‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ Unveils a Disturbing Chapter in U.S. History

Imagine living in a community that despite all the wealth one could possibly have, a reign of murderous terror ravages a population and brings suspicions upon all those close to your family. You hear of someone dying mysteriously, being brutally murdered execution style, or assassinated via explosives that traumatizes the neighborhood. Through it all, local law enforcement, private investigators, elected officials, and businessmen whom you thought were upheld the law, left your quest for justice unfulfilled. The victims’ deaths were cast off as accidents or suicides. If you’re picturing those images, don’t imagine yourself in a war-torn country, but northern Oklahoma in the early 1920s in the incredibly oil-rich Osage Hills. Deaths that aren’t only widespread, but orchestrated with systematic intent to rid oil-rich Indians from their holdings and enrich their less-than honorable guardians.

Map of the Osage Indian Reservation (Central Map File, 1824 – 1960, Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1793-1999, National Archives and Records Administration)

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI‘ by David Grann (author of ‘The Lost City of Z’ and ‘White Darkness’) tells the bloody story of the Reign of Terror that gripped the Osage Nation in the early 20th century and the quest of a determined FBI agent, Thomas White, to uncover what he believed was a conspiracy to murder every Indian in the Osage Hills for their wealth. Throughout the book, Grann weaves an intricate narrative binding the intimate stories of families like the Burkharts and Smiths who lost family members to the terror. The grisly details of their demise are not left to the imagination; recounting their execution-style deaths, bodily decomposition, and the inept coroners and lawmen who bungled investigative work. Grann recounts the early history of the Osage Nation and the story of Native Americans forced onto reservations. Appalling conditions and a short-life expectancy were rampant on nearly every reservation. For the Osage though, that all changed in the last decade of the 19th century: oil was discovered on Osage land and everyone on the rolls was entitled to royalties from their headrights.

Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in the Osage Hills region

They became some of the richest people in North America overnight. Oil speculators, wildcatters, and bankers bid for drilling leases under the ‘Million Dollar Elm’ and the sudden rush of investors made the Osage flush with cash. But this wasn’t money that the Osage could spend easily. As wards of the federal government, they were appointed guardians that oversaw their expenses and essentially have them placed on an allowance. The guardianship system was far from perfect; lawyers and bankers routinely took bribes to appoint new heirs to the oil fortunes and imposed draconian restrictions on how much money an Osage Indian could receive monthly. While the richest ethnic group on paper, the Osage were still subjected to the harshest treatment in the reservation.

As the 1920s continued, the death toll continued to climb as more victims were found shot, poisoned, or died so mysteriously that no one could account for their fate. The Osage Tribal Council passed a resolution pleading for help and their response was heard by the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the modern FBI) and its director, J. Edgar Hoover. Local and state law enforcement was too corrupt and disinterested in pursuing the case so Hoover and his federal agency took charge. Thomas White, a seasoned lawman from Texas, was dispatched to Oklahoma to assemble and oversee the investigation into the Osage killing spree. He formed an undercover group composed of John Burger, Frank Smith, and John Wren; all posing as ranchers, cattlemen, and salesmen to ingratiate themselves and find out who or whomever was committing the murders. Evidence and witnesses were difficult to come by; clues were absent, witnesses fuzzy on the details, informants giving false leads, and dead end paper trails. Through an exhaustive search, Tom White and his agents were able to assemble a case that through various witness accounts and tangible evidence on Osage guardianships, a large criminal operation focused on divesting the Osage of their oil livelihoods and eliminating them completely was being conducted systematically.

William K. Hale (Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian)

A variety of businessmen, ranchers, lawmen, politicians, and crooks all had their hands dirty, but who was the ringleader? One name kept reappearing: William Hale, rancher and known to everyone as the ‘King of the Osage Hills.’ Grann’s research delves deeply into sinister operation, connecting the victims’ and suspects’ families together in a dark web of betrayal and greed. The reader feels as though they’re walking alongside Tom White as he searches for clues, or seated in the courtroom as the trials begin. At every page turn, there’s a another twist showing how deep the conspiracy ran from local criminals, to prominent businessmen, to political power brokers in the halls of justice. Grann’s goal isn’t to finally solve a cold case, but to shed light on the truth for everyone who’ve sought it for so long. Grann is meticulous in his writing and travels to the Osage Hills and hears from the survivors and descendants of victims, preserving their haunting stories. What eludes the reader is the final resolution; catharsis for the deed of evil men who tried to obliterate an entire people from their homes.

William Hale, prime suspect and local political kingmaker of the Osage Hills, was tagged as the mastermind behind the murders, with Ernest Burkhart, Burt Lawson, and Blackie Thompson as prize witnesses.

Warrant for William Hale issued by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma (Criminal Case 5660: U.S. versus William K. Hale and John Ramsey, Record Group 21 Records of District Courts of the United States, 1685 – 2009, National Archives and Records Administration) 

The bitter legal battle consumed headlines throughout the Midwestern United States and beyond. White had to contend not only with the rampant corruption of legal officials, but trying to have federal charges brought against the suspects due to the victims being Osage Indians, who were federal government wards with the Office of Indian Affairs, whose parent agency was the Department of the Interior. Agent White’s case nearly fell of the rails on more than one occasion, but the final breakthrough came on June 9, 1926 in a surprise move. Ernest Burkhart (whose sister-in-law Anna Burkhart was one of the first victims) rescinded his ‘not guilty’ plea and changed it to ‘guilty’. He confessed this his uncle, William Hale, had orchestrated the murder plots and that he took part in the conspiracy. The trial raged for another four months as more and more people took the stand and testified for and against the Hale party. On October 29, 1926, the jury handed down a guilty verdict for Hale and sentencing him to prison. Even there, Hale could not escape White; he was made the new warden of the Leavenworth Penitentiary where Hale was to serve out his sentence.

‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ was hard to put down. The narrative unfolded at such an enthralling pace that it was hard to distinguish it from an episode of Criminal Minds. Grann has certainly invested a great deal of time in getting the narrative and facts straight, especially considering that the facts were skewed and buried to the bureau agents in 1925. The greatest lessons that one can take away from the book is that even though criminals can be sent to prison, the pain they inflicted on a family remains with them forever; especially if the legal system that was supposed to safeguard them left their pursuit for justice unfulfilled. Grann interviews some of the victims’ surviving children as they recalled their accounts and the stigma that blighted their families. We sometimes forget that in a country like the United States, we have our own dark historical episodes. We want to forget them, but we can’t and shouldn’t; victims will make sure that we remember their stories and keep them close to our historical memory. For those who survived the Reign of Terror in the Osage Hills, the land will always be saturated with blood.

*The FBI case file containing information releasable under the Freedom of Information Act can be found in their Records Vault*

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