Books: A masterpiece of real importance

Written By: Ian Hernon
Published: July 18, 2017 Last modified: July 17, 2017

Killers of the Flower Moon: Oil, Money and the Birth of the FBI
by David Grann
Simon and Schuster £20

In the early 1920s oil men would every few months flock to the ‘Million Dollar Tree’ in Osage County, Oklahoma, for an auction to buy drilling leases on plots of land, bidding up to two million dollars a time. The area was at the time the last remnant of the Wild West, full of Prohibition-era bootleggers, outlaws, rustlers, cattle thieves, gangsters, safe-crackers, stick-up artists and other criminals attracted by the boom in ‘black gold.’ Capitalists, including the Getty dynasty, could win or lose fortunes with the nod of a head, and the event was known as the “Osage Monte Carlo”.

The immediate beneficiaries included the Osage Native American tribe who had been ousted from their traditional hunting grounds around the turn of the century and given what the US government had assumed was a worthless, infertile landscape.

Luckily, a native lawyer had included mineral rights in the contract. When vast tracts of oil were discovered on the “underground reservation” every tribe family received regular cheques worth, initially, only a few dollars, but which quickly escalated to tens of thousands. They became known as the “red millionaires.”

Full-blooded Indians were treated as “children” and white guardians were appointed as guardians to manage their finances, but nevertheless families swapped teepees and horses for grand mansions and new limousines. White resentment built, particularly when the ‘Injuns’ acquired white servants, but the whole economy exploded with sudden wealth.

And then, one by one, the Osage families were murdered; they were shot, poisoned and blown up in their homes by bombs. They installed the region’s first home light bulbs and bought guard dogs as a deterrent; the dogs were poisoned. When the official murder toll hit 24, as David Grann writes: “The world’s richest people per capita were becoming the world’s most murdered.”

This was a time of endemic corruption. from local sheriffs and judges to the White House – the Teapot Dome oil contract scandal brought down President Harding – and at first the murders were barely investigated. Private eyes and others brought in by rich Osage families were themselves murdered, in particularly brutal fashion. But as the death toll mounted and threatened the lucrative trade in mining rights, the embryonic FBI were brought in by new director J. Edgar Hoover, a stuttering mummy’s boy bureaucrat who had never fired a gun or made an arrest but who was making a name for himself by illegally targeting supposed subversives. Unsurprisingly, the investigation was initially bungled until an incorruptible outsider was brought in. It would be unfair to reveal the outcome here.

That is because this is an extraordinary true story long erased from popular history, unearthed by Grann and written in an authentic style which often approaches the fiction of the late Elmore Leonard. The descriptive paragraphs, for example, are terse but telling – of an upright Texan investigator it was said that “a plumb line running from head to heel would touch every part” while a notorious bootlegger who turned informant was “tall, bullet-scarred, small-eyed and jittery, he seemed to be wasting away from within – hence his nickname, Slim”.

It is a complicated tale with a large cast list, but it rattles along as a real page-turner. It is almost impossible not to read it at one sitting. The first half is a true-life whodunnit, the remainder a who-got-away-with-it.

The story reveals what, mostly, Hollywood has ignored of the corruption, greed, racism and violence inherent in the 20th century birth of a modern super-nation. Some of the more ruthless, unscrupulous and self-deluding characters have echoes in the present occupant of the White House, declaring of their sins: “It was just a business proposition.”

Grann has delivered a small-scale masterpiece of large-scale importance.

About Ian Hernon

Ian Hernon is Deputy Editor of Tribune