Rating: 4 Stars
History books don’t cover all that we ought to know. So thank god for nonfiction literature and for investigative journalists like David Grann. In his stellar hit, Killers of the Flower Moon, he reconstructs an almost forgotten story of criminal conspiracy and racial injustice that should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of the United States.
In 1921, an Osage woman is reported missing and is soon found dead. She isn’t the only one. Within the space of a couple of years, 24 people, mostly Osage, are murdered; some with brutal violence while others were suspected to have died of slow poisoning. Frustrated with their local law enforcement, the terrorized Native American community demands federal intervention. Enter the fledgling Bureau of Investigation, later known as the FBI. What is uncovered is a ruthless plot where the high and low of society are involved in the criminal exploitation of the Osage. If discovering the perpetrators was a Herculean endeavor, obtaining justice for the dead proves to be an even more challenging task.
KotFM is mesmerizing narrative nonfiction that has the pulse and pace of the best crime fiction. I would have liked a little more suspense, but the author telegraphs the key suspects from the onset. Perhaps that’s because this is historical and was widely reported in its day.
Grann covers the story from three main perspectives. One is of the FBI. Blasé as we have now become with the wonders of modern forensic science, this period recalls an age where crime scene investigation was still in its nascency. Adding to that, the wild, wild, west was a place that was fundamentally hostile to federal law enforcement. But the Osage Reign of Terror highlights the nation’s desperate need for agents of the law who were unswayed by local political interests.
This is also the case that brought J. Edgar Hoover to the limelight. While we certainly learn quite a bit about the man who became synonymous with the Agency he directed for several decades, it is an agent called Tom White who represents the human face of the Bureau in its investigation into the Osage murders. In a story of mind-boggling greed and malevolence, White’s integrity and decency shows that the flawed America of that day (and this day) is a multi-faceted place where good and evil exist side by side.
Ultimately, however, it is the story of the Osage that holds center-stage. A people who have been hounded and persecuted for centuries face yet another round of callousness and depraved indifference at the hands of their tormentors. Though the crime might have been solved, justice is not served; not really. When one group of people habitually preyed on another, and habitually faced little to no consequence, there can be no legal redress. We can only hope that somewhere along the way we are learning something from history, as our species wearily inches its way forward.