By: Angie Haddock
In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.
Then, one by one, they began to be killed off. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, watched as her family was murdered. And it was just the beginning, as more Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances.
A true-life murder mystery about one of the most monstrous crimes in American history.
This one has been on my TBR for a few years now, and it’s becoming a movie next year (Scorsese! DiCaprio!), so I thought it was finally time to tackle it. And boy, I was not disappointed!
The full title is “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.”
The story takes place mostly in Oklahoma in the 1920s. The author tells of a single murder first, and then branches outward to several more that happened in the same geographical area. We then step back and look at what’s going on in the area, because there are multiple possible motives at play.
First of all, the Osage tribe was forced onto this patch of land by dealings with the federal government in previous generations. Later, oil was found under the land, making it very valuable. This was also the era of prohibition, and with it, the birth of real organized crime nationwide. How much did racism, oil, money, or general lawlessness have to do with the killings of members of the Osage?
The local lawmen and private eyes who tried to look into individual murders seemed to get nowhere, so eventually some federal lawmen were assigned to uncover the truth. These men worked under J. Edgar Hoover, in what would go on to become the FBI. The head of this crew was Tom White, and he got to pick his underlings. Most of them worked undercover, to try to cozy up to locals – both Indigenous and white – to find out what everyone really knew.
In addition to the obvious killings – people who were shot, for example – there were also a lot of Indigenous who would die from unexplained illnesses, or supposed drunkenness. This lead some to believe that there were additional murders that were carried out by poisoning.
Eventually, the team came up with suspects in at least a few of the murders. Once the drama moved into the courtroom, many witnesses went back and forth on their statements, as they are continuously bribed or threatened. There was no guarantee that the suspects would really end up behind bars.
And even then, the government treated the case like it was successfully closed. But were the same few men responsible for all the killings? How many others could have been involved?
There is a final part of this book, in which the author tries to uncover those last questions. Ultimately – and not surprisingly – it seemed like there were many more people involved than those who were brought to justice.
This is a riveting true story, which I definitely don’t remember learning about in U.S. history classes! The topics at play – race, class, land rights, etc. – are still ones we grapple with today. I would recommend this one to anyone interested in history, social justice, or true crime.