Restraint Helps ‘Killers’ Avoid Exploitation

There are a few key ingredients to many a good thriller: domestic intrigue, large sums of money, poison, explosions, conspiracies, a sympathetic victim at the center, and a dedicated investigator determined to get to the bottom of it all. And a good twist or two. Can’t forget the twists. David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon has all that and more. But here’s the twist: it’s nonfiction. 

Exactly nothing about this review will be funny, so please enjoy this picture of adorable kittens before we dive in. Photo by The Lucky Neko on Unsplash

In the 1910s and 1920s, oil was booming in Oklahoma, and because the Osage tribe owned mineral rights to one of the richest oil fields in the nation, the roaring 20s came for them early. Oil barons could spend literal millions for wells—in 1920s dollars—and that spread to members of the tribe. Tribal members often had cars and big houses and dressed in furs, which was remarkable not because of the cost of those things but because as soon as the magnitude of the wealth flowing toward the tribe became clear, the U.S. government restricted the amount they could withdraw without oversight from a white conservator. They were good times, with only the small and extremely racist asterisk of not being trusted with their own money.

And then the murders started.

Despite the wealth within the community and the greater protection, nutrition, and medical attention it should have afforded its members, the mortality rate among the Osage was one-and-a-half times that of the average white American during this era. Most of the killings were subtle: poisoning moonshine, say, or poison administered in such a way to allow the effects to be confused with a chronic disease like diabetes. But in 1921, killers started getting bolder, with missing community members eventually found with bullets in their head, or thrown off trains naked, or, in one horrifying case, having their house blown up while they were sleeping inside.

The number and dramatic nature of these killings, coupled with the fact that local investigations fizzled out, began to make headlines across the country, eventually catching the attention of a young J. Edgar Hoover, who had just taken over the newly rebranded Federal Bureau of Investigations. Hoover assigned a dogged veteran of the FBI’s precursor, Tom White, to take the case. Given a near-carte blanche provided he solve the case in record time, White recruited a ragtag team of investigators, as well as a few informants of dubious reliability. But as it became quickly apparent that each lead eventually led to a criminal or witness being killed in some strange and convenient way, White and the other investigators began to suspect the web of conspiracy surrounding the killings was far wider than they could have imagined. 

If it sounds like the plot of a blockbuster, you’re absolutely right—watch for the Martin Scorsese-directed film adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro coming at the end of the year. But as much suspense is written into Killers of the Flower Moon (and there’s plenty, thanks to Grann’s skill bringing history to life on the page), the horror that this actually happened, that there were actually (spoiler) multiple people killing tribal members close—sometimes very close—to them, all for money and a sense of outrage that it was being collected by people who were not white, is frankly stomach-turning. And the fact that it’s such recent history, too; the woman whose death provides the opening and title to Killers of the Flower Moon, Anna Brown, died a hundred years ago in May. There are living children of the victims, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren have been raised on these stories. This happened after the invention of the car, of the telephone, of movies. I know plenty of worse things have happened more recently, but the width and breadth of these killings and how many people were either involved or complicit is staggering to this sheltered reader.

Not that this story needs to be worse, but the Osage people were only on that land because the U.S. government kicked them off of their ancestral land. They specifically chose that region of Oklahoma to relocate to because it was very hilly and they figured if it wouldn’t be good farmland, maybe the government and its flood of greedy white people would leave them alone.

Which makes it all the more important that this primarily overlooked chapter of history have some light shed on it. Grann writes about having a similar revulsion to learning about the deaths and the corruption and conspiracy that surrounded them. Many of the most shocking killings were centered in one family, and Grann wisely centers the narrative around them, and a particularly sympathetic woman within it. During a span of a few years, Mollie Burkhart lost her mother, three sisters, a brother-in-law, and would both almost lose her two children and nearly be killed herself. She would also lose her doting husband, Earnest, though not in the way she expected. And because the community was small, the other deaths would reverberate back to her, as well as down the generations to the victims’ and survivors’ descendants still alive today.

The last section of the book is about his experience talking with those descendants of the victims and survivors, and how that era and the wax and wane of oil in the region continues to affect the tribe today. He also uncovers more likely murders that were dismissed as being from “natural causes,” designations given through racism, conspiracy, ignorance about the violence beneath the surface of the community, or some combination thereof. Perhaps most importantly, Grann refrains from letting the most salacious elements of Killers of the Flower Moon run amok. He is sympathetic with the figures involved in the story without letting them feel like caricatures. Both things would be easy and likely even tempting to do, and perhaps some members of the Osage community might feel differently of his treatment of the subject matter. But from an outside perspective, Killers of the Flower Moon is a shocking but respectfully drawn narrative of a tragic chapter in history we’d do well to not forget.

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