“Tell everybody, when you write your story, that they’re scalping our souls out here.”

A review of Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

In some ways, it’s hard to believe that the events David Grann recounts in Killers of the Flower Moon could qualify as nonfiction. There are outlaws, a self-defined ‘king’, incredible wealth, betrayal of the deepest sort and characters straight out of Central Casting. Yet, knowing this nation’s history of its treatment of Native Americans, the murders that took place in 1920s Osage County, Oklahoma, and their aftermath are all too believable. Grann’s account of the cold-blooded killing of dozens of Osage makes for the best kind of nonfiction: true crime that reads as good as a novel, solid history that brings another era to vivid life, and investigative reportage that reveals the past is still very much with us. It’s easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. 

Oklahoma in the 1920s still retained pockets of lawlessness reminiscent of the Old West, including lawmen on the take and community members whose prestige and largesse set them above their peers. Osage County was no different, except for one thing—oil-rich Osage. Originally purchased by Osage who settled the rough land in the hopes the white man would leave them alone, the Osage had had the foresight to retain mineral rights to the land—land which sat atop one of the richest reservoirs of oil in the nation. Each Osage would have a headright that would earn them thousands of dollars—but the headrights could only be inherited. Further complicating the situation, the federal government deemed most Osage ‘incompetent’ in managing their own funds, usually appointing a white individual as guardian—an outrageous system perfect for fleecing the Osage. Nonetheless, by 1923 the Osage collectively earned today’s equivalent of $400 million dollars and newspapers published articles marveling at the images of the Osage with mansions, servants and shiny new Buicks. But then the Osage began dying. Previously fit individuals developed wasting diseases, young women headed out into the night with their boyfriends and never came home. Then bodies are found with bullet holes in their skulls. Rumors began to mount, local investigations went nowhere after witnesses suddenly ‘misremembered’ previously clear accounts, and an explosion blew up the home of one individual who seemed intent on finding justice. It was clear someone very powerful wanted to keep the murders unsolved. A nascent FBI stepped in with a new director, J. Edgar Hoover, intent on proving his organization was no longer a hotbed of corruption and could use modern techniques free from local prejudice. But in order to prove itself, the feds would have to crack the intricate web of plots and counterplots surrounding the Osage, which had risen to over twenty suspicious deaths. 

Grann unwinds the double- and triple-crossing with steady patience, developing his characters with a few strokes that speak volumes about their personalities and place in the story. The family of Mollie Burkhart, a full-blooded Osage married to a white man, seemed particularly targeted, and Grann’s sensitive treatment of their terrible ordeal is heartbreaking. But just as the case appears to be wrapped up, Grann’s investigative skills suggest that there was far more to the Osage killings that previously thought, and justice remains elusive for those still reeling from the loss of their culture. Killers of the Flower Moon may take place in a desolate corner of Oklahoma prairie, but these previously forgotten crimes need to be remembered, and Grann’s entertaining and thoughtful narrative investigation is a start in gaining justice for terrible crimes that still haunt America to this day.