In the 1920s, a series of mysterious deaths took place among the Osage of Oklahoma. There were shootings, a bombing, and poisonings, many of them within a single family, that of Mollie Burkhart. Mollie, like many of the Osage, had accumulated great wealth, thanks to the oil found on their land. And those who were being killed shared in that wealth, even if, in some cases, they were under the guardianship of white people and couldn’t access it.
Various investigations by local law enforcement and citizens went nowhere, but then the FBI got involved, found the killers, and had them tried and convicted.
David Grann presents this history in a straightforward and compelling manner. There are lots of people involved, and I did eventually have to make a few notes of the relationships between them. The book gets into not just the crimes themselves but also Osage culture at the time and the beginnings of the FBI, which, under J. Edgar Hoover, was just taking shape as the law enforcement agency we know today.
Most of the book is a historical account, but the final third of the book takes a turn, with Grann himself entering the story to describe what he learned that goes beyond the known history. The killings from the period known among the Osage as the “Reign of Terror” may well have gone beyond those that made it into the courts. The death rates among the Osage were statistically much greater than they should have been, and many deaths did not appear to be connected to the killers who were eventually tried and convicted, although they shared the same basic pattern. Hardly any family in the community was untouched.
This is a horrifying tragedy that feels like a continuation of all the tragedies white people inflicted on Native Americans. For the government to take their land, and move them from one place to another was no big deal. So it stands to reason that some white individuals would consider it perfectly acceptable to take Osage lives if it gives them access to oil wealth. Thankfully, the government intervened in the right way this time, but the history sends a message. History always does.