Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI is about the Osage Reign of Terror—a series of organized killings of members of the Osage Indian tribe that took place in Osage County, Oklahoma during the 1920s. Throughout a five-year period of mayhem and slaughter running from approximately 1921-1926, prominent white members of the community conspired to murder their Osage neighbors—men, women, and children.
The motive for these murders was profit—specifically the oil wealth of the Osage, which they had come into when oil was discovered on their reservation in the late 19th century. Whites in Oklahoma had long schemed to expropriate and defraud the Osage out of their money, largely through a legally mandated system under which individual Osage would be declared financially “incompetent” and court-appointed white guardians installed to oversee their assets. These guardianships offered unbounded opportunities for graft and embezzlement—in many ways, the murderous campaign of the 1920s was merely the logical extension of this long history of exploitation.
The murders were also the catalyst for a major reformation of American law enforcement. The Bureau of Investigation (the predecessor agency of the FBI) and its fiercely ambitious director, J. Edgar Hoover, used the high-profile Osage case to assert the role of the federal government into the world of local law enforcement on an unprecedented level. In doing so, Hoover made great publicity of the Bureau’s exploits and forever reshaped the image of law enforcement in the American popular imagination—away from the old romantic ideal of untrained frontier lawmen and amateur local sheriffs, and toward his vision sober, rational, scientific, and procedural G-Men.
In the late 19th century, oil had been discovered on the tribal reservation of the Osage people, who lived primarily in Osage County, Oklahoma. The tribe had suffered the loss of its tribal lands and been decimated by both smallpox epidemics and military defeats by the United States throughout much of the century. But, overnight, the oil discovery turned the tribe into one of the wealthiest per-capita groups in the world, with the total tribal income from leases to the oil companies running into the tens of millions and leases on individual tracts climbing as high as $2 million.
To manage this influx of money, the Osage tribal leadership instituted a headright system, under which each member of the tribe was entitled to annual royalties from the oil production, distributed in equal measure to members of the tribe. Although individuals could sell their surface land, they could not buy or sell headrights—these could only change hands through inheritance. This system was meant to ensure tribal control of the oil wealth in perpetuity.
The wealth of the Osage, however, attracted the jealousy and greed of whites in Oklahoma. These attitudes would soon be given the force of law. In 1921, Congress instituted a financial guardianship system, under which Osage were declared financially “incompetent” and unable to spend their own money as they saw fit. The rationale for this paternalistic policy was that the Osage were seen as childish, helpless people who could not be trusted to manage their own financial affairs. Left to their own devices, supporters of this policy argued, the Osage would squander their wealth on foolish and impulsive purchases. Worse, the decision to subject an Osage to the burden of a guardianship was nearly always racially based—full-blooded members of the tribe were virtually guaranteed to have a guardian; those of mixed ancestry rarely were.
The courts appointed white guardians, usually drawn from the ranks of white attorneys, politicians, and bankers in the community, would guard the Osage assets. This system kept the Osage in day-to-day poverty, despite being wealthy on paper—while providing ample opportunities for whites to embezzle and defraud them through a variety of schemes. By 1925, the government estimated that unscrupulous guardians had swindled the Osage out of $8 million.
The guardianship system was not the only way in which the paternalistic white authorities sought to “help” the Osage. In Oklahoma, the federal government ran a program of forced cultural assimilation. The ostensible goal of this program was to help integrate the Osage into mainstream American (i.e., white) society.
The real purpose, however, was to wipe out any traces of Osage religion and language—especially among children. Official government policy stipulated that native peoples like the Osage were morally and culturally unfit for self-government, and needed to be taught the ways of the white man in order to fully participate in American economic and political life. Thus, young Osage were forced to attend schools (often Christian parochial schools), where they would be taught to reject traditional Osage religion and culture, to be remade in the white man’s image.
These schools were English-only—children were not allowed to speak the language of their ancestors inside the walls of these harsh and forbidding institutions. By the early 1920s, speakers of the Osage tongue were dwindling, traditional modes of dress had all but disappeared, and most members of the tribe had converted to Christianity, with only faint vestiges of the old religion still observed.
The five-year-long Reign of Terror began in May 1921 with the discovery of the body of a murdered Osage woman named Anna Brown. Anna had been married to a white man, as were her sisters, Mollie Burkhart and Rita Smith.
In these parts of rural Oklahoma in the 1920s, elements of the frontier justice system still remained. Police forces were not yet fully professionalized, so ordinary citizens still assumed some of the responsibilities of criminal justice, including investigation of...
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In the late 19th century, the Osage Nation, a Native American tribe of the Great Plains, unexpectedly became one of the wealthiest per-capita groups in the world. Military incursions by the U.S. Army and land expropriation by white settlers over the course of the century had confined the Osage people to a reservation in a small corner of northern Oklahoma, a sliver of their once-extensive tribal territory.
The forced migration brought poverty, sickness, and misery—by the 1870s, the population of the tribe was a mere 3,000, just a third of what it had been at the dawn of the 19th century, with many people succumbing to smallpox and violent attacks by white settlers. But when oil was discovered in Osage County, Oklahoma in 1897, the Osage were suddenly rich beyond their wildest dreams, with the total tribal income from oil leases running into the tens of millions.
What had once been a forgotten corner of the Great Plains overnight became a focal point of the American economy. Every three months when new Osage leases became available for auction, the major oil trusts of the day flocked to the county to bid, often bribing officials of the U.S. Department of the Interior...
Every April, millions of tiny flowers burst into life across the vast plains of Osage County, Oklahoma. But their beauty is short-lived—In May, larger flowers bloom, killing the smaller ones by choking out their access to life-giving sun and water. This is why the Osage call May “the time of the flower-killing moon.” In 1921, May was to signal the start of a far more sinister season of death.
On May 27, 1921, the partially decomposed body of a 25-year-old Osage woman named Anna Brown was discovered in a ravine in Osage County, Oklahoma, dead from a bullet to the back of the head. Anna would be merely one of the first victims in a five-year-long Reign of Terror that would run from 1921-1926 and claim the lives of dozens (and possibly hundreds) of Osage men, women, and children.
Anna’s immediate family included her sisters, Mollie Burkhart and Rita Smith, and her mother, Elizabeth Kyle. Mollie was married to a white man named Ernest Burkhardt, a native of Texas who had moved to Osage County as a young man. Rita and Anna had also married white men.
(Shortform note: In [this NPR...
Think about how bias and prejudice shape our world.
Have you ever been in a situation where you felt you needed to hide or tone down some part of your identity, as the Osage were forced to? Briefly describe the situation.
In February 1922, nine months after the bodies of Anna Brown and Charles Whitehorn were discovered, a fit and healthy 29-year-old Osage man named William Stepson suddenly dropped dead. Authorities concluded that he had died of strychnine poisoning. Poison was an ideal way to commit murder in a remote locale like Osage County, with incompetent professional law enforcement professionals and a coroner untrained in forensics, without access to a crime lab.
The spate of mysterious poisonings of Osage men and women continued into July 1923. The community was, rightly, terrified. These were clearly not random homicides—the tribe was clearly being targeted by a well-orchestrated and coordinated campaign of murder. In their distress and desperation, the Osage prevailed upon a white oilman named Barney McBride to journey to Washington, D.C. and use his connections there to lobby the federal government to intercede in the case directly. McBridge was a trusted and benevolent figure among the Osage, and they believed he could intercede effectively on their behalf.
But McBride himself fell victim to the murderous conspiracy, even in faraway Washington, D.C. In August 1922, he was...
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In the summer of 1925, Tom White was the special agent in charge of the Bureau’s Houston office. White straddled two worlds—on the one hand, he was an old-style lawman with no formal police training, a former Texas Ranger who had spent most of his career pursuing bandits on horseback throughout the Texas frontier, armed with a six-shooter. With his Stetson hat, he even looked like a caricature of the mythical Western lawman, still known to carry his trusty six-shooter when he was on dangerous assignments with the Bureau.
But on the other hand, despite his rough-and-tumble background, Tom had a reputation as a restrained, methodical investigator. Even during his days with the Rangers, a force well-known for its shoot-first methods, Tom had been different. He had discovered that careful observation and a methodical approach were more effective in catching criminals than running around the countryside, guns blazing. Tom recognized that many of his fellow Rangers were little more than violent criminals with badges and saw that it was a very fine distinction between a good man and a bad one. He knew that it was dangerous for one man to have the unrestrained ability to take a...
Despite the progress Tom White had made in Osage County (which he had dutifully reported to the Bureau), J. Edgar Hoover was growing impatient with the state of the case by fall 1925. He wanted convictions and the glowing headlines they would bring. By this time, a full-fledged diaspora was taking place within the Osage community. Families fled the county and state in terror. Some even fled the United States altogether, choosing to settle in Canada or Mexico.
Tom knew that he would never be able to convict Hale and his conspirators in Osage County. Hale was too politically and financially connected within the white community for 12 white jurors to be found who would be willing to render a guilty verdict on him, especially in a case involving the murder of American Indians. Also, his case was still circumstantial. He needed corroboration from people who had actually been involved in the conspiracy.
Through a local attorney, Tom arranged a meeting with the stickup man Dick Gregg, known as a member of the fearsome Al Spencer gang. At that time, Gregg was serving a sentence in a Kansas penitentiary for armed robbery. Gregg agreed to...
The success in prosecuting the Osage murder case was a major coup for the Bureau of Investigation—and for its ambitious and attention-seeking director, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover crowed to the media that the case had been deemed unwinnable by everyone, including local sheriffs, county prosecutors, and even the Oklahoma Attorney General, until the Bureau had stepped in.
Hoover used the glowing press from the Osage case to boost the Bureau’s image and position himself and his agency in the public imagination as the epitome of no-nonsense, professional, efficient, and effective law enforcement. Indeed, he was as relentless in his pursuit of headlines as he was of criminals. In the early 1930s, Hoover even arranged to have dramatized versions of the Bureau’s most famous cases (including the Osage case) serialized as popular radio dramas. In all of these fictionalized accounts, Bureau agents were presented as resourceful and quick-witted near-supermen, for whom criminals were no match.
As the years went on, Hoover’s power and influence only grew. In the 1930s, the FBI’s profile loomed larger when it took on infamous “Public Enemies” like John Dillinger, the Lindbergh baby...
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