Something New…White People Behaving Badly

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Title: Killers of the Flower Moon

Rating: 3 Stars

As a practice, I try to write my thoughts on a book within a day or two of reading it. For the last week, I’ve been on vacation where I did not have time to write, so I’ll have to make an exception here. I actually read this book early last week. We’ll see how it goes.

Grann’s book explores yet another dark chapter in the history of white people doing bad things to indigenous people. The Osage once populated a large chunk of the Midwest. Over time, they were forced onto reservations. Ultimately, they ended up in a pretty forsaken part of Oklahoma. Early in the twentieth century, oil was discovered on their land. They’d previously negotiated to keep their mineral rights. By doing so, the Osage, which owned the land communally, became extremely wealthy extremely quickly.

The government could not leave well enough alone. They decided that the Osage did not have the mental ability to manage their money themselves, so they appointed white caretakers to manage their money for them. Even though they were all wealthy, they had to go to a white man to ask them for even the smallest amount of money.

And then, even more mysteriously, the Osage began to die prematurely. Some of them were found shot. While they were sleeping, a couple’s house was destroyed by an explosion. Several other Osage simply wasted away and died.

In vain, they appealed to the local authorities for help. Either through neglect or incompetence, nothing was done to solve the murders or to prevent additional murders. Ultimately, the Osage appealed to the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation for help.

At that time, the FBI was full of bright young Hoover approved college students that knew nothing about crime fighting and a bunch of rugged old cowboys (formerly Texas Rangers) that did not fit the mold of an FBI agent but actually knew how to solve crimes. Hoover bowed to the inevitable and sent off one of the cowboys to Oklahoma.

Despite local opposition, ultimately, the FBI was able to prove that one of the local leaders, William Hale, had persuaded his nephew to marry one of the local Osage women. Hale then arranged for two of the woman’s sisters and her mother to be murdered so that his nephew, via his marriage, would have control of a significant share of the Osage wealth. Ultimately, the nephew confessed and Hale was convicted of the crime.

The notoriety of the case and its successful conclusion first brought the FBI into the limelight.

However, Grann does not stop there. The murders of the Osage did not stop at Hale. Looking at records, it appears that as many as sixty Osage could have been murdered. Even today, the remnants of the Osage Nation keep boxes of records in the hope that they can be used to prove the murder of their ancestors.

So, why only three stars? Well, I’m beginning to suspect that I just like Grann’s long form articles more than his book length work. I remember only being moderately enthused by the Lost City of Z. However, his long form collection, the Devil & Sherlock Holmes, is a brilliant set of articles on a broad range of subjects.

Here, as with the Lost City of Z, I was only moderately entertained. I did appreciate the amount of research and the story of the FBI agents hunting down Hale. Even though I enjoyed it, it still didn’t seem all that compelling. These were not exactly master criminals. It was a lot of trouble to convict Hale, but that was mostly because of the prejudice in Oklahoma, not to any diabolical genius on Hale’s part.

To me, if you want to read about how the FBI truly hit the national spotlight and made its reputation, check out Bryan Burrough’s Public Enemies. This was a great telling of how the FBI went from inexperienced bumblers to efficient crime fighters.

My other beef with this was the last part of the work where Grann tried to connect the dots of the larger conspiracy. I have no doubt that there was a conspiracy, but there is no documentation smoking gun. There is a lot of doubt and suspicion, but that’s it. Perhaps trying to get to the truth of a matter from a distance of 100 years will inevitably lead to this lack of certainty, but to end the book in this matter seems at best anticlimactic.

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