In Killers of the Flower Moon, writer and journalist David Grann offers an intimately detailed account of a little-known but devastating chapter in American history: the Osage Reign of Terror, officially recognized as a period of five years from 1921 to 1926 during which upwards of twenty Osage Indians were murdered in cold blood for access to their valuable shares of oil money. The Osage, whose reservation just outside of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, once sat atop one of the largest oil deposits in the country, and whose legal protection under tribal law gave each member of the tribe a headright (a share of the mineral trust), were the wealthiest group of people in the country per capita by the early 1920s. In most cases, though, the Osage were deemed “incompetent” by the government and forced to enter into guardianships, in which their own funds were beyond their control, and their white neighbors were placed in control of the overflowing accounts. As white Americans began hearing sensationalized tales of the Osage’s wealth, many became indignant—and those living in the towns on and around the Osage reservation sought to dispatch members of the tribe through cruelty, trickery, and downright evil in order to inherit their fortunes.
Grann divides his tale into three parts. The first part of the book, set in the early 1920s, focuses on the world of the Osage Nation and focuses particularly on one family of Osage Indians. Mollie Burkhart, a full-blooded Osage woman, is married to a white man named Ernest Burkhart. Her sisters Rita and Anna also married white men, and her sister Minnie has passed away recently due to a “peculiar wasting illness.” When Anna is found dead in a ravine—shot in the back of the head—shortly after another Osage man, Charles Whitehorn, is found murdered execution-style in the same valley, Mollie begins to believe her family is being targeted for their headrights. Then, just months later, when Mollie’s mother Lizzie dies of the same “wasting illness” as Minnie and when Rita and her husband Bill Smith are killed in an explosion which reduces their house to rubble, Mollie knows for sure—her family is being picked off, one by one, and she is next.
In the second part of the book, Grann turns his attention to the federal investigators who arrive in Osage County to look into the string of murders, which stretch well beyond Mollie’s family and also involve two white men—an oilman and a lawyer who took it upon themselves to try and solve the murders on their own. The bureau of investigation—not yet known under its eventual moniker, the FBI—has just come under the control of a young, peculiar, fastidious man named J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover sends the imposing Tom White, a former Texas Ranger, out to Oklahoma to investigate. White and his team arrive undercover in town, knowing that Hoover hopes to use this case to establish a name for the bureau and strengthen the power of federal investigators. As White and his agents work to solve the crimes, they enlist outlaw informants—bootleggers, moonshiners, cattle rustlers, and worse—to aid in the investigation, and meanwhile get to know the bustling but deeply corrupt world of the Osage reservation boomtowns. Ernest Burkhart’s uncle, William K. Hale, is a former cattle rancher who has risen to prominence and now works as deputy sheriff. Hale seems to control everyone and everything—including the fortunes of several Osage. As White and his investigators become more and more enmeshed within the community, they come to realize that Hale has orchestrated a vast plot to pick off Mollie’s family members one by one—and then murder Mollie with the help of the duplicitous town doctors, the Shoun brothers, in order to amass the entire family’s fortune. Most torturously of all, Mollie’s husband Ernest, Hale’s nephew, has been in on the plot all along. After securing a statement from the contrite Burkhart, White and his team confront Hale with the evidence, but the collected and calm Hale gleefully states that he will fight the allegations tooth and nail. As the trials begin, Burkhart flips back and forth between testifying against Hale and on his behalf. Eventually, the pain wears on him, and he testifies against Hale. Still, White worries that Hale has the judge and jury in his pocket, renowned as he is throughout the town. Hale is convicted, though, and sentenced to life imprisonment for his crimes, in a stunning turn of events. White, having done right by Hoover and given his boss the ammunition and legitimacy needed to create the Federal Bureau of Investigation, retires from the bureau and takes a job as the warden at the notoriously rough Leavenworth prison—where Hale is his prisoner.
In the third part of the book, David Grann makes a series of several trips to the Osage Reservation between 2012 and 2015. He is conducting research for the book, and, as he digs tirelessly through the U.S. national archives and conducts interviews with Burkhart descendants and many other Osage families affected by the Reign of Terror, comes to see that the bureau actually failed to solve the majority of the Osage murders—and covered up the fact that hundreds of Osage Indians, not just twenty or thirty, were murdered during a span of nearly two decades—not the taut five-year period “officially” deemed the Reign of Terror. Grann laments that the Osage tribe’s terrible past has mostly been lost to history—their story is not taught in schools, and because of the FBI’s failure to secure justice for the Osage people, it has largely been swept under the rug. Though history is often a “merciless judge,” Grann knows that, sometimes, justice can never be obtained—and yet, as one of his contacts on the reservation states, quoting from the Bible, “the blood cries out from the ground.”