‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ by David Grann
Oil, money, murder and the birth of the FBI
Since it was first drilled in 1859, America’s oil – that dark, viscous sludge of the underground – has come to be a Rorschach test for greed and savagery, a timeless illustration that many of America’s worst instincts are bound up in her insatiable lust for it.
In journalist David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI (Simon & Schuster UK; $39.99), we’re taken back to a forgotten series of murders on a Native American reservation in 1920s Oklahoma. It came to be known as the “reign of terror”. Blood was sacrificed for oil in a stampede of depravity that helped to give birth to the FBI as we know it.
The Osage Nation, native to Louisiana, were pushed from their homeland up to southern Kansas in the early 1800s, buttressing the edges of the Trail of Tears. As settlers sought their new land, they were pushed on again to a rocky, sterile patch of Oklahoma only 70 years later – relocation, trauma and smallpox taking two thirds of their tribe along the way – before, upon resettlement, they were forced to take on the ways of the white man (methods of which will echo uncomfortably in the minds of Australian readers).
The moonscape that became their homeland turned out to be sitting on top of massive deposits of oil. In a matter of decades, the Osage were believed to be the wealthiest people per capita on earth.
Soon enough, the unimaginable good fortune of their small community was diluted into a melting pot of America’s most odious. Hucksters, outlaws, bootleggers, gamblers, greedy suitors, shady gumshoes, corrupt officials, the yellow press and oil barons flocked to the region, searching for a cut of the “Indian business”.
“Few places in the country were as chaotic as Osage County,” Grann writes, “where the unwritten codes of the West, the traditions that bound communities, had unraveled.”
This story’s broken heart is Mollie Burkhart, a full-blooded Osage woman largely raised in the local tongue and custom. After her wayward sister Anna disappeared and was found in a ravine in an execution-style killing in 1921, at least 23 other relatives and friends in the small community turned up dead over a period of a few years.
In a story propelled by the quest for justice, the anarchy of the age is pronounced. “For years after the American Revolution, the public opposed the creation of police departments,” Grann notes, “fearing they would become forces of oppression.” This culture created an “informal system of citizen policing”, leading to competing and colluding interests stifling the case while, as one Osage put it, “they’re scalping our souls out here”.
Grann, a New Yorker staff writer, unfolds the mystery with the deftest of hands, drawing on a wide cast of characters while sprinkling a subtle trail of clues that the reader can only see from over their shoulder. Fully immersed in the plight of the Osage, he pulls off one of the most difficult feats for a writer: standing back to allow the story to tell itself. This is narrative history so good that not only can you not put it down but you also want to hold it aloft and preach to the masses.
With corruption and conspiracy all-pervasive, Washington was compelled to act. The ambitious 29-year-old J Edgar Hoover, trying to build a federal and professional police force (and a name for himself), set up a team of misfits to investigate one of the bureau’s first murder cases.
Led by the charming, understated Texan Tom White, who “found himself wandering through a wilderness of mirrors – his work more akin to espionage than criminal investigation”, the team descended on the area in a bid to pull together the threads of what was effectively a private genocide of the Osage people.
It would be a crime in itself to give any hints as to what was uncovered, but suffice to say that the case cannot be wrapped up neatly with a bow. Grann devotes his third act to “chasing history as it was slipping away”, re-investigating some of the murders with living relatives of the victims. Their lives remain inexorably shaped by the reign of terror, their small nation still bounded by injustice.
Evocatively written and exquisitely paced, Killers of the Flower Moon captures each drop of blood that stained this fraction of a country almost a century ago. But the past is, in fact, the very same country, and it is difficult not to reflect on the book as a parable; gnash over the pervasive nexus of power and private interest; abhor the cruelty of systematic racism; and try to drop a pin on where America all went wrong to understand why, as the author notes, “it always seemed to turn its gospel of enlightenment into a hammer of coercion”.