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.

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