Review: David Grann – “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI”

Lawmen were then still largely amateurs. They rarely attended training academies or steeped themselves in the emerging scientific methods of detection, such as the analysis of fingerprints and blood patterns. Frontier lawmen, in particular, were primarily gunfighters and trackers; they were expected to deter crimes and to apprehend a known gunman alive if possible, dead if necessary. “An officer was then literally the law and nothing but his judgment and his trigger finger stood between him and extermination,” the Tulsa Daily World said in 1928, after the death of a veteran lawman who’d worked in the Osage territory. “It was often a case of a lone man against a pack of cunning devils.” Because these enforcers received pitiful salaries and were prized for being quick draws, it’s not surprising that the boundary between good lawmen and bad lawmen was porous. The leader of the Dalton Gang, an infamous nineteenth-century band of outlaws, once served as the main lawman on the Osage reservation.

What first struck me about this book is how well written it was; short sentences, skirted by the use of a simple language. Reading this book was an easy task, partly because of that, and partly because the contents were so interesting.

The Osage is a native American nation which found oil on their land. After that, the white man rained Hell upon them, partly by creating corrupt laws that made the Osage legally unable to use their money as they should, but also by literally conspiring to kill them in order to be able to get hold of their money. That’s basically how this book starts, and subsequently just escalated and blew my mind again and again.

I mean, stuff like this happened throughout:

Undertakers charged the Osage exorbitant rates for a funeral, trying to gouge them, and this was no exception. The undertaker demanded $1,450 for the casket, $100 for preparing and embalming the body, and $25 for the rental of a hearse. By the time he was done tallying the accessories, including gloves for the grave digger, the total cost was astronomical. As a lawyer in town said, “It was getting so that you could not bury an Osage Indian at a cost of under $6,000”—a sum that, adjusted for inflation, is the equivalent of nearly $80,000 today.

Just imagine that happening to white males; the world would turn on its head. But here? No, the atrocity apartheid exhibition sprawled and murdered on.

According to this book, the Osage behaved like gentlepeople about the entire matter, to little avail. Some times though, things did happen:

By 1877, there were virtually no more American buffalo to hunt—a development hastened by the authorities who encouraged settlers to eradicate the beasts, knowing that, in the words of an army officer, “every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.” U.S. policy toward the tribes shifted from containment to forced assimilation, and officials increasingly tried to turn the Osage into churchgoing, English-speaking, fully clothed tillers of the soil. The government owed the tribe annuity payments for the sale of its Kansas land but refused to distribute them until able-bodied men like Ne-kah-e-se-y took up farming. And even then the government insisted on making the payments in the form of clothing and food rations. An Osage chief complained, “We are not dogs that we should be fed like dogs.” Unaccustomed to the white man’s agricultural methods and deprived of buffalo, the Osage began to go hungry; their bones soon looked as if they might break through their skin. Many members of the tribe died. An Osage delegation, including the chief Wah-Ti-An-Kah, was urgently dispatched to Washington, D.C., to petition the commissioner of Indian Affairs to abolish the ration system. According to an account by John Joseph Mathews, members of the delegation wore their best blankets and leggings, while Wah-Ti-An-Kah wrapped himself in a red blanket so entirely that you could see little more than his eyes, dark wells that burned with an entire history. The delegation went to the commissioner’s office and waited for him. When the commissioner arrived, he informed an interpreter, “Tell these gentlemen that I am sorry that I have another appointment at this time—I am sorry I had forgotten about it until just now.”

As the commissioner tried to leave, Wah-Ti-An-Kah blocked his path to the door and let go of his blanket. To the shock of even his fellow Osage, he was naked, except for his breechcloth and his moccasins, and his face was painted as if he were leading a war party. “He stood there towering like some primitive god of the dark forests,” Mathews wrote. Wah-Ti-An-Kah told the interpreter, “Tell this man to sit down.” When the commissioner complied, Wah-Ti-An-Kah said, “We have come [a] long way to talk about this.” The commissioner said, “Surely this man who doesn’t know how to act—who comes to my office almost naked, with war paint on his face, is not civilized enough to know how to use money.” Wah-Ti-An-Kah said that he was not ashamed of his body, and after he and the delegation pressed their case, the commissioner agreed to end the ration policy. Wah-Ti-An-Kah picked up his blanket and said, “Tell this man it is all right now—he can go.”

And as more and more Osage were dying, in continually greater numbers:

That August, as the number of suspicious deaths continued to climb, many Osage prevailed upon Barney McBride, a wealthy fifty-five-year-old white oilman, to go to Washington, D.C., and ask federal authorities to investigate. McBride had been married to a Creek Indian, now deceased, and was raising his stepdaughter. He had taken a strong interest in Indian affairs in Oklahoma, and he was trusted by the Osage; a reporter described him as a “kind-hearted, white-haired man.” Given that he also knew many officials in Washington, he was considered an ideal messenger. When McBride checked in to a rooming house in the capital, he found a telegram from an associate waiting for him. “Be careful,” it said. McBride carried with him a Bible and a .45-caliber revolver. In the evening, he stopped at the Elks Club to play billiards. When he headed outside, someone seized him and tied a burlap sack tightly over his head. The next morning, McBride’s body was found in a culvert in Maryland. He had been stabbed more than twenty times, his skull had been beaten in, and he had been stripped naked, except for his socks and shoes, in one of which had been left a card with his name. The forensic evidence suggested that there had been more than one assailant, and authorities suspected that his killers had shadowed him from Oklahoma. News of the murder quickly reached Mollie and her family. The killing—which the Washington Post called “the most brutal in crime annals in the District”—appeared to be more than simply a murder. It had the hallmarks of a message, a warning. In a headline, the Post noted what seemed to be increasingly clear: CONSPIRACY BELIEVED TO KILL RICH INDIANS.

This is quite akin to how native Americans in the north of the USA have gone “missing”, i.e. are “disappeared”, to use a fairly modern-day version of the Mexican term; people are simply murdered and gotten rid of.

Reading of how the Osage were basically held captives in their community, waiting to die…

In early March, the dogs in the neighborhood began to die, one after the other; their bodies were found slumped on doorsteps and on the streets. Bill was certain that they’d been poisoned. He and Rita found themselves in the grip of tense silence. He confided in a friend that he didn’t “expect to live very long.”

The book is quite hagiographical where it comes to Tom White, who was first the special agent in charge of the FBI’s field office in Houston, but he seems to deserve it. Upon taking on Hoover’s decree to resolve the Osage murder matter:

White had no doubt what would happen if he didn’t succeed: previous agents on the case had been banished to distant outposts or cast out from the bureau entirely. Hoover had said, “There can be no excuse offered for…failure.” White was also aware that several of those who had tried to catch the killers had themselves been killed. From the moment he walked out of Hoover’s office, he was a marked man.

Lovely. Still, White was quite the Sherlock Holmes where it comes to deduction:

As White strove to be a modern evidence man, he had to learn many new techniques, but the most useful one was timeless: coldly, methodically separating hearsay from facts that he could prove. He didn’t want to hang a man simply because he had constructed a seductive tale. And after years of bumbling, potentially crooked investigations into the Osage murders, White needed to weed out half facts and build an indubitable narrative based on what he called an “unbroken chain of evidence.”

And the violence…

Tom’s sergeant was shot six times by an assailant, while a bystander was struck twice. As the sergeant lay on the ground, bleeding, he asked for a slip of paper and scribbled on it a message for Ranger headquarters: “I am shot all to pieces. Everything quiet.” Somehow, he survived his wounds, but the innocent bystander died.

And the racism…

One skeptical reporter noted, “The attitude of a pioneer cattleman toward the full-blood Indian…is fairly well recognized.” A prominent member of the Osage tribe put the matter more bluntly: “It is a question in my mind whether this jury is considering a murder case or not. The question for them to decide is whether a white man killing an Osage is murder—or merely cruelty to animals.”

Anyway, the book does take turns that I didn’t think of when reading it. I like that in a book.

This is one of the best true-crime books that I’ve read in 2017. I give it 4/5.

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