Grave Reservation

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI BY David Grann. Doubleday. Hardcover, 352 pages. $28.

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

The Osage were warriors, buffalo hunters, harvesters, farmers—one of the great nations of the Great Plains. Europeans who encountered them early on described them as uncommonly tall, well-built, imposing: The “finest men we have ever seen,” Thomas Jefferson said in 1804, after meeting a delegation of Osage chiefs in the White House. By the time of Jefferson’s death, they’d been stripped of their ancestral lands—”forced to cede nearly a hundred million acres,” David Grann writesin Killers of the Flower Moon, “ultimately finding refuge in a 50-by-125-mile area in southeastern Kansas.” And in the years immediately following the Civil War, American settlers and squatters began to force the Osage off of the land they’d resettled.

“The Osage searched for a new homeland,” Grann writes.

They debated purchasing nearly 1.5 million acres from the Cherokee in what was then Indian Territory—a region south of Kansas that had become an end point on the Trail of Tears for many tribes ousted from their lands. The unoccupied area that the Osage were eyeing [in Oklahoma] was bigger than Delaware, but most whites regarded the land as “broken, rocky, sterile, and utterly unfit for cultivation,” as one Indian Affairs agent put it.

Which is why Wah-Ti-An-Kah, an Osage chief, stood at a council meeting and said, “My people will be happy in this land. White man will not come to this land. . . . There are many hills here. . . . White man does not like country where there are hills, and he will not come.”

Buying the land for seventy cents per acre, the Osage began the last in this long series of forced migrations. On arrival, having been denied moneys the United States government owed them for the sale of their lands in Kansas, they starved, froze, and died in great numbers. Osage children were given American names like Mollie, or Anne, or Charles, and shipped off to American schools, where they were forced to wear American clothes and kept from speaking their own language. Somehow, the nation survived. And then, at the start of the twentieth century, affairs took an astonishing turn. The Osage discovered that the sterile land they had settled on lay on top of an ocean of oil—and that, thanks to the actions of a smart and tenacious Osage lawyer, they had held on to their rights to the underground riches.

By the 1920s, Grann writes, “the Osage were considered the wealthiest people per capita in the world.”

A meeting of the Council of the Osage Indian Tribe and United States government officials in Washington, DC, ca. 1921–24.Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress.
A meeting of the Council of the Osage Indian Tribe and United States government officials in Washington, DC, ca. 1921–24.Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress.

Grann, a New Yorker staff writer, has a rare gift for covering and uncovering strange, out-of-the-way stories—his subjects have included the giant squid, the Aryan Brotherhood, the lost South American city of Z. His 2009 book about that city was recently adapted by writer-director James Gray; his 2010 collection, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, is magnificent. (Grann’s 2004 piece “Mysterious Circumstances,” about the death of the world’s foremost Holmes expert, is as gripping as anything by Arthur Conan Doyle.) But Killers of the Flower Moon—which takes its title from an Osage description of the time, in May, when coyotes on the prairie “howl beneath an unnervingly large moon”—is the strangest, most horrific story that Grann has told.

It begins on May 24, 1921, with the disappearance of a thirty-four-year-old Osage woman named Anna Brown. Brown was a drinker and a carouser. “She had often gone on ‘sprees,’ as her family disparagingly called them,” Grann writes. Still, there was cause for alarm. Anna’s sister Minnie had died mysteriously three years earlier. Another Osage, a man named Charles Whitehorn, had just gone missing.

Then, a week after Brown’s disappearance, an oil worker came across Whitehorn’s body near the base of a derrick. He’d been shot, twice, between the eyes. “Around the same time,” Grann writes, a teenage squirrel hunter came upon another corpse: “There was the bloated and decomposing body of what appeared to be an American Indian woman: she was on her back, with her hair twisted in the mud and her vacant eyes facing the sky. Worms were eating at the corpse.”

Brown’s and Whitehorn’s deaths were just the beginning. In February of the following year, William Stepson, a twenty-nine-year-old Osage in perfect health (he’d been a champion steer roper), died suddenly in his home. Stepson had been poisoned, it turned out, with strychnine or some similar substance. Less than a month later, another Osage died of suspected poisoning. And in July, an Osage man died after taking a sip of poisoned whiskey. Alarmed, the Osage called on a local oilman—fifty-five-year-old Barney McBride—to travel to Washington and ask the federal authorities for an investigation. “When McBride checked in to a rooming house in the capital,” Grann writes, “he found a telegram from an associate waiting for him.”

“Be careful,” it said. McBride carried with him a Bible and a .45-caliber revolver. In the evening, he stopped at the Elks Club to play billiards. When he headed outside, someone seized him and tied a burlap sack tightly over his head. The next morning, McBride’s body was found in a culvert in Maryland. He had been stabbed more than twenty times, his skull had been beaten in, and he had been stripped naked, except for his socks and shoes, in one of which had been left a card with his name. The forensic evidence suggested that there had been more than one assailant, and authorities suspected that his killers had shadowed him from Oklahoma.

Wealthy as they were, the Osage did not necessarily have direct access to their own money. In accordance with federal law, “guardians” were appointed to the Indians deemed “incompetent” by the Department of the Interior. “In practice,” Grann writes, “the decision to appoint a guardian—to render an American Indian, in effect, a half citizen—was nearly always based on the quantum of Indian blood in the property holder, or what a state supreme court justice referred to as ‘racial weakness.'”

What this meant was that if a full-blooded Osage, like Anne Brown’s sister Mollie
Burkhart, married outside the tribe, the husband might become his wife’s guardian. (In Burkhart’s case, that was what had happened.) In the event of Mollie’s death, her wealth—and the wealth associated with Anna’s headright—would pass to the husband. And, of course, it wasn’t just Anna who’d died. Minnie’s headright had already passed to Mollie, upon Minnie’s death, and Anna’s murder was followed by the mysterious death of Mollie’s mother, Lizzie, and that of another sister—Rita—who died in an explosion that also took the life of her husband, Bill, and that of their white servant, Nettie.

Their wealth passed to Mollie as well. It did not go unnoticed on the Osage reservation that the last person to have seen Anna alive, on the night of her disappearance, was Bryan Burkhart—the younger brother of Mollie Burkhart’s husband, Ernest. And, before long, Mollie herself became ill.

This is a cinematic setup, but Grann’s writing is granular and precise: that is to say, we know how Anna looked, smelled, and sounded on the night of her disappearance (her hair was windblown; she smelled of Prohibition whiskey; her speech was slurred). We know what she was wearing (bright red shoes, a skirt, and a matching Indian blanket) and holding (an alligator purse). We know how Mollie looked, too, and we know the sisters quarreled the last time they saw each other. The end result is that we feel each death like a blow to the gut—and this is a book with a great many deaths.

Before long, agents from J. Edgar Hoover’s Bureau of Investigation, the precursor to the FBI, arrive on the reservation and launch a long, dangerous investigation that leads to the arrest, and eventual conviction, of several involved parties. (Local investigations had gone nowhere because, in this case, corruption really did go all the way to the top.) The story of that investigation, which allows Grann to make good on his subtitle, “The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,” is the book’s second great strand. I hesitate to give too much away, but the cast of characters includes Texas Rangers, private eyes, bootleggers, con men, cowboys, safecrackers, quick-draw artists, soup men (a “soup man” is, or was, an expert in explosives), an Osage chief named Bacon Rind, and a villain who’d have given Balzac’s Vautrin a run for his money. Grann folds it, neatly, into three hundred pages. But he also makes something much more out of the material—something deep, devastating, and almost unbearably sad. On the one hand, he takes in the entirety of what was done to the Osage and, by extension, to the American Indian. On the other, he paints intimate portraits of men and women who’d murder their husbands, their wives, their own children. (“Bill, you know Tillies kids are going to have 2 or 3 hundred thousand dollars in a few years, and I have those kids adopted,” one villain wrote, in a note intercepted by his prison guards. Grann goes on to quote an Osage scholar: “Walking through an Osage cemetery and seeing the gravestones that show the inordinate numbers of young people who died in the period is chilling.”)

If Grann doesn’t stress the links between national and local crimes—ones that reverberate to this day on the Osage reservation, in North Dakota, and throughout the US—it’s because he doesn’t have to: Every instance of graft, discrimination, and murder is a metonym for America’s long history of oppression against its indigenous peoples. Dealing with a period of just a few years, Grann collapses that history down to a single point in space and time. But then, as he winds his way toward the end of the narrative, he blows that history back out again.

More than two-thirds of the way through, Grann begins to describe his own encounters with the Osage, and his deep dive into the US National Archives in Fort Worth. He finds concrete evidence of crimes and conspiracies that Hoover’s agents never fathomed. According to FBI estimates, at least twenty-four Osage were killed during the reign of terror. The actual toll might have been in the hundreds. Then—ninety years after the fact—Grann sets out to solve several of the unsolved murders.

Remarkably, he succeeds. But there’s nothing triumphant or Agatha Christie–like about the end result. What we’re left with, instead, are circles of complicity that widen and widen until, terrifyingly, they grow to encompass the reader as well.

Alex Abramovich is the author of Bullies: A Friendship (Henry Holt, 2016), and a frequent contributor to Bookforum.