Regarding his own documentary work, Joshua Oppenheimer once wrote of modern Indonesia; “…I felt I’d wandered into Germany 40 years after the holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power.” I thought about this line as I read Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann. It’s a different time and a different place, perhaps even a different scale of atrocity (at least if you are counting bodies), but each of these stories raised for me the same haunting thought; what must it be like to live one’s life among those that have murdered your loved ones. Oppenheimer’s movies, the Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are set in Indonesia nearly half a century after genocidal policies resulted in the loss of at least half a million lives. Grann’s work is set in Oklahoma, closer to a century century after a wave of killings struck the Osage community, leaving generations to wonder about what really happened? Both stories recount the details of gruesome murder, and both raise questions about life in the wake of atrocity.
I’m also reminded of Anna Rosmus, whose work on the resistance fighters of her hometown uncovered a sordid history of Nazi collaborators well hidden in the town’s oral narratives. She asked enough questions to draw up a violent response from those still tied to that history. I wouldn’t say this was Grann’s focus, but stories like the one he tells have a particularly reflexive quality. Murder on the scale of his story doesn’t rest neatly in past; it haunts the present.
This book is the story of a series of murders carried out in the Osage community of Oklahoma during the 1920s. Grann begins the story by concentrating on a little over 20 murders which would become the focus of an investigation by the FBI. As this was one of the first big cases to be carried out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the book provides insights into the early years of Hoover’s budding new empire. At the same time, the book helps to shed light on one of the darker chapters of Indian-White relations, the long slow looting of Native American communities by outsiders under the policies of General Allotment.
To grasp the events unfolding in this book, you must understand two things: the Osage community had come into control of vast oil fields, and many had been declared incompetent to manage their own estates. To resolve the second of these problems, various white businessmen had been named as trustees and put in charge of the private fortunes belonging to various Osage members. As individual Osage accumulated the proceeds of oil money. It seems that some people found the notion of wealthy natives rather objectionable (a theme often echoed today by those who resent Indian casinos). More importantly, a certain quantity of non-natives found ways of doing something about it, ways of acquiring that wealth for themselves.
At first, the killings seem a bit random, a pair of shootings here, a few mysterious illnesses there. Someone seemed to be killing off a number of Osage, but why? It didn’t help that the first couple investigators to get somewhere were themselves brutally murdered. It helped even less when a bomb was used to kill an Osage couple and their white servant living in the middle of town. Most of the victims knew each other. They had plenty of connections between them. But which ones were the key to the case?
In the end, it was the mysterious ‘wasting’ illnesses that seemed to provide the most representative cases. The medical science necessary to detect poison was not yet widely available, and it certainly wasn’t standard procedure to test for poison in the event of every death. In the midst of the prohibition era, moreover, it was easy enough to attribute poisoning to bad moonshine. So, poisoning could provide a very effective means of killing someone without raising too many suspicions. It was particularly useful for relatives, trustees, and other beneficiaries of life insurance or inheritance policies eager to acquire an Osage headright. Such killings were not only difficult to detect in the day, they are difficult to detect now in the historical record, but as Grann shows, Osage died at an extraordinarily high rate in the 1920s, a rate not fully explained by any other known factors. The FBI wrapped up an investigation of a little over 20 murders. If Grann is right, the number of Osage actually killed in this era is more likely in the hundreds.
Most were killed by relatives, or at least those who’d been hired by them.
I have to admit the specter of so many white marrying into the tribe making friends with Osage for the clear purpose of killing them fills me with a sense of shame. The feeling will pass, of course, for me, but one of the most haunting features of the book is the number of people for whom such feelings clearly will not pass. The final chapters of this book are filled with personal stories those who grew up in the wake of these murders. It’s been nearly a century, yes, but in family terms these are stories about (great) grandparents, great aunts and uncles. These are stories about children who went on to live their own lives and raise their own families knowing that their own parents had been killed by loved ones or trusted neighbors. …and in some cases wondering just who might have been involved?
…or what local businessmen might have profited from these murders?
This kind of violence isn’t contained in one generation, or even two. It haunts a community long after those who participated have passed away. I can’t help thinking part of the horror might lie in the fear that the truth will never be known, that someone’s death could be forever buried in falsehood, which is why books like this are important. They are one means of countering that horror, however inadequate they may be. Grann didn’t stop at the FBI cases. He went on to study murders left unsolved and to explore the causes of deaths that never caught the attention of authorities. He couldn’t always find an explanation, but he does manage to reveal something of the extent of these crimes.
It’s evident that some folks entrusted Grann with the hopes of finding out the truth behind their family tragedies. That must have been quite a weight to carry.
It must have been a far greater weight for those to carry such stories their whole lives.
Postscript: I just wanted to make a couple additional remarks here, regarding the writing style. While Grann is relating a historical narrative, he does so through the lens of a particular woman, Mollie Burkhart, who lost most of her family in ‘reign of terror’, and of the FBI agent, Tom White, who was put in charge of the case. By following the lives of these two people into the story, Grann is able to provide a historical narrative that reads like a murder mystery. Those familiar with the story may know where it’s going, and I’ve shared a portion of that here myself (minus severl significant details), but most of the time this approach leaves the reader to wonder how the pieces will fall together, and to expect that will happen when the main characters put those pieces together themselves. Again, tis is history, but it reads a bit like a murder mystery.
This is an interesting approach to historical narrative, one that should prove helpful in the rather likely event that this is made into a movie.
Grann also fills in a lot of detail as he writes the story. He relates the physical features and demeanor of his characters in this book, much as a fiction writer would. When reading such material, I often find myself wondering where that came from? Is this how someone else described the person in question? Is it the impression Grann gets from looking at their pictures? Some combination? Hard to tell!
I can never decide how I feel about that approach to historical writing. A part of me would like to keep closer to identifiable records, to have the option of checking specific claims about specific source material. Another part of me is just happy to get the story. I can file away the fluffy details and focus on the main story line if the information is worth reading.
…which is definitely the case here.