Book Review: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

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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. Her older sister was shot. Her mother was then slowly poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances.
In this last remnant of the Wild West—where oilmen like J. P. Getty made their fortunes and where desperadoes such as Al Spencer, “the Phantom Terror,” roamed – virtually anyone who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll surpassed more than twenty-four Osage, the newly created F.B.I. took up the case, in what became one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations. But the bureau was then notoriously corrupt and initially bungled the case. Eventually the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try to unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including one of the only Native American agents in the bureau. They infiltrated the region, struggling to adopt the latest modern techniques of detection. Together with the Osage they began to expose one of the most sinister conspiracies in American history.
A true-life murder mystery about one of the most monstrous crimes in American history.

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As someone who hardly reads true crime or even fiction mystery books, this is not the kind of book you would expect me to read. Killers of the Yellow Moon is also a couple of years old, so I can’t say it was even on my radar. But this is the end of a decade and we keep seeing all the “Best of” lists for the past 10 years, and when I saw this book on one of the best non fiction of the decade lists, I did some research and instantly became interested. And obviously getting to know that casting calls have gone out for a movie adaptation by Martin Scorcese starring Leonardo Dicaprio and Robert DeNiro made it the next book on my TBR.

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I recently read a history book called How to Hide an Empire and it was revelatory in how much we don’t know about the past or even present of our own country. And this book may just be dealing with a small time period of the early 20th century, but it’s a matter of shame that it’s been forgotten within just a century, despite the people and the descendants who lived through the Reign of Terror still dealing with the ramifications even now. It really is preposterous and obviously the result of prejudice that FBI remains in the public eye as the highly acclaimed national law enforcement agency in the country, but the string of brutal murders, cover ups and rampant systemic corruption that led to the birth of this organization is neither taught as an important part of history, or even remains in anyone’s memory. Even I’ve read quite a bit about Edgar Hoover and how he created and ruled the organization with an iron fist, but this case that he essentially used to publicize the importance of his agency never made it into my readings, probably because it wasn’t deemed noteworthy.

The author writes the book like a mystery novel but with a bit of history, giving us the background for how the Osage Nation in Oklahoma came to be and the extraordinary work of their diligent representatives who managed to get them the mineral rights for their lands. Oil brought money and prosperity to the Osage Indians, but much pronounced is the bigotry among the white people and the government who couldn’t bear to see people who they felt were inferior living such prosperous lives. And it’s fairly obvious that from this prejudice (and we can call it jealousy and greed) came the Reign of Terror that lasted years and ended with scores of murders.

The author details the arrival of Tom White and his team of bureau officers, who took up the mantle of this investigation after many locals failed to do anything, and it was gratifying to see atleast some white people with a fair amount of power willing to do their duty and not discount the lives that were lost or those who were living in constant danger. The conspiracy that they unearth is massive and I think it was sheer persistence on their part, and the resilience of the Osage Indians that ultimately led to bringing the truth to light.

But it was the last part of the book that really stunned me, when the author talks about how he started his research and what he uncovered. With the access of many more documents from decades ago and testimonies from the living descendants of the victims, he pieces together an almost unimaginable tale of conspiracy – where local white businessmen, dangerous outlaws, reputable doctors, corrupt local sheriffs and law enforcement and government officials, and most importantly greedy white people – all formed an informal network of killers, masters of coverups and large scale robbers, leaving numerous families with death and destitution. And the worst part is that while Tom White and his team was able to get convictions for a few murders, many many others were never pursued, and generations of their families have struggled to piece together the truth of what happened to their loved ones – and they are still doing it today.

It’s always both fascinating and painful to read such historical accounts and see parallels in our current times, because it just shows that despite a lot of progress we have made, we haven’t really in many other matters. Rachel Maddow’s recent book Blowout talks about the  huge tentacles of the Oil industry in Oklahoma and how long it took for ordinary people to be able to fight back, and what they lost in the meantime. And it’s just testimony that the resource curse is alive and well, the unscrupulous and ruthless nature of people clamoring for oil money hasn’t changed; it just probably has evolved from murders to more sophisticated business operations. Another thing that was brutal to read about was how some of the killers who were convicted of the Osage murders got paroled very soon, and even got pardons from the governors – just showcasing how less (or no) value this country places on the lives of nonwhite people – eerily similar to the president’s pardons of war criminals a few days ago.

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No thanks to the establishment of this country, it’s through sheer will and resilience and deep rooted love of their history that has managed to sustain the existence of the Osage Nation, and it was an honor to get to know about some of the people that the author had an opportunity to meet. This book is the story of the terror through which they lived and survived, and some law enforcement officers who took their duty seriously. If you like reading historical accounts of true crime, you just can’t miss this book. It’s brilliantly written and thoroughly researched, bringing a vital part of forgotten history back into the consciousness. The only heartbreak is that so much of it is still unknown and the families may never know the truth.

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