David Grann chooses to close out Killers of the Flower Moon with a pained look at the ways in which history often obscures the truth, as much of it is based on a foundation of lies and fabrications. Grann uses the story of the Osage tribe and the Reign of Terror to argue that even though the truth is necessary, healing, and transformative, history—written by the “victors”—often perpetuates harmful and frustrating lies when it ought to liberate, rather than further obscure, the truth.
Killers of the Flower Moon is carefully-reported, chock-full of facts, dates, and names, and is written in such intimate detail as Grann reconstructs events and individuals from the past that it seems, impossibly, as if he were there during the Reign of Terror. Grann’s allegiance to reconstructing history is, in the book’s third and final section, revealed to be not just his duty to his job as a writer and reporter, but in many ways a personal lament about the unfairness of the fact that so much of the truth about the Osage murders has disappeared, lost forever to history and usurped by half-truths and outright lies. “So much is gone now,” Grann writes upon arriving in Osage County for the first time in 2012. He is shocked by how devastated and abandoned the physical landscape is, but soon realizes that this physical desolation metaphorically reflects the ways in which history, records, and collective cultural memory have forgotten the Reign of Terror.
As he connects with modern-day members of the Osage tribe and listens to their stories, he comes to understand just how deeply history has failed them, their ancestors, and even the non-Native victims of the Reign of Terror. A blend of coercion, manipulation, incompetency, and apathy are revealed to be the culprits behind the lack of information available about many of the unsolved murders. When meeting with the granddaughter of W.W. Vaughan—a lawyer killed in the mid-twenties while trying to investigate, on his own, several Osage murders—Grann learns that for many years, members of her family were terrified of investigating the murder further due to the threats they’d received on the occasions they’d tried to obtain more information. Grann takes it upon himself to investigate, on behalf of the members of Vaughan’s family who never felt they could, and ultimately solves the case. When he presents his findings to Vaughan’s granddaughter, he warns her that because of how much time his passed—and how much information remains unavailable—the whole truth may never be discovered, but the woman is so grateful for even a portion of the facts that she breaks down in tears.
Despite its grim nature, Grann comes to understand that his research is a noble and necessary undertaking once he sees how many gaps there are in the historical record. He learns that the fledgling FBI and a slew of private investigators left a trail of spotty records, unsolved case files, and even unprosecuted suspects in their wake. In many cases, investigators would gather enough evidence to indict and even convict someone of murder, but for reasons unknown (Grann suspects bribery, racism, or simple apathy) would refuse to take conclusive action, resulting in the truth—and justice—being lost to history. Grann takes it upon himself to personally investigate as many of these murders as he can, securing at least some measure of truth for the desperate descendants of Osage victims. As the cold case files mount, however, he recognizes that hundreds of murders ranging from 1918 to the mid 1930s will, lamentably, never be solved.
In the end, though Grann is just one man and as such is unable to fully contend with the vast spate of cover-ups, lies, unsolved files, and other half and un-truths left behind by history. As he considers the painful fact that not only has so much related to the Reign of Terror been covered up and swept under the rug, but that, as a result, most Americans aren’t ever taught about the murders, their role in the formation of the FBI, or their present-day consequences, Grann feels overwhelmed and “lost in the mist.” When Mary Jo Webb, a teacher and descendent of a murdered Osage man, reminds Grann of a quote from the Bible—“The blood cries out from the ground,” words God spoke to Cain after Cain killed Abel—Grann is left with the knowledge that though history should be a “merciless” force that lays bare humanity’s “tragic blunders,” sometimes even history does not remain unscathed by people’s cruelty, corruption, and greed.
History, Truth, and Lies ThemeTracker
History, Truth, and Lies Quotes in Killers of the Flower Moon
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.”
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.
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.
The most dramatic photograph in the museum spanned an entire side of the room. Taken at a ceremony in 1924, it was a panoramic view of members of the tribe alongside prominent local white businessmen and leaders. As I scanned the picture, I noticed that a section was missing, as if someone had taken a scissors to it. I asked Red Corn what happened to that part of the photograph. “It's too painful to show,” she said.
When I asked why, she pointed to the blank space and said, “The devil was standing right there.”
She disappeared for a moment, then returned with a small, slightly blurred print of the missing panel: it showed William K. Hale, staring coldly at the camera. The Osage had removed his image, not to forget the murders, as most Americans had, but because they cannot forget.
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.