How murders in Oklahoma led to the birth of the FBI
Between 1921 and 1926, at least 24 members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma were brutally murdered. The bodies would lay unclaimed and unmourned on the prairies, sometimes for weeks. Detective-work was then in its infancy in the US and, anyway, there was no place for “Injuns” in the American dream of land and plenty for pioneer homesteaders.
The “Osage reign of terror”, as New Yorker writer David Grann terms it in his adrenalin-quickening true crime narrative Killers of the Flower Moon, was to become one of the bloodiest chapters in American legal history. One by one, Osage tribespeople were killed by gunshot, fire or poison. Money was thought to be involved. The Osage had become among the wealthiest inhabitants of the US after oil was struck beneath their lands; inevitably, they attracted unscrupulous attention. Justice seemed a distant prospect. “The question for them to decide”, one Osage commented of a jury, “is whether a white man killing an Osage is murder — or merely cruelty to animals.”
Not one perpetrator was convicted until the young J Edgar Hoover realised that solving the Oklahoma killings might be a way to burnish the image of the newly professionalised Bureau of Investigation (the word “Federal” was added only in 1935). Under the finicky Hoover, agents were required to wear neatly pressed grey suits, polished shoes and preppy button-down shirts. Often they were college-educated. In small-town Oklahoma (the name means “red people” in the Osage tongue) they must have been as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket.
Increasingly, however, they were trained in what Hoover hailed as “scientific policing”, such as fingerprinting and ballistics techniques. In many ways, the Osage murders were to be the making of the modern FBI, as they provided Hoover with an opportunity to make a case for a proper federal agency.
The Bureau of Investigation (founded in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt) had originally been a rather rackety outfit, where agents tapped phones, broke into offices and shadowed Members of Congress with impunity. According to Grann, many of their undercover and surveillance techniques were copied from those of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, set up in Chicago in 1850 by the Glasgow-born Allan Pinkerton. (Blazoned beneath a wide-awake, Masonic-like eye, the Pinkerton company motto boasted “We Never Sleep”, and gave rise to the term “private eye”.) Known for their mastery of disguise, Pinkerton agents chased outlaws across the Wild West and infiltrated Confederate lines in the service of Abraham Lincoln. Hoover, a slyly watchful individual, would have none of this old-school detection.
Determined to crack the Osage killings, he appointed a former Texas Ranger named Tom White for the task. Having exchanged his Stetson for a smart fedora and Fed-grey suit, White managed to track the killers of one extended Osage family and expose a conspiracy in which outwardly respectable community elders, fuelled by a corrosive sense of racial grievance, had colluded with train robbers, stickup men, gunslingers and other desperadoes in order to cream off Osage oil revenue. In Grann’s telling, the Hoover investigations represented a hinge moment in the history of American law-enforcement, not only helping to transform the Bureau of Investigation but also bringing a sense of justice to a much despised Indian community.
The book’s rather baffling title refers to an Osage term for the month of May, “the time of the flower-killing moon”, when coyotes howl on the plains and taller plants begin to creep over the springtime blooms, stealing their light and water. Grann, whose previous book about the Amazonian journeys of British explorer Percy Fawcett, The Lost City of Z (2009), was recently made into a film, tells the story of the Osage investigation with a Dashiell Hammett-like gift for suspense (appropriate, perhaps, since Hammett was himself briefly a Pinkerton op). Grimly entertaining, Killers of the Flower Moon is a marvel of detective-like research and narrative verve. Not surprisingly, it too is poised to become a Hollywood film.
Killers of the Flower Moon: Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann, Simon & Schuster, RRP£20/Doubleday, RRP$28.95, 352 pages