Some were shot execution-style. Others were dispatched with poisoned bootlegged whisky. One couple died when a bomb blew their home to pieces.
Between 1921 and 1925, two dozen members of the Osage tribe in oil-rich northern Oklahoma were murdered. A newsreel that flickered in movie houses across the United States at the time called it "the most baffling series of murders in the annals of crime." Band members still refer to this dark chapter in their history as the "Reign of Terror."
"Like most Americans," admits David Grann, a staff writer with The New Yorker, "when I was in school, I never read about the murders in any books; it was as if these crimes had been excised from history."
In Killers of the Flower Moon, Grann meticulously excavates the lost history of the Osage and the oil boom that made them rich – and, in turn, made them targets. After being driven from their ancestral territory like so many other Native Americans, a few thousand Osage retreated to a tract that seemed too barren to be of interest to rapacious white settlers.
Everything changed during the First World War, when vast oil reserves were discovered under their land. Leases and royalties made band members incredibly wealthy, able to build fine homes and hire white servants. Envious journalists, betraying the bigotry of the times, wrote of the conspicuous consumption of the "red millionaires" and "rich redskins." Rather than change a flat tire, according to one story, an Osage would simply buy a new car.
Money poured in. Tribe members received a total of $30-million (U.S) in 1923 alone (about $400-million in today's terms). White businessmen and outlaws rushed in as well, eager to cash in on the oil boom. Many Osage were not deemed competent to spend their own money, prompting the federal government to appoint prominent white citizens to control their finances as legal guardians – an invitation to theft and fraud that many guardians were unable to pass up.
Then the killings began. Mollie Burkhart, an Osage married to a white man, lost her sister (shot to death), mother (poisoned) and another sister (killed in the house explosion), and barely survived a scheme to poison her insulin injections. The death toll mounted. "The world's richest people per capita," Grann writes, "were becoming the world's most murdered." Local justice officials and private detectives investigated, but proved inept or corrupt.
Enter Tom White, a former Texas Ranger. "An old-style lawman" with "the eerie composure of a gunslinger," as Grann describes him, "he seemed to have sprung from a mythic age." He was blessed with a strong moral compass and an uncanny ability to read people. "He talked like he looked and shot," a colleague recalled, "right on target."
White was overseeing a field office of the federal Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation – the predecessor of the FBI – when J. Edgar Hoover tapped him in 1925 to crack the Osage murders. Hoover, who was more interested in empire-building than justice, hoped the case would burnish the fledgling bureau's reputation.
With the trail cold, White and a team of undercover agents waded into a sea of rumour, lies and false clues. Grann meticulously recreates the investigation, replete with setbacks and stunning breakthroughs, that identified one of the area's leading citizens as the kingpin behind a conspiracy to kill Osage and seize their share of the oil revenue.
Two men were convicted and imprisoned for one of the murders, and strong evidence linked them to several other killings. This was good enough for Hoover. Case closed.
But not for Grann. His last book, The Lost City of Z (the movie version has just hit theatres) is a story of obsession – British explorer Percy Fawcett's quest a century ago to find the ruins of a fabled civilization in remote western Brazil, and the author's determination to trace his subject's journey deep into the Amazon jungle.
This time, Grann was obsessed with finding any cold-case evidence that could still be gleaned from yellowing documents and fading memories. After years of digging into archival records and interviewing descendants of some of those killed, he reached a startling conclusion: Many more Osage, perhaps hundreds, died in a murderous spree that began before 1921 and continued into the Depression era. He even amassed enough evidence to identify one killer who was never prosecuted.
Killers of the Flower Moon is a gripping tale, masterfully told. When murderers escape justice, Grann notes, "history can often provide at least some final accounting." While it's too late to identify, let alone punish, all those who preyed on the Osage, this book ensures these brutal crimes will never again be forgotten.
Dean Jobb's latest book, Empire of Deception, was a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Non-Fiction.