Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann,
Simon and Schuster, 2017, ISBN 978-1-4711-4206-6, 338pp
The sub-title to this book is “Oil, money and the birth of the FBI”. The back of the book has a quote from Kate Atkinson which describes the book as “a fiercely entertaining mystery story and a wrenching exploration of evil”. This is perhaps a rather more enthusiastic description that I might have used but this book is a good read and parts of it do leave the reader somewhat open-mouthed at the capriciousness and greed of our fellow human beings. The book is about a series of murders of members of the Osage Nation, a Midwestern Native American tribe of the Great Plains. David Grann is a journalist who writes for The New Yorker.
In 1803 Thomas Jefferson purchased Louisiana from the French. The lands purchased contained areas dominated by the Osage and initially Jefferson courted the Osage assuring them that he would be a friend and benefactor. But within a few years Jefferson had reneged on his earlier promises and forced the Osage to cede much of their land to the US and they were forced onto a small area in Kansas. But they were driven on again in the 1870s by white settlers and were forced into selling their land for $1.25 an acre. They used the money to buy some seemingly rocky and sterile land elsewhere in Kansas. This wasn’t quite the end of the Osage’s persecution by the settlers but eventually they managed to retain some land with the provision that “the oil, gas, coal, or other minerals covered by the lands … are hereby reserved to the Osage Tribe.”
This may seem to have been a clever, if lucky, move for when oil was discovered under the land, the prospectors needed to pay handsomely for the privilege of extracting the liquid gold. For a while some of the Osage were the wealthiest people in the world. Unfortunately that came with consequences. A report in Harper’s struck an ominous note: “every time a new well is drilled the Indians are that much richer. The Osage Indians are becoming so rich that something will have to be done about it.” This book focuses on the plot to murder the women of one Osage family one by one. The idea behind this scheme was that the murdered women would bequeath their estates to white speculators.
This book tells the story about what happened, how the murders were covered up and how they became the first investigation by an embryonic FBI. The FBI, under the leadership of a young J Edgar Hoover, initially bungled the investigation. The hero of the book, if there is a hero, is a former Texas Ranger named Tom White, for it was he who through dogged determination finally cracked the case.
It’s easy to forget that this is not a novel. But as you turn the pages and see photographs of the characters, you remember that it is not. And it’s easy to turn the pages. It’s a well-told and seemingly well-researched story. I saw a copy in Moruya Books earlier in the week. It may still be there and you could be the one to snap it up. You are unlikely to regret the purchase.