In summer 2012, New York Times best-selling author David Grann traveled to Pawhuska, OK, at the heart of the Osage Nation, to learn more about the terrible violence visited upon the Osage in the 1920s. At that time, the Osage, the world’s wealthiest people owing to the oil beneath their lands, fell victim to shootings, poisonings, and accidents in what Grann, speaking to LJ by phone, called “one of the most sinister crimes in American history.”
At the Osage Nation Museum, Grann noticed a section missing from a panoramic photograph dating from 1924 showing the Osage together with leading members of the white community. “The devil was standing right there,” explained director Kathryn Red Corn bitterly. Says Grann, “That’s when I really wanted to tell the story.”
Claiming 24 known victims, the Osage case attracted the attention of J. Edgar Hoover’s fledgling Bureau of Investigation and is notable for establishing its reputation. Agents working incognito under the indefatigable Tom White labored to discover the truth, and the greed-soaked villains who murdered innocent people for headrights worth millions emerge here in full, horrific detail.
So it’s all the more astonishing when, toward the end of Killers of the Flower Moon, his thorough and thoroughly heartbreaking account, Grann announces that there was a “deeper, darker, even more terrifying conspiracy, which the bureau had never exposed.” As he reveals after five painstaking years of research, the murders stretched over much more time than first imagined and may have numbered in the hundreds. And many more killers were involved, arrogant in their belief that they would never be caught. “I started by asking who did it,” says Grann wonderingly. “In the end, I was asking, who didn’t?”
Why didn’t Hoover’s investigators pursue the case further? “Hoover was very anxious to wrap up and declare a victory,” explains Grann, who provides an indelible portrait of the young but already power-hungry director. In addition, imagining a single person responsible was simply easier. “The traditional message is that there is some bad figure, the law comes in, and then society returns to normal. It’s far more frightening to imagine that many more were complicit.”
However awful this Reign of Terror, it’s as awful that virtually no one but the Osage remembers it today. Grann suggests two reasons. First, he says, “Hoover used this case to burnish the bureau’s reputation, but over time other cases came along, and this one fell away.” More tragically, the story of the murders was lost for the same reason they could occur: prejudice. Observes Grann, “The Osage told this history, but writers, historians, and journalists at large did not.”
At last it’s being told and with good reason. “I don’t think you can understand the modern formation of this country without understanding an episode like this,” says Grann, adding, “It’s so important that this be a country of laws, which we take for granted.” Most important, the Osage have finally won some measure of justice.
Grann’s writing is so propulsively good that readers will rush through this book, then rear back when they remember that it reports fiercely on a crime against humanity. “What kind of person would do this?” asks one Osage plaintively. “I don’t think you can ever stop asking that question,” responds Grann, who cites the “heart of darkness” that kept the murderers from seeing the Indians as human. He says he’s still shocked by what he discovered. And readers will be, too.—Barbara Hoffert
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