Did you know that the people of the Osage Nation were, on a per capita basis, the wealthiest on Earth in the early 20th century?
Their story of good fortune turned horribly wrong, and the investigation by a young J. Edgar Hoover of what became known as the four-year Reign of Terror against the Osage forms the core of “Killers of the Flower Moon” (Vintage), a true story by investigative journalist David Grann.
First published in 2017, it’s time to revisit Grann’s riveting account, to prepare for a motion picture based on his book, directed by Martin Scorsese, and scheduled for release on Oct. 6.
The story centers around the family of Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman married to a white man, Ernest Burkhart. When Mollie’s sister, Anna Brown, is found brutally slain after a mysterious disappearance, Mollie vows to bring her sister’s killer to justice. Over time, Anna is just one of many victims of shootings, stabbings and suspected deaths by poisoning of Osage tribe members and their allies in and around the city of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, county seat of Osage County and the epicenter of Osage wealth.
The Osage became super-rich by accident. Shuffled from reservation to reservation, the tribe was finally resettled on a vast tract of land that was considered useless for habitation by settlers or for any other economic purpose.
The Osage were not only granted the right to live on the land, but retained the mineral rights as well. Ironically, Osage Nation was sitting atop the largest oil deposits in the United States, and those fortunate enough to be tribe members in good standing were granted “headrights” — the right to receive a quarterly distribution of the fees charged for increasingly valuable oil leases.
The wealth that flowed to the Osage was staggering; $30 million dollars in 1923 alone, more than $400 million in today’s dollars.
The popular press was filled with stories of the good fortune of these newly minted millionaires, building mansions in the wild country of Oklahoma and tooling around in their limousines. As Grann conveys in dark detail, their wealth soon magnified the indignities they suffered; acts of jealousy, fraud, hatred, exploitation, violence and murder.
Wealth notwithstanding, the Osage found it nearly impossible to achieve justice. Grann documents the graft and corruption that pervaded every level of state, local and federal government; perpetrators of crimes against the Osage had little to no fear of reprisal from a legal system rife with patronage, bribery and loyalty to powerful business interests.
Congress passed a law requiring any Osage of half or more Indian ancestry to be appointed a guardian until proving “competency,” placing the control of much Osage wealth in the hands of individuals who did not have their best interests at heart.
Although it soon became apparent that the Osage were being systematically eliminated as part of a scheme to steal their headrights, local law enforcement showed little interest in looking into the matter.
Grann notes that the Osage were forced to pay private investigators — many of whom were corrupt and in on the grab for Osage wealth — to work the cases.
It was not until the situation came to the attention of a young J. Edgar Hoover, head of the then-named Bureau of Investigation, that his team cracks the case, resulting in the conviction of those responsible for over two dozen killings.
Justice is done...or is it?
Grann wondered about Hoover’s eagerness to declare victory and hastily close one of the first high-profile murder cases solved by his agency, a case that helped him make his bones as a resolute crime fighter. So Grann dug deeper, and what he uncovered only serves to amplify outrage and indignation about this shameful chapter in our history.