Wealth corrupts, thoroughly and violently, in David Grann’s remarkable book, “Killers of the Flower Moon.” If you’ve seen the movie, “There Will Be Blood” starring Daniel-Day Lewis, that will give you an idea of the amoral blood lust inspired by the enormous oil reserves uncovered below Osage Indian land in the early 1900s.
Grann’s book is both a murder mystery that tugs you along with the twists and turns of a macabre true story, and also a well-researched history of a disreputable chapter in American life. Surprisingly, It is also uncovers another favorite American activity: a conspiracy whose lingering post traumatic effects extend into today.
Grann briefly traces the history of the Osage people. Over many years they were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands – ultimately landing in Northern Oklahoma. The land held hidden wealth underground, and the Osage wisely negotiated the mineral rights under their land. Once oil production began, the Osage people joined the ranks of the wealthiest on Earth. That wealth brought more disaster.
In the 1920’s, Osage people begin dying, from handguns, poisoning, bludgeoning, and even bombs. The death toll reaches 24. Local and state law enforcement investigate the killings, along with private detectives, including representatives from the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency. They don’t come close to solving the complicated web of killings, and corruption is suspected everywhere.
The story changes when a former Texas Ranger, Tom White, working for a transforming FBI under direction of J. Edgar Hoover, enters the investigation. Hoover tasks White with the seemingly insurmountable problem of solving the murders. White has a reputation for honesty, fairness and an effective personal style. Hoover hopes White’s operation will be a showcase of the new scientific and organizational principles upon which Hoover is founding his new vision of excellence.
The hunt for the killers – and the trials that come – are page-turning suspense, and eventually achieve a sort of resolution. But then Grann leads us to the third section of his book. He continues to dig into the story and considers all the unsolved murders. He reaches some disturbing conclusions about these murders, and ultimately about human nature and the poisoning effects of great wealth.
Racism is a central theme throughout. Americans express much outrage over the Osage wealth and their alleged profligate spending habits. (In fact, their spending habits were no different than anyone else who gains great wealth.) Federal law works against the Osage. Regulations impose financial guardians on American Indians “...who the Department of the Interior deemed ‘incompetent.’”
The alleged incompetence serves as an excuse to restrict the amount of money Osage Indians could receive from the land they owned. The doors are thrown wide-open for corruption from the financial guardians.
Through years of research and some great writing, Grann rescues a forgotten and shocking moment of American history, a moment that stretches into today. This book will have wide appeal, and be a staple on library shelves for years to come.