‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

Mary Brennan

In April, millions of tiny flowers spread on the blackjack hills and vast prairies of Osage Territory of Oklahoma. In May, beneath an unnervingly large moon, taller plants begin to creep over the tinier blooms, stealing their light and water. Their petals fall away, and they are buried underground. Therefore, the Osage Indians refer to May as “The Flower-Killing Moon.”

David Grann uses this legend as metaphor for a remarkable exploration of a series of murders against the Osage Tribes in Oklahoma in the 1920s and their importance in the creation of the FBI. The book is at once a meticulous examination of a long-ignored historical era of Osage life and a murder mystery of such complexity it keeps thriller devotees engaged in wonder and disbelief.

There are 24 Osage murders to be solved. They involve individuals shot, poisoned, bombed, strangled. The perpetrators are politicians, city officials, sheriffs, outlaws and jailbirds. The crimes are concealed because criminals can buy protection, intimidate or pay for those who should be convicting them.

All the crimes are committed against the Osage Nation. A single motive is responsible for the them: greed.

A smart choice made in negotiating their new lands gave them ownership of the oil and mineral rights. This fact made the Osage millionaires when oil in massive quantities was discovered on their newly owned land.

Despite their wealth, the Osage were not considered capable of managing their own affairs. They were all controlled by guardians – non-Osage males. They were all victims of the attitudes prevalent at the time that they were not even human beings, Animals were treated more humanly than they.

So many killings were discovered without any convictions that, finally, it was decided that state authorities were so corrupt that federal authorities were given authority to solve the cases.

The newly selected head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, chose his lead investigator, Tom White, to oversee the cases.

White, incorruptible, extremely hardworking and dedicated to finding justice for the victims of the crimes, accepts the assignment. The difficulties and triumphs of his investigations make fascinating reading.

Grann not only completes our need to know the outcomes of the historical case but goes further by following up by searching for present day relatives of the murdered families.

Thus, we learn that present day Osage are no longer millionaires since the recent recession and the changes in oil prices wiped out their advantages. Their social status is improved because they no longer need guardians to be their nursemaids.

The FBI, in the aftermath of the case, became a major political force in American politics. Under the iron rule of Hoover, it became an essential part of law and order, feared as much as admired by many.

Hoover’s obsession with organization and social control became excessive and was used to blackmail politicians and any perceived enemies. His records were destroyed by his secretary because, if publicized, “they would reveal his narrow-minded selfishness, his implacable hatreds and his unlawful destructions.” As one aide said, “If he didn’t like you, he destroyed you.”

With these revelations, it is satisfying to consider his contrast. Tom White, whose tenacity to finding the truth and his dedication to providing justice for the Osage are the heart of Grann’s work. The author is to be applauded for the excellence of his research and the care he demonstrates for his subjects.

A film made from the book, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo Di Caprio. has just been released.

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