Published by Doubleday on April 18, 2017
Genres: True Crime, History
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In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.
Then, one by one, they began to be killed off. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, watched as her family was murdered. Her older sister was shot. Her mother was then slowly poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances.
In this last remnant of the Wild West—where oilmen like J. P. Getty made their fortunes and where desperadoes such as Al Spencer, “the Phantom Terror,” roamed – virtually anyone who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll surpassed more than twenty-four Osage, the newly created F.B.I. took up the case, in what became one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations. But the bureau was then notoriously corrupt and initially bungled the case. Eventually the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try to unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including one of the only Native American agents in the bureau. They infiltrated the region, struggling to adopt the latest modern techniques of detection. Together with the Osage they began to expose one of the most sinister conspiracies in American history.
A true-life murder mystery about one of the most monstrous crimes in American history.
In the 1870s the Osage were forced from their lands in Kansas to Oklahoma, a seemingly useless land. The Osage were in a better position than most tribes. The sold their land in Kansas to the government for a decent price, and so were one of the few nations to actually buy their reservation land. And then oil was discovered on that land and the Osage became some of the richest people in the world. Grann does an excellent job telling us what happened next. The Osage started dying. They were shot, poisoned, left to die after “accidents,” blown up. At least 24, probably closer to three times that number, of the Osage were killed for their oil money. Killed by people they thought loved them. Killed by people who were supposed to be protecting them. Killed by friends. And the doctors, coroners, lawmen, all contributing to covering up the crimes. It wasn’t just a couple mean, greedy people. It was a true conspiracy.
The local lawmen and private detectives were having no luck solving the crimes, probably because at least some of them were actively working against justice. Even a couple of the white men who were truly trying to help the Osage were killed. In comes the FBI. It’s the first big case they’ve handled and J. Edgar Hoover is still a young man, new at the job. He sends Tom White out to take charge of the investigation. White is a good guy and determined to get to the truth. We’ve kind of have two stories here. The devastating, unbelievable Reign of Terror the Osage were living under, and the early development of the FBI, including how the agents felt about Hoover’s dictates. White does eventually get a couple of prosecutions, but Grann contends that that should not have been the end of the investigation. Several of the murders could not be traced back to the convicted men, but he does come up with a couple of theories.
I’ve just started reading non-fiction consistently in the last couple of years. It’s probably no surprise that true crime tends to draw me in. Add the historical background and I’m sold. Grann’s research clearly shows through but it’s not a difficult read. We all know that our country’s treatment of Nations like the Osage was terrible, but a book like this really brings it home—their relative powerlessness, how the system contributed to the deaths described in the book. I can’t imagine.
And the book has lots of photos, which I enjoyed. Reading non-fiction, you know the people are real, but seeing photos of them definitely adds to the experience. I almost wish I had picked this up in paperback instead of borrowing the ebook.