‘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.

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