The Osage murders and the birth of the FBI

by Linda Herrick / 18 July, 2017

President Calvin Coolidge (hat in right hand) meets an Osage delegation at the White House in 1924, with Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Charles Burke. Photo/Getty Images

In David Grann's new book, murder sweeps down the plain in a strange but true saga of Oklahoma’s past.

In the early days of the United States, a missionary described the Osage Indians as “the happiest people in the world … They had a sense of freedom because they didn’t own anything and nothing owned them.” But the Osage lost their freedom in the 1870s when they were driven out of Kansas onto a barren reservation in Oklahoma.

Ironically, massive oil deposits were later discovered there and prospectors had to pay royalties to the tribe: by 1923, their annual income had reached $30 million, which they spent on mansions, aircraft and luxury cars that were often seen parked in circles around campfires.

Their fortunes also made them targets of criminals during the 1920s, when a series of events took place that became known as the Reign of Terror. David Grann, a New Yorker magazine writer whose book The Lost City of Z was recently filmed, spent five years researching a chain of murders that still haunt the Osage. The basic story is horribly gripping, but Grann uncovers new details that extend the range of felonies even further.

Many players feature in this saga, but the book opens with a rich Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, her white husband, Ernest, and his cattleman uncle, William Hale. Mollie has lost a sister to a “peculiar wasting illness” and her mother is also fading. But it’s her other sister, Anna Brown, who sets the narrative in motion: her body is found in a creek, a bullet in the head. Soon, the body count accelerates but investigations by local lawmen fail and potential witnesses keep getting killed.

The murders – shootings, poisonings, bombings – started in 1921. By 1925, J Edgar Hoover, head of the then-Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI), decided he had to act on the “Indian problem” to solidify his empire. He enlisted investigator Tom White, who assembled a covert team based in Oklahoma. “From the moment he walked out of Hoover’s office, he was a marked man,” writes Grann.

The outcome is as dark and strange as any Coen brothers movie, but the story has largely been excised from US history studies. Yet it lives on with the tribe. Grann ends by travelling to Pawhuska, heart of the Osage Nation, where oil income has been supplanted by casinos. There he meets a granddaughter of Mollie and Ernest, and other descendants, and learns about more terrible things, including significant gaps in the FBI files.

And he returns to attend a performance of the ballet Wahzhazhe, a history of the Osage. “At one point,” he writes, “the dancers appeared dressed as flappers … suddenly, they were interrupted by the sounds of an explosion. The music and the dancers became mournful as a succession of funereal dances conveyed the Reign of Terror. One of the mourners, representing X,” – I have omitted the name – “wore a mask to hide his evil.”

This is vivid history writing at its best and “history”, as Grann writes, “is a merciless judge”.

KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON, by David Grann (Simon & Schuster, $37.99)

This article was first published in the June 24, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

Labour MP Meka Whaitiri stripped of ministerial portfolios
96626 2018-09-20 15:50:21Z Politics

Labour MP Meka Whaitiri stripped of ministerial po…

by Jo Moir

Labour MP Meka Whaitiri has been stripped of her ministerial portfolios but remains an MP.

Read more
Is the Government all talk, no action?
96616 2018-09-20 14:22:42Z Politics

Is the Government all talk, no action?

by The Listener

The Ardern Administration knows that consultation and risk-assessment are vital, but there’s such a thing as too much homework.

Read more
Fixing youth mental health is going to take more than money
96608 2018-09-20 12:38:53Z Social issues

Fixing youth mental health is going to take more t…

by Aaron Hendry

You can throw money at the system all you want, but until our youth mental health services are designed to put rangatahi at the centre, they'll fail.

Read more
A new look Mint Cakery brings sweet treats to Ellerslie
96602 2018-09-20 11:38:14Z Auckland Eats

A new look Mint Cakery brings sweet treats to Elle…

by Alex Blackwood

Mint Cakery gets bigger and better, moving from Pt Chev to a sunny space in Ellerslie.

Read more
Golfer Bryson DeChambeau's scientific quest for a consistent swing
96600 2018-09-20 11:33:10Z Sport

Golfer Bryson DeChambeau's scientific quest for a …

by Paul Thomas

Bryson DeChambeau has put himself in the top spot for the FedEx Cup finale at East Lake with a single-minded drive to simplify the game.

Read more
Housing NZ to reimburse hundreds evicted on flawed meth testing
96594 2018-09-20 10:03:55Z Politics

Housing NZ to reimburse hundreds evicted on flawed…

by Jo Moir

Housing NZ has committed to compensating hundreds of tenants it evicted from state homes based on bogus meth testing, some of whom were made homeless.

Read more
Shortland Street is turning into a metaphor for the Trump White House
96588 2018-09-20 09:27:11Z Television

Shortland Street is turning into a metaphor for th…

by Diana Wichtel

An extra night of Shortland Street won’t change the psycho storylines or the mad characters who act without consequence.

Read more
Why GE grass will be the next divisive issue for the coalition Government
96475 2018-09-20 00:00:00Z Politics

Why GE grass will be the next divisive issue for t…

by Jane Clifton

As the Government gropes all over in reports and reviews for answers, it looks like GE grass may not be one.

Read more