‘Hell, yes’

J. Robert Lennon

  • Killers of the Flower Moon: Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
    Simon & Schuster, 338 pp, £20.00, February 2017, ISBN 978 0 85720 902 3

Soon after firing James Comey, Donald Trump baited the former FBI director. ‘Comey better hope that there are no “tapes” of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!’ Trump tweeted. Comey replied a month later, while testifying before the Senate intelligence committee. ‘Lordy,’ he said, ‘I hope there are tapes.’ David Grann couldn’t have known, when he began work on his absorbing, infuriating book about the crimes that helped shape the FBI, how many Americans would be looking to the agency today for salvation from their country’s ongoing political catastrophe. Comey’s ‘Lordy’ speaks volumes about the culture J. Edgar Hoover brought to the FBI during his nearly five decades of eccentric service: a set of rules and customs that embrace consistency, meticulous evidence-gathering and record-keeping, and obsessive attention to detail. Trump may yet manage to escape the forces that oppose him, but his flighty and impulsive outbursts, Comey seemed to imply, are catnip to a career Bureau man.

When it comes to political intrigue, the cover-up is often worse than the crime. That isn’t the case in Grann’s book, which sheds light on a series of killings that, brutal and horrifying at first glance, only become worse the closer you look. The men investigating the crimes were trying to discover the hidden order behind the mayhem of murder – sorting fact from fabrication, evidence from ephemera – and creating a plausible narrative out of what remained. But to the victims and their families, this was the story, still all too familiar, of racial discrimination and the brutal injustice of white rule.

The Osage Nation are a Native American people consisting, today, of more than 10,000 members, many of whom live on tribal lands in Oklahoma. At one time, the Osage were powerful and widespread, with territory that extended deep into Missouri, Arkansas and Kansas; but after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, they were forced, by treaty and military threat, to cede much of their ancestral land, and to move to a small patch of south-eastern Kansas. They remained there for more than half a century, until white settlers again forced them out. They bought 1.5 million acres from the Cherokee, in what was then Indian Territory, terrain that whites described as ‘broken, rocky, sterile and utterly unfit for cultivation’. The Osage moved there in the early 1870s.

Less than three decades later, the US government pushed its assimilation campaign into the area. The Osage reservation would be carved into 160-acre plots – ‘allotments’, as they were called, or, as Grann pointedly puts it, ‘real estate’ – and assigned to tribal members, one plot each. The rest of the territory would be opened up to white settlement. The Osage managed to negotiate an increase in their allotments – 657 acres apiece – and one other ‘curious provision’: ‘That the oil, gas, coal or other minerals covered by the lands … are hereby reserved to the Osage Tribe.’

The barren land lay over a massively valuable oilfield. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, and the US government forced the Osage to sell still more of their land, the tribe retained its mineral rights. Furthermore, the headrights to these resources – an ‘underground reservation’, Grann calls them – could not be bought or sold: they could only be transferred through inheritance. That is, in order for Osage oil rights to change hands, somebody had to die.

The criminal investigations Grann describes are simultaneously primitive and sophisticated. On the one hand, the lawmen of the American West, even as late as the 1920s, were ‘largely amateurs’, Grann writes, ‘primarily gunfighters and trackers’. Because they ‘received pitiful salaries and were prized for being quick draws, it’s not surprising that the boundary between good lawmen and bad lawmen was porous’. Jurisdictional authority generally fell to those with money and clout, and corruption was rampant, leaving sparsely populated areas like Osage County in a state approaching chaos. Americans living in more populated areas – ‘coastal elites’, as the broken discourse of our time might have it – found the persistence of such unruly quarters quaint and charming, and headlines drew on misplaced nostalgia for the age of cowboys and Indians.

On the other hand, new technology was employed both in the commission and investigation of crimes. It was possible, by the 1920s, to eavesdrop on criminals using electronic listening devices; their phone calls were logged and could be traced. It was also possible for wrongdoers to spy on their enemies, and to bribe telephone operators into destroying the log tickets that implicated them.

In this environment of semi-lawlessness, the Osage Nation struck oil and became extraordinarily wealthy. Reporters adored the rags-to-riches turnabout of the ‘red millionaires’ with their ‘mansions and chandeliers’, their ‘diamond rings and fur coats and chauffeured cars’, especially when contrasted with the traditional clothes, ceremonial dances and campfire cookery the tribe still embraced. But white amusement at these supposed contradictions was tempered by resentment. A newspaper editorial asked ‘Where will it end?’ and complained that the Osage were becoming ‘so rich that something will have to be done about it’.

Something was already being done about it. The Osage didn’t have free access to their wealth. The federal government, ‘contending that many Osage were unable to handle their money, had required the Office of Indian Affairs to determine which members of the tribe it considered capable of managing their trust funds’. It was a cinch to have a Native American declared unfit; few Osage had control over their own bank accounts. The guardians of their riches, Grann dryly informs us, ‘were usually drawn from the ranks of the most prominent white citizens in Osage County’.

The most prominent white citizen of all was William Hale. A cattleman turned entrepreneur and dandy, he was a charming, pistol-packing schemer, who had ingratiated himself with the Osage even before they struck it rich, paying their medical bills, building schools and a hospital. He was broadly admired and trusted by members of the tribe. His nephew Ernest Burkhart was married to an Osage called Mollie, of whose riches he was the guardian. They had two small children. Mollie Burkhart’s sister Minnie had died of a ‘peculiar wasting illness’ at the age of 27, despite a lifetime of good health. And one night in May 1921, a second sister, Anna, went missing after heading out for an evening of drinking and dancing. A week later, she was found at the edge of a creek by squirrel hunters, dead and decomposing.

The coroner’s inquest – led by a jury of white men, and informed by the testimony of two white doctors, James and David Shoun – determined the cause of death to have been a gunshot wound to the head; the bullet, mysteriously, could not be found. Local officials dragged their feet in starting an investigation into the death of a ‘dead Injun’, so Mollie enlisted Hale’s help. His ‘business interests now dominated the county, and he had become a powerful local advocate for law and order.’ While she waited for Hale’s advocacy to have an effect, other mysterious deaths occurred: the shooting of Charles Whitehorn, an Osage who had gone missing a week before Anna; the strange demise of the sisters’ mother, Lizzie; the sudden decline, clearly the result of poison, of a champion roper, William Stepson; the shooting of Hale’s Osage friend Henry Roan; and the dramatic bombing of the house of one of the crimes’ investigators, Bill Smith, killing him, his Osage wife, Rita, and their white servant, Nettie. It wasn’t long before Mollie Burkhart began to suspect that her own health problems, diagnosed and treated by the Shoun brothers, might not be the result of diabetes, as she’d been told, but of poison.

Some Osage went into hiding; others installed electric porchlights or got guard dogs. Despite Hale’s promises of help, and a national press that widely publicised and sensationalised the killings, the investigation stalled; no arrests were made. Eventually, the tribal council made a formal resolution to request the assistance of the federal government. The Department of Justice sent an agent from its Bureau of Investigation (BOI), a man called Tom White.

White was a former Texas Ranger, an old-school lawman, tall and upright: ‘He had a majestic tread,’ a fellow agent said, ‘as soft and silent as a cat.’ (I’m reminded of James Comey, who’s 6’8”, trying to hide among the curtains in the White House Blue Room to avoid a conversation with Trump.) The Bureau that White joined in 1917 was a shadow of the one we know today; he was one of a few hundred agents, who lacked the power of arrest and were barred from carrying firearms (though White, when working among outlaws far from Washington, ‘sometimes tucked a six-shooter in his belt’). Hoover sent him to investigate a prison bribery case in Atlanta, where the agent started to use investigative techniques such as fingerprinting and the filing of detailed reports.

The latter in particular were necessary to White’s attempt to untangle the dizzying complexities of the Osage killings. His investigation, which takes up the bulk of Killers of the Flower Moon, focused on Hale, who was thought to be the mastermind of the Osage murders, and is rife with contradictions, reversals, dead ends and false leads. Hale blatantly deceived, robbed and murdered the Osage, confident that his power would prevent any interference from the law. He bribed and extorted in order to make other whites do his bidding; he forged documents and took out ludicrously inflated insurance policies against Native lives he expected to be cut short. According to one anecdote unearthed by White, Hale brought an Osage man to a doctor for the medical examination required by a suspiciously extravagant life insurance policy. ‘Bill, what are you going to do,’ the doctor asked him, ‘kill this Indian?’ Hale’s mirthful response: ‘Hell, yes.’

Yet Hale proved an extraordinarily slippery foe. His confidence was blithe and intimidating. After arresting him, White tried to get Hale to confess, suggesting that he wouldn’t want to expose his family to ‘a long trial and all its sordid testimony, the shame and embarrassment’. Hale, Grann reports, ‘stared at White with gleeful zeal’ and vowed to fight the charges in court. Once the trial was underway, Hale seemed to be able to influence witnesses, causing them to change their stories, or withdraw their testimony. He was released on a technicality, and later rearrested. Evidence, White discovered, wasn’t merely being destroyed and suppressed by Hale’s co-conspirators; it was being manufactured. The murder plots, Grann writes, ‘depended on doctors who falsified death certificates and on undertakers who quickly and quietly buried bodies’. White’s case eventually came to hinge on the testimony of Ernest Burkhart, Hale’s nephew and Mollie’s husband; many of the murders had been arranged so that tribal inheritances trickled down to the Burkharts – and somebody had been poisoning Mollie. Ernest agreed to testify, then changed his mind, then changed it again.

Hale was eventually convicted, and the killings eventually stopped. But the Osage underground reservation was soon drained of oil, and their towns and villages of money. Today, only so-called ‘stripper wells’ remain, producing negligible amounts of crude and providing the few Osage who still hold headrights with a minimal income. The gambling industry is the closest thing to a boom that Osage County has experienced in recent years; seven casinos provide the lion’s share of funds for the community’s needs. The Osage haven’t forgotten Hale’s crimes; everyone Grann encounters in Oklahoma seems to have had a relative who perished during what they now call the Reign of Terror. In the Osage Nation Museum in Pawhuska, Grann notices that a section has been excised from a huge panoramic photo of tribal members taken at a ceremony in 1924. Asked why the photo has been edited, he is told: ‘The devil was standing right there.’ Grann is given a look at the missing panel. The devil is Hale, in cap and glasses, placidly standing among the people who once adored him, and whom, at the time the photo was taken, he was systematically murdering for their money.

Grann’s prose is straightforward and clear, and despite the occasional florid metaphor – were Chief Wah-Ti-An-Kah’s eyes really ‘dark wells that burned with an entire history’? – his sentences typically telegraph a quiet authority buttressed by exhaustive research. He seems to have gone about this project with the obsessive energy of one of Hoover’s agents, and gives enough detail to recreate the feel of a bygone place and time. His affection for the Osage and their history is palpable; and though the book shies away from editorialising, his anger at the injustices the tribe suffered during the oil-rush years is evident.

I wish it were possible to see this book as a shocking look back on a wilder, crueller time in American history, when norms of criminal and social justice weren’t broadly accepted and enforced. But – though Grann doesn’t go there – it’s impossible not to draw parallels with America in 2017: not only between Hale’s corrupt machinations and those of the Trump administration, but between the brutality with which the Osage Nation was relieved of its freedom, power and wealth, and the unpunished wave of police violence against unarmed African Americans in present-day America. Grann writes:

There was one question that the judge and the prosecutors and the defence never asked the jurors but that was central to the proceedings: Would a jury of twelve white men ever punish another white man for killing an American Indian? … A prominent member of the Osage tribe put the matter … bluntly: ‘It is a question in my mind whether the jury is considering a murder case or not. The question for them to decide is whether a white man killing an Osage is murder – or merely cruelty to animals.’

The end of Hale’s trial and his imprisonment don’t form the conclusion of Grann’s book. In a surprising and depressing additional section, he outlines the holes left in the case, and then tries to fill them. He returns to Osage County, does more research, and discovers that the conspiracy to murder tribal members and steal their money was deeper and more widespread than the investigators and the press ever reported. There were other killings, largely uninvestigated, some probably committed by other henchmen of Hale’s, and others entirely unrelated to the Hale case. The killings began far earlier than the ones Hale was implicated in, and there were probably far more of them than anyone has previously reported. Grann quotes a Bureau agent: ‘There are so many of these murder cases. There are hundreds and hundreds.’ Hale, Grann concludes, ‘was not an anomaly’.

It isn’t hard to extend this conclusion beyond the Osage Nation, beyond Oklahoma, beyond the 1920s, and apply it not only to Ferguson but to the uptick in recent decades in violence against American Muslims; to the brutal treatment of Native protesters at Standing Rock; to the deaths of migrants along the border between the US and Mexico. Government and corporate corruption in the service of white American power is not an anomaly. Strategic neglect of, and outright violence against, Americans of colour who dare to stand up for themselves is not an anomaly. Grann’s book, without directly saying so, invites us to reconsider these not as passing problems, but as manifestations of a deep strain in the American character.