Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

IMG_5938I’ve been trying to diversify my 2018 reading list with this historical non-fiction when I picked it up. I had seen the cover around, which, to my lizard brain, means that it must be kind of good. But I wasn’t expecting how quickly I became invested in the story. Usually history-based novels drag on for me. I checked out The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore last year, but never finished it (admittedly I would read it close to bedtime, which was a mistake).

Killers of the Flower Moon is told in three parts. The first two parts tell about the Osage murders and the trial. In the 1920s, oil was discovered on the Osage reservation, making them rich overnight. But then several Osage are found dead in the course of a few years. Local law enforcement investigations turn up nothing, and mourning families hire private eye investigators who are also unsuccessful. J. Edgar Hoover, director of the new Bureau of Investigation, trying to establish credibility for his organization and a evidence-based methodology, sends Texan Tom White and a small team to pick up the investigation. The story reads like a crime drama as we see the different story lines unfold as White tries to understand the evidence and uncover the deem racism and corruption on the reservation, eventually leading to a publicized trials, compared to the Scopes monkey trials by contemporary newspapers.

Then the third part changes the tone and direction of the book as Grann declares himself the narrator and continues the investigation in our time. Much of the original evidence has been destroyed, but there are still a few pieces of history that linger and suggest the original criminals convicted were only part of a greater, darker system.

The book doesn’t shy away from the atrocities committed against the Osages. Many of them had no control over their own money because the government appointed “guardians” (usually local white males) to take care of their fortunes, often leading to exploitation, and at the trial, a male, white jury had a difficult time sentencing a white male to death, even though the evidence seemed solid. The prejudice the Osage faced is never justified, just displayed for us to contemplate. I’d never heard about these murders before reading Killers of the Flower Moon, but they seem to represent a greater trend of American treatment of Native Americans. Overall, a well-written, well-researched book that never tries to cleanse the history, instead focusing on the victims and their losses.

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