As if the title is not enough of an attraction, the subtitle of this gripping true story goes on to lure readers with a clarification of what the book is about: “The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.”
The Osage Indian Tribe was granted a dry and windy prairie reservation in the 1870s. It was located in the northeast corner of what was to become the state of Oklahoma. Tribe members were educated and assimilated into the ways of white men with little to no attention paid to tribal customs. Tribal leaders did their best to protect historical ways, but hunters do not become farmers easily.
Then oil was discovered under what was thought to be worthless land. It turned out that rights to the oil had been reserved for the tribe members, and soon the poor Indians were swimming in wealth, much to the chagrin of the white settlers hovering on the border of the Reservation. Resentment against the new Indian millionaires built rapidly.
The first murder took place in 1921. The victim was Anna Brown, whose sister, Mollie Burkhart, refused to accept the popular story that Anna was just an unfortunate Osage woman who drank too much and was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mollie did not believe that and pushed for a serious investigation, but crimes on the reservation were not illegal in the white community. In fact, Mollie and her Osage relatives, particularly the women, were thought to be incompetent, so the federal government assigned so-called guardians to supervise their lives, particularly their oil money. Being tough on crimes against Indians was not included in the job description.
But Anna was only the first of a series of bloody murders. As the death toll mounted, authorities were forced to look into the circumstances. Indian reservations fall under federal jurisdiction, so the new Federal Bureau of Investigation began its work. Young J. Edgar Hoover was in charge, but failed to find any answers. He finally assigned a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to lead the search for justice.
White put together a team of agents who began to uncover a conspiracy of greed and chilling disregard toward the humanity of the Osage population. Persons in positions of power were prepared to swindle the Osage Indians and to commit murder in order to maintain and expand their positions, politically and financially. It was the FBI’s first significant success as the team went undercover to learn the truth about community leaders who used their offices for their personal benefit.
Under White’s direction the Bureau began to develop the investigative skills that were needed to thwart the law breakers. He earned respect for the FBI that survives today in spite of modern questions about techniques. White served as a director over Leavenworth Prison in later years.
This fascinating book reflects the author’s skill as a journalist and as a researcher. Facts from official archives and family papers support the revelations in the story. His style keeps readers’ interest in the true story as if it were a novel. I knew something about the Cherokee “Trail of Tears,” but had not previously heard about the Osage Murders. Both are terrible stories of some of the black events in the development of the United States.
Bernice Owen is a retired librarian and resides in Rohnert Park.