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Killer of the Flower Moon – Book Review

Author: David GrannAuthor:

David GrannPublisher: Doubleday, Penguin Random House LLC

Copyright: 2017, ISBN: 0385542487

Cover: John Fontana

Reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, August 27, 2017

Summary: Approach this book with a question. Why should we care about the murder of some American Indians in Oklahoma almost a hundred years ago? The answer is here. While this book reads like an historical crime thriller, it is really a sociological study exposing the darkest side of human nature.

Before reading KILLER OF THE FLOWER MOON, if asked when the modern Federal Bureau of Investigation got its start, I would have answered 1934. It was in 1934 that FBI agents were allowed to carry firearms. (Perhaps a better answer would be 1972 when women regained the right to become agents after being banned from the service for forty or so years). As explained in Grann’s absorbing focus on the events in 1924 Oklahoma, a far better answer to the question is in fact 1924. John Edgar Hoover was appointed the sixth Director of what became known as the FBI and immediately put his dubious imprint on the organization. The imprint involved more than just a law enforcement culture. It also molded a public relations style. Law enforcement moved beyond being a mere service. Law enforcement became a profession. Substance morphed into style and substance. Some would say more style than substance, but that’s debatable.

Erick Larson is a master at this type of historical detail recovery. In THUNDERSTRUCK (a murder in England), DEAD WAKE (sinking of the Lusitania), and DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY (mass murder in Chicago), Larson unravels threads linking past and present. Larson takes one incident in history and transports the reader back into the world in which the incident occurred. It is definitely not as easy as it sounds. Yet, David Grann does the same in KILLER OF THE FLOWER MOON. He does a lot more.

From reading this book, a couple of issues come into focus. The most sweeping and broadest is simply the status of democracy in America. What does it mean when non-representative government steps in to run the daily lives of individuals?  In the Osage territory of Oklahoma in 1924, the U. S. Department of Interior, Indian Affairs controlled significant financial aspects of some individual Osage Indians. In effect, wards of the government as it were. The Osage had oil-drilling rights over their property. The government dictated how they could spend their wealth. While this was far greater in scale than the financial management laws enacted by states like Michigan in which the individual’s right to participate in the financial management of their community is nullified, the Osage Indians were curtailed in their individual rights to exercise control over their own wealth.

Another issue arising from Grann’s recounting of the Osage murders is the definition of a crime.  Can the solution, the solving of a crime really be a crime itself? This dilemma arises from our sense of justice. A horse thief is caught with the stolen horse and is hanged on the spot. Retribution, but not necessarily justice. A city administrator alters the water supply of a city to save a few dollars. A few people die. Others are sickened for life. A few low level bureaucrats are charged with a crime. Societal retribution. But justice?

In this book, the question of what constitutes justice arises from the widely held perception that the Federal Bureau of Investigation always “gets it’s man”. In the Osage Indians murders–‘”The ‘Black Curse’ of the Osages’” as Grann quotes from a contemporary Literary Digest article–justice may have literally and figuratively succumbed to style more than substantive fact.

KILLER OF THE FLOWER MOON burrows through the mystery of four inexplicable deaths. The deaths were of individuals having a claim, through their birthright (or head right) as members of the Osage Tribe. The head right was to the revenue from oil drilling on their land: land ceded to them by the American government when the state of Oklahoma was created. The fees, apparently derived primarily through auctions, paid by speculators to set-up drilling rigs was the source of the wealth.  The financial windfall made some members of the Osage community rich. In the 1920s, the Osage “were considered the wealthiest people per capita in the world.” It also made them targets for financial exploitation.
Grann starts his examination at the trailing end of an epidemic of murders. It  started in 1907 and came to a head in 1923 when the Osage tribal Council sought help from the U. S. Department of Justice. The “Osage Reign of Terror” encompassed not only tribal members but the investigators they hired to uncover the forces behind the murders. Grann specifically focuses on one Osage family: the family of Mollie Burkbart.

Mollie’s mother would see two of her children, Minnie and Anna, die under mysterious circumstances. Lizzie, their mother, would die two months after Anna was found shot execution style near the hills of Pawhuska, Oklahoma. She died before her daughter Rita died in a house explosion that also killed Rita’s live-in servant. It would be Rita’s death that help bring in agents of the newly re-organized FBI under J. Edgar Hoover.

Grann goes into fascinating detail of the early FBI crime solving effort. Hoover selected a veteran law enforcement officer to head the Osage investigation. Tom White was a former Texas Ranger. He in turn put together a team of investigators which would foreshadow FBI field operations until Hoover’s death in 1973. As fascinating as the investigative details are in Grann’s book, you get the sense that there was a lot left out. Ultimately, whatever was left out becomes an irritant, not an issue.  Some eighty years later, Grann does a little sleuthing of his own and unravels the real story of the “Osage Reign of Terror” and raises those disturbing questions about representative government and justice. In addition, few in the Osage community escaped being effected by the deaths. Memories of the events are as alive and powerful today as when they were happening.

It seems to me that there are two fundamentals of a viable, functional society. First, a belief in something greater than oneself. It does not have to be a god or God, or a canton of rituals embracing magic or science acknowledging an unknown. There must simply be an acknowledgment that, as John Donne wrote, “no man is an island, entire of it self . . .”.  Second, as codified in the American Revolution and subsequent declaration of democratic principles, every individual is unique and at the same time an imperfect copy of every other individual. In other words, unitary in essence if not form. With this as a backdrop, it is impossible to take away from KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON any conclusion other than a tremendous wrong was committed in the name of justice.

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