Forgotten Massacre in Oklahoma

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

By David Grann

Mass murders litter and darken the pages of American history and, with the exception of a few, fade from the collective consciousness with the passing of generations. So was the case of the Osage murders of the early 1920s, until David Grann resurrected this particularly dark passage, even digging deeper, beyond the known facts, to show the slow, systematic massacre involved more deaths and more killers than originally thought. His book stands as an outstanding example of historical journalism.

The Osage Indian murders were a series of murders of Osage tribe members who controlled the headrights (a beneficial interest in a tribal trust fund governing a tribe’s jointly held resources) to Oklahoma land that proved abundant with oil, and that temporarily made the Osage the richest people in the U.S., and possibly the world at that time. For these rights, white businesspeople, professionals, and guardians (people appointed to help tribe members control their finances until the government judged them capable of managing their own resources) conspired to murder and assume control of Osage land, not to mention the gouging of tribe members in the dispensing of advice and management of finances.

Grann relates the story of the Osage murders by beginning with the murders of Anna Brown, Charles Whitehorn, and Brown’s mother Lizzie Kyle. These women were the sister and mother of a focal story in the book, that of Mollie Burkhart. By personalizing and concentrating on one family, the author adds a touch of humanity that makes it easier for readers to understand and identify with the plight of Mollie and all the others who lost family members to what amounted to conspiratorial murders aimed at gaining control over oil rich land.

So corrupt were local officials and business interests, people concerned about the mounting deaths had to call in outside help to stem the murders and bring the killers to justice. This case, then, became young J. Edgar Hoover’s opportunity to advance the cause for a strong national police force, the transforming of his small, nascent Bureau of Investigation into the FBI we know today. Grann covers Hoover and his methods well throughout and in a chapter devoted to the original G-man.

Spearheading the effort on the Bureau’s behalf was an incorruptible and unimpeachable lawman, another relatable focus for Grann and his readers, Tom White. With White in charge and a team of Western lawmen from outside the area and working undercover under his command, the case was broken, though not after numerous frustrations, and a number of culprits, including the most prosperous and so-called upstanding citizen of Osage, the man known as the “King of Osage Hills,” William Hale, were brought to trial and convicted. White comes across as something of a hero, due to his dogged determination. And Hoover gets from the case what he wanted, proof of the need and usefulness of a modern national police force.

As Grann discovered, however, the case never really ended with the convictions of those White and his lawmen uncovered. Nor had it really began with their victims. To quote Grann: “… the murders of the Osage for their headlights were not the result of a single conspiracy orchestrated by Hale. He might have led the bloodiest and longest killing spree. But there were countless other killings—killing that were not included in the official estimates and that, unlike the cases of Lewis or Mollie Burkhart’s family members, were never investigated or even classified as homicides.”

The book includes footnotes, an extensive bibliography, reference to primary sources consulted by the author over six years of research, as well as numerous photographs of victims and killers. However, it lacks an index, which would be helpful in cross checking individuals and helping readers keep the myriad of victims, suspects, and facts square in their heads. w/c

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