David Grann has a knack for writing about what few people know about; with Killers of the Flower Moon, he highlights a nearly forgotten crime in Oklahoma dealing with Native Americans and their unfair treatment. When the Osage were moved to Oklahoma in the early 1920s, the unexpected find of oil on their reservation made them the wealthiest Native American tribe in America. Soon the Osage were building grand homes and hiring chauffeurs to drive them to the grocery store.They had such wealth that if one of their automobiles broke, they wouldn’t bother to repair it. They would buy another.
This boon, however, brought what the Osage have come to call the “Reign of Terror” – tribe members were dying at a fantastic rate. Healthy members of the tribe would suddenly sicken and die; others died in suspicious automobile accidents while some were murdered individually or in grandiose and fiery explosions. When the local authorities provided no help, the tribe appealed to the federal government for assistance.
Herbert Hoover, the young director of the FBI, knew the Osage case had the potential to make or break his agency, and he sent a former Texas Ranger, Tom White, to lead the investigation. Unlike Hoover’s college educated agents, White was more a do-er than a thinker. It is due to his tenacious and dogged work that the case was resolved. What he found was a conspiracy to steal the headrights from the Osage. At the center of it all was one man well known to Oklahomans and the Osage alike.
William “Bill” Hale, known as “King of the Osage Hills,” had an ability to manipulate and cajole the Osage and his own family that made him a classic example of a modern sociopath. He thought nothing of the Osage and saw them as a means to an end – namely the headrights to their land, at the time worth the equivalent of $1 million dollars for each tribe member. Hale bullied and bought people off as he saw fit, and it was only through hard detective work that White was ever even able to put him on trial.
White resorted to what the agency now calls standard procedure to bring the case together, including recruiting people from outside the area to do undercover investigations among the citizens. By meticulously noting dates, times, locations and the such of the local traffic, the agents were able to bring some of the people responsible to justice, including the King of the Osage Hills himself. What makes this tragedy more heartbreaking is the implication that this one case, documented by the FBI as one of its first and most important cases, is only a harbinger of many more unknown cases lost in the mists of time. Just how many Osage were murdered for their money remains an unknown that haunts the legacy of Oklahoma and the FBI both. Grann’s book is a powerful document of how easily people can take advantage of circumstances and how it takes perseverance to prosecute some offenders.
— review by Raul M. Chapa, First Floor Inventory Manager