damn good one. Such is the case of White after he leaves the FBI to become a prison warden. Only tangentially related to the main narrative, Grann tells how White is kidnapped by escaped prisoners as a hostage and … I’ll let you read that one yourself.
Fort Worth even plays a role in Grann’s saga. Many of the records are found in the National Archives here and Grann spends a lot of time combing through them to flesh out the narrative.
While White and the FBI prove their worth as they take these murderers – some of them, at least – to trial and end the bloodshed, it won’t lift your spirits. White and his rough-hewn, not afraid of getting down in the mud crew don’t meet Hoover’s new modern law enforcement blueprint for FBI agents as basically squared-away accountants who catch bad guys. They get shuffled off the stage, out of the spotlight as quickly as possible so the focus lands on J. Edgar and his team of well-scrubbed boy band FBI agents.
But Grann doesn’t let the spotlight shift from the victims or sit to gather dust in the musty archives of the past. Perhaps the best part is the last 50-60 pages of the book where he shows how these crimes, committed nearly 100 years ago now, are still impacting the offspring of the victims and perpetrators.
That part wasn’t in the lurid, true-crime paperback I devoured as a kid, but it let me know I was right to ask those questions so long ago. Even in “polite company.” As William Faulkner said in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Grann proves it with this book.