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Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
“History,” write David Grann in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “is a merciless judge.” Not exactly something we don’t know, but also something we need to be reminded from time to time.
Because we tend to forget – much too often – that history is written by the winners and the great men and that, as Lord Acton once quipped, “great men are almost always bad men.”
Grann’s research – which reads as if a novel – shows to what extent.
Who Should Read “Killers of the Flower Moon”? And Why?
“Killers of the Flower Moon” documents one of the most ignoble chapters in the white men’s treatment of the Native Americans.
And, as you know by now, there are thousands of them.
So, read it whoever you are.
Especially if you are a United States citizen.
Not because it’s a brilliant nonfiction book, seductive as a detective novel, but because, from time to time, it’s good to remind yourself of the sins of our predecessors.
It’s both a humbling and revelatory experience.
About David Grann
David Grann is an American journalist and best-selling author, who “inspires a devotion in readers that can border on the obsessive.”
His debut book, “The Lost City of Z,” was published in 2009 and just last year it was turned into a haunting James Gray movie which found its way in many critics’ Top 10 lists.
A year later, Grann followed the success with “The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession,” a collection of 12 essays, four of which are either filmed or about to be filmed.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is so far his last book. It was a finalist for the National Book Award.
“Killers of the Flower Moon PDF Summary”
When George Catlin, the 19th-century painter who specialized in portraits of Native Americans, first saw an Osage Indian back in 1835, he noted that the Osage must be “the finest example of physical beauty, Indian or white, I have ever seen.”
This words merely echoed those of President Thomas Jefferson, who, upon buying the land they inhabited from the French some thirty years earlier, promised the Osage that “they shall know our nation only as friends and benefactors.”
In between – the Osage lost almost everything they had, stripped from a land of 100 million acres to a parcel of four million acres.
Once again they were promised that this land would be theirs forever.
And then – even that promise was broken.
Because, let’s face it, the history of the United States is a history of injustice. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the African-Americans, the Latinos, or the Native Americans.
They were all treated as lower beings for centuries.
In fact, at one point in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” awaiting the trial of an obvious murder of his tribe, one Osage chief comments thus:
It is a question in my mind whether this jury is considering a murder case or not. The question for them to decide is whether a white man killing an Osage is murder—or merely cruelty to animals.
In the 1920s – it was the latter.
As always – because of money.
You see, once the Osage had no option but to sell their original country, they used the money to buy themselves a new one – Osage County, Oklahoma.
It was “hilly and unsuited for cultivation,” so they bought it cheap and made a deal that everything on (and in) this land (“oil, gas, coal or other minerals”) will forever belong to them.
No one even bothered to argue with them at the time. However, what no one but the Osage knew was the great secret of the land: there was oil under the rocks.
And a lot of it!
So, the tall and beautiful and pushed-around Osage Indians went from rags to riches in no time!
By the 1920s, in fact, they had so much money that they were considered the far and wide richest nation per capita in the world.
Now how can that be? – thought the whites.
After all, they are not white.
So, the federal government invented a law by which no Osage Indian is competent enough to deal with so much money.
In other words, according to the Congress, each Osage Indian had to have a guardian to oversee how he or she spends his or her money.
In other words – that money had to somehow go back to the pockets of the whites.
And you already know that they somehow will.
Just think about it:
If you were an Osage woman at the time, a guardian basically meant a white husband. And if you were a white husband who has married an Osage woman, you can, by law, earn back the oil-rich land (ostensibly irretrievably in Osage property) if, say, something happens to your wife.
Hmmmm… now, how can anything go wrong for the Osage Indians here?
It went terribly, terribly wrong.
In a very short period of time, dozens of Osage Indians were killed or died in mysterious circumstances. And the same happened to few of the investigators who bothered trying to find out what might have led to the deaths of the wealthy Osage inheritors.
Journalists, always great with inventing colorful phrases, started talking about “The Osage Reign of Terror.”
The Osage Indians, on the other hand, started talking about what they could do to keep their heads on their shoulders.
The problem was – they didn’t know who to believe but themselves.
Finally, they saw no other option but enlisting the help of a guy named Barney McBride, a white oilman in the area, a sincere friend of the Osage Indians.
The Osage chiefs asked from McBride to go to Washington D.C. and plead for help in their name.
McBride went – carrying nothing more but a Bible and a pistol. The very night he arrived in Washington, he was abducted and stabbed at least 20 times.
It was now just too obvious.
The Washington Post title said succinctly what everyone was implicitly aware:
“Conspiracy Believed to Kill Rich Indians.”
A job for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, at the time a group of largely inept agents who were used to bending the laws they were supposed to protect.
Hell, they were not even Federal – they were just BI!
And the man who added the F and the respect to that: J. Edgar Hoover.
Now, you may know the guy from his later years as a sort of an American Göring, but in these early days, he was a Dick Tracy before the comic came out and a forensics pioneer.
And the Osage Murders – specifically that of the Kyle family – were his (and FBI’s) first murder case.
Hoover chose Tom White, a Texan, to spearhead the operation. White put a nice, little team and the team went undercover.
Two years later, they cracked the case wide open.
The man in charge of at least some of the Osage murders – William Hale, the self-styled “King of the Osage Hills.”
He had migrated from Texas to Osage County with his nephews, Ernest and Bryan Burkhart, to find some jobs in the oil fields. Amazed at the fairytale-like wealth of the Osage people, he quickly devised a plan.
First, he persuaded Ernest to marry Mollie Kyle, one of four wealthy sisters who married white men. Then, he started planning the murders of each of the future inheritors one by one, kind-hearts-and-coronets style. Finally, he started getting rid of all the witnesses and investigators.
Fortunately, the FBI saved the life of Mollie – since she was already being poisoned at the time.
Unfortunately, William Hale was convicted of only one murder and was paroled in 1947.
In addition, many of the murders remain unexplained to this very day.
So, it is quite possible that some rich white people somewhere in the United States today are actually nephews of Osage thieves and murderers.
Key Lessons from “Killers of the Flower Moon”
1. Where There’s Oil, There’s Money; and Where There’s a Lot of Money, There Are Murders
2. How to Earn Yourself an Oil Field: A Lesson from William Hale’s Notebook
3. “This Land Is Saturated with Blood”
Where There’s Oil, There’s Money; and Where There’s a Lot of Money, There Are Murders
According to contemporary reports, the Osage people were the most magnificent examples of Native American power and beauty. However, just like all the other Native American tribes, they too were stripped of their land.
Fortunately, they had enough money to buy themselves another one – which only they knew had a lot of oil under it. They negotiated a “finders-keepers” agreement with the government before buying the land, and suddenly, they were the richest people in America.
The whites couldn’t bear this, so they invented a law which made the words “Osage” and “incompetent” synonymous, forcing each Osage Indian to have a white guardian/manager of his money.
A (preplanned) recipe for massacre.
How to Earn Yourself an Oil Field: A Lesson from William Hale’s Notebook
William Hale was a U.S. cattleman who made himself a fortune by raising cattle. However, he wanted to earn a much bigger fortune, so he convinced his nephew to marry an Osage Indian, Mollie Kyle.
She was very, very rich – since the oil in Osage County was by law Osage property exclusively. And she was an Osage.
Then, he started eliminating everyone in her family – sisters, mother, cousin… Because that’s how an Osage oil field can become a William Hale’s oil field. In fact, Hale would have killed Mollie as well, but the FBI entered the story before he could poison her.
And Hale was caught and convicted of a single murder.
Later – he was paroled.
Because that’s how justice is done… when you are a white.
“This Land Is Saturated with Blood”
The words in the title are by Mary Jo Webb, an Osage Indian still alive today and still incapable of understanding what happened to the Osage people in the 1920s.
How could she?
Such depraved and dishonorable acts seem too primitive to be done by humans.
Well, for most of history, that was not true.
At least, not if you were white and you knew you can get away with it since you will always have the law on your side.
As an Indian Affairs agent, quoted by Grann says:
The question will suggest itself, which of these people are the savages?
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“Killers of the Flower Moon Quotes”
Our Critical Review
Killers of the Flower Moon” is – as a “Publishers Weekly” reviewer wrote – “a gripping true-crime narrative, which revisits a baffling and frightening—and relatively unknown—spree of murders occurring mostly in Oklahoma during the 1920s.
So, it’s both fascinating as a work of non-fiction and alluring as a novel.
The best of both worlds.
Read it as soon as you can.
That way, you’ll be able to tell your friends that you know the ending of the upcoming Scorsese/DiCaprio movie – which we are eagerly awaiting.
There will be soon (we know it will be) an exceptional Academy-Award-nominated movie adaption of “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
So, what are you waiting for?