Though the events it portrays took place nearly a century ago, Killers of the Flower Moon is very much a book for the modern era. Through his investigation into the Osage Reign of Terror and the reverberations the grisly ordeal has had throughout American history, David Grann paints a far-reaching and yet intimate portrait of how greed, entitlement, and corruption have defined American history, American society, and American institutions. Grann shows how entitlement turns into greed and how greed becomes corruption, arguing that a toxic combination of these three forces both made America—and broke it.
Grann uses a parable from nature in the book’s opening to depict these choking, obliterating forces, describing a phenomenon that occurs each spring on the prairies of Oklahoma: millions of tiny flowers bloom, spreading across the hills. As summer descends, larger, taller flowers and invasive weeds “creep over the tinier blooms, stealing their light and water” until the smaller flowers’ petals flutter away and they are buried underground. This time of year, referred to as the “flower-killing moon” by the Osage tribe, is a potent metaphor for what American greed has done to the tribe’s culture, wealth, and agency.
When racist white Americans witnessed the rapid influx of wealth into the Osage community in the midst of the oil boom, they became indignant—and their sense of entitlement to that wealth grew. Many were angry at the sight of “rich redskin[s]” and their white servants, and nervous that the reversal of the status quo when it came to race and societal position in Osage territory would soon spread to the country as a whole. As reporters seized upon and embellished images from the reservation boomtowns, American entitlement turned to greed. While those around the nation reading of the Osages’ wealth in newspapers could only be “transfixed” by the spectacle of it, those living amongst the Osage had the chance to exploit them. Greedy and desperate for a piece of the Osage fortune, local business owners regularly price-gouged their Osage neighbors—one undertaker regularly charged Osage Indians the equivalent of $80,000 in modern currency for a simple burial.
These greedy practices soon slid into outright violence as the Osage’s white neighbors desperately yearned for an even bigger cut of the tribe’s wealth. Serious, wide-ranging forms of corruption overtook the Osage territory, including exploitation of the role of financial guardian, blackmail and extortion, sham marriages, and, ultimately, murder. White Americans living in other parts of the country wrote to the tribe begging to arrange marriages; financial guardians of the Osage tribe members, appointed due to the government’s perception of Native Americans’ “incompetence” in handling their own finances, regularly stole money from their wards’ accounts; poisonings, shootings, and even bombings were rampant on the reservation as corrupt individuals like William K. Hale and H.G. Burt crafted vast conspiracies to get rich off of their neighbors’ inheritances.
After establishing these patterns—and how they ravaged Oklahoma during the Reign of Terror and beyond—Grann examines how entitlement, greed, and corruption shaped America before, during, and after the fraught time period. In looking back at how the Osage came to occupy their oil-rich land in the first place, Grann reveals that the tribe was pushed and pulled around the American West by government edicts that deprived them of their ancestral lands, forcing them to adapt to new, strange territories and systematically decimating the bison population so as to further limit the physical and cultural growth of the tribes they’d sequestered. When the government realized that the rocky, hilly outcrop deeded to the Osage in the late 1870s was valuable, they took pains to try and keep the Osage from actually seeing the profits they made from it. Essentially, the government felt entitled to the Osage’s ancestral land, seized it in a fit of greed, and then desperately tried to backpedal by instituting even further methods of control and corruption when they realized that they had essentially handed the tribe the keys to the greatest wealth in the nation.
Grann explores, too, how American institutions like the FBI are often founded upon corruption. The Osage Reign of Terror—and the investigation thereof—is tied inextricably with the formation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and, throughout the text, Grann explores the roles that greed, entitlement, and corruption played in the making of the Bureau. The young and fastidious J. Edgar Hoover, who became deputy director of the fledgling bureau in 1924, realized that in order to consolidate power and ensure that he would be able to retain his newfound authority, he needed to prove his worth. Hoover seized upon the Osage murders as a way to demonstrate the effectiveness of the bureau and, in turn, pursue his own security and power. The fact that, in spite of Hoover’s use of the case to advance his own interests, hundreds of the Osage murders were never solved or even fully investigated demonstrates the corruption that pervades institutions founded upon a web of greed and lies.
As Grann comes to understand that the Reign of Terror spanned a larger period of time and encompassed more deaths than the FBI—or any American organization—has ever fully or officially recognized, he impresses upon his readers the notion that Hoover’s own sense of entitlement to power over the bureau and lust for power directly prevented the murders committed during the Reign of Terror from ever being fully excavated, mourned, or solved; the FBI’s investigation, though not quite a sham, was certainly mishandled, and its many failures and shortcomings were covered up in the name of celebrating the Bureau’s success rather than confronting its limitations and its disregard for actually uncovering the whole truth.
In examining the corrupt foundations not just of American institutions, but of American culture at large, Grann provides a context for the vitriol many Americans felt towards the Osage once their tribe came into a great deal of wealth. Entitlement to Native lands, greed for the Osage’s tribal wealth, and institutional corruption that allowed for the annihilation of a culture that had flourished in spite of centuries of oppression are, according to Grann, ugly truths with which America must reckon if the country is ever to repair the evils of its still-broken societal structures and legal institutions.
American Entitlement, Greed, and Corruption ThemeTracker
American Entitlement, Greed, and Corruption Quotes in Killers of the Flower Moon
The public had become transfixed by the tribe's prosperity, which belied the images of American Indians that could be traced back to the brutal first contact with whites—the original sin from which the country was born. Reporters tantalized their readers with stories about the “plutocratic Osage” and the “red millionaires,” with their brick-and-terra-cotta mansions and chandeliers, with their diamond rings and fur coats and chauffeured cars. One writer marveled at Osage girls who attended the best boarding schools and wore sumptuous French clothing, as if “une tres jolie demoiselle of the Paris boulevards had inadvertently strayed into this little reservation town.”
At the same time, reporters seized upon any signs of the traditional Osage way of life, which seemed to stir in the public's mind visions of “wild” Indians. One article noted a “circle of expensive automobiles surrounding an open campfire, where the bronzed and brightly blanketed owners are cooking meat in the primitive style.” Another documented a party of Osage arriving at a ceremony for their dances in a private airplane—a scene that “outrivals the ability of the fictionist to portray.” Summing up the public's attitude toward the Osage, the Washington Star said, “That lament, 'Lo the poor Indian,' might appropriately be revised to, 'Ho, the rich redskin.”'
Lizzie relied on Mollie to deal with the authorities. During Lizzie's lifetime, the Osage had become dramatically unmoored from their traditions. Louis F. Burns, an Osage historian, wrote that after oil was discovered, the tribe had been “set adrift in a strange world,” adding, “There was nothing familiar to clutch and stay afloat in the world of white man's wealth.” In the old days, an Osage clan, which included a group known as the Travelers in the Mist, would take the lead whenever the tribe was undergoing sudden changes or venturing into unfamiliar realms. Mollie, though she often felt bewildered by the upheaval around her took the lead for her family—a modern traveler in the mist. She spoke English and was married to a white man, and she had not succumbed to the temptations that had hurt many young members of the tribe, including Anna. To some Osage, especially elders like Lizzie, oil was a cursed blessing. “Some day this oil will go and there will be no more fat checks every few months from the Great White Father,” a chief of the Osage said in 1928. “There'll be no fine motorcars and new clothes. Then I know my people will be happier.”
The Osage had been assured by the U.S. government that their Kansas territory would remain their home forever but before long they were under siege from settlers. Among them was the family of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who later wrote Little House on the Prairie based on her experiences. “Why don't you like Indians, Ma?” Laura asks her mother in one scene.
“I just don't like them; and don't lick your fingers, Laura.”
“This is Indian country, isn't it?” Laura said. “What did we come to their country for, if you don't like them?”
One evening, Laura's father explains to her that the government will soon make the Osage move away: “That's why we're here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick.”
Though, in the book, the Ingallses leave the reservation under threat of being removed by soldiers, many squatters began to take the land by force. In 1870, the Osage-expelled from their lodges, their graves plundered-agreed to sell their Kansas lands to settlers for $1.25 an acre. Nevertheless, impatient settlers massacred several of the Osage, mutilating their bodies and scalping them. An Indian Affairs agent said, “The question will suggest itself, which of these people are the savages?”
The accounts rarely, if ever, mentioned that numerous Osage had skillfully invested their money or that some of the spending by the Osage might have reflected ancestral customs that linked grand displays of generosity with tribal stature. Certainly during the Roaring Twenties, a time marked by what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “the greatest, gaudiest spree in history,” the Osage were not alone in their profligacy. [An] oil baron [named Marlan] who found the Burbank field had built a twenty-two-room mansion in Ponca City, then abandoned it for an even bigger one. With an interior modeled after the fourteenth-century Palazzo Davanzati in Florence, the house had fifty-five rooms (including a ballroom with a gold-leaf ceiling and Waterford crystal chandeliers), twelve bathrooms, seven fireplaces, three kitchens, and an elevator lined with buffalo skin. The grounds contained a swimming pool and polo fields and a golf course and five lakes with islands. When questioned about this excess, Marland was unapologetic.
When Hoover met with White, his grip on power remained tenuous, and he was suddenly confronting the one thing that he'd done everything to avoid since becoming director: a scandal. The situation in Oklahoma, Hoover believed, was “acute and delicate.” Even a whiff of misconduct coming so soon after Teapot Dome could end his career. Only weeks earlier, he'd sent a “confidential” memo to White and other special agents, stating, “This Bureau cannot afford to have a public scandal visited upon it.”
As White listened to Hoover, it became evident why he'd been summoned. Hoover needed White—one of his few experienced agents, one of the Cowboys—to resolve the case of the Osage murders and thereby protect Hoover's job. “I want you,” Hoover said, to “direct the investigation.”
This so-called Indian business, as White discovered, was an elaborate criminal operation, in which various sectors of society were complicit. The crooked guardians and administrators of Osage estates were typically among the most prominent white citizens: businessmen and ranchers and lawyers and politicians. So were the lawmen and prosecutors and judges who facilitated and concealed the swindling (and, sometimes, acted as guardians and administrators themselves). In 1924, the Indian Rights Association, which defended the interests of indigenous communities, conducted an investigation into what it described as “an orgy of graft and exploitation.” The group documented how rich Indians in Oklahoma were being “shamelessly and openly robbed in a scientific and ruthless manner” and how guardianships were “the plums to be distributed to the faithful friends of the judges as a reward for their support at the polls.” […] An Osage, speaking to a reporter about the guardians, stated, “Your money draws 'em and you're absolutely helpless. They have all the law and all the machinery on their side. Tell everybody, when you write your story, that they're scalping our souls out here.”
White and his men felt a growing sense of progress. A Justice Department prosecutor sent Hoover a note, saying that in the few months since White had assumed command of the investigation, "many new angles of these cases were successfully developed" and a "new and enthusiastic spirit seemed to pervade the hearts of all of us."
Still, White faced the same problem with the investigation of Mollie Burkhart's murdered family that he did with his inquiry into Roan's death. There was no physical evidence or witnesses to prove that Hale had carried out or ordered any of the killings. And without an airtight case White knew that he'd never be able to bring down this man [Hale] who hid behind layers of respectability—who called himself the Reverend—and who used a network of patronage to influence the sheriff's office, prosecutors, judges, and some of the highest state officials.
White was feeling pressure not just from Hoover. In the short time that White had been on the case, he had seen the lights burning each night around the homes of the Osage, and seen that members of the community wouldn't let their children go into town alone, and seen more and more residents selling their homes and moving to distant states or even other countries like Mexico and Canada. (Later one Osage called it a “diaspora.”) The desperation of the Osage was unmistakable, as was their skepticism toward the investigation. What had the U.S. government done for them? Why did they, unlike other Americans, have to use their own money to fund a Justice Department investigation? Why had nobody been arrested? An Osage chief said, “I made peace with the white man and lay down my arms never to take them up again and now I and my fellow tribesmen must suffer.”
According to his sworn statement and other testimony, sometime in early 1923 Grammer told Ramsey that Hale had “a little job he wanted done.” When Ramsey asked what it was, Grammer said that Hale needed an Indian knocked off. Ramsey, who referred to the plot as “the state of the game,” eventually agreed, and he lured Roan down into the canyon, promising him whiskey. “We sat on the running board of his car and drank,” Ramsey recounted. “The Indian then got in his car to leave, and I then shot him in the back of the head. I suppose I was within a foot or two of him when I shot him. I then went back to my car and drove to Fairfax.”
White observed the way Ramsey kept saying “the Indian,” rather than Roan's name. As if to justify his crime, Ramsey said that even now “white people in Oklahoma thought no more of killing an Indian than they did in 1724.”
Despite the brutality of the crimes, many whites did not mask their enthusiasm for the lurid story. OSAGE INDIAN KILLING CONSPIRACY THRILLS, declared the Reno Evening Gazette. Under the headline OLD WILD WEST STILL LIVES IN LAND OF OSAGE MURDERS, a wire service sent out a nationwide bulletin that the story, “however depressing, is nevertheless blown through with a breath of the romantic, devil-may-care frontier west that we thought was gone. And it is an amazing story, too. So amazing that at first you wonder if it can possibly have happened in modern, twentieth-century America.” A newsreel about the murders, titled “The Tragedy of the Osage Hills,” was shown at cinemas. “The true history of the most baffling series of murders in the annals of crime,” a handbill for the show said.
For Hoover, the Osage murder investigation became a showcase for the modern bureau. As he had hoped, the case demonstrated to many around the country the need for a national, more professional, scientifically skilled force. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote of the murders, “Sheriffs investigated and did nothing. State's Attorneys investigated and did nothing. The Attorney General investigated and did nothing. It was only when the Government sent Department of Justice agents into the Osage country that law became a thing of majesty.”
Hoover was careful not to disclose the bureau's earlier bungling. He did not reveal that Blackie Thompson had escaped under the bureau's watch and killed a policeman, or that because of so many false starts in the probe other murders had occurred. Instead, Hoover created a pristine origin story, a founding mythology in which the bureau, under his direction, had emerged from lawlessness and overcome the last wild American frontier.
There was another dramatic change in Mollie's life. She and the Osage had fought to end the corrupt system of guardianships, and on April 21, 1931, a court ruled that Mollie was no longer a ward of the state: “IT IS FURTHER ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED BY THE COURT, that the said Mollie Burkhart, Osage Allottee No. 285, ... is hereby restored to competency, and the order heretofore made adjudging her to be an incompetent person is hereby vacated.” At forty-four, Mollie could finally spend her money as she pleased, and was recognized as a full-fledged American citizen.
Hoover ensured that the identity of the bureau was indistinguishable from his own. And while presidents came and went, this bureaucrat, now thick around the waist and with jowls like a bulldog, remained. “I looked up and there was J. Edgar Hoover on his balcony, high and distant and quiet, watching with his misty kingdom behind him, going on from President to President and decade to decade,” a reporter for Life magazine wrote. The many details of Hoover's abuses of power would not be made public until after his death, in 1972, and despite White's perceptiveness, he was blind to the boss man's megalomania, his politicization of the bureau, and his paranoid plots against an ever-growing list of perceived enemies, among them American Indian activists.
By the time Margie drove on, the prairie was shrouded in the dark of night. Only the beams from the headlights illuminated the dusty road. Margie said that her parents first told her what Ernest and Hale had done when she was a child. “l used to worry whenever I did something naughty, ‘What if I'm the bad seed?’” Margie recalled. She said that occasionally The FBI Story would air on local television, and she and her family would watch it and cry.
As she spoke, I realized that the Reign of Terror had ravaged—still ravaged—
generations. A great-grandson of Henry Roan's once spoke of the legacy of the murders: “I think somewhere it is in the back of our minds. We may not realize it, but it is there, especially if it was a family member that was killed. You just have it in the back of your head that you don't trust anybody.”
Though the bureau estimated that there were twenty-four Osage murders, the real number was undoubtedly higher. The bureau closed its investigation after catching Hale and his henchmen. But at least some at the bureau knew that there were many more homicides that had been systematically covered up, evading their efforts of detection. An agent described, in a report, just one of the ways the killers did this: “ln connection with the mysterious deaths of a large number of Indians, the perpetrators of the crime would get an Indian intoxicated, have a doctor examine him and pronounce him intoxicated, following which a morphine hypodermic would be injected into the Indian, and after the doctor's departure the [killers] would inject an enormous amount of morphine under the armpit of the drunken Indian, which would result in his death. The doctor's certificate would subsequently read ‘death from alcoholic poison.’” Other observers in Osage County noted that suspicious deaths were routinely, and falsely, attributed to “consumption,” “wasting illness,” or “causes unknown.” Scholars and investigators who have since looked into the murders believe that the Osage death toll was in the scores, if not the hundreds.
In cases where perpetrators of crimes against humanity elude justice in their time, history can often provide at least some final accounting, forensically documenting the murders and exposing the transgressors. Yet so many of the murders of the Osage were so well concealed that such an outcome is no longer possible. In most cases, the families of the victims have no sense of resolution. Many descendants carry out their own private investigations, which have no end. They live with doubts, suspecting dead relatives or old family friends or guardians—some of whom might be guilty and some of whom might be innocent.