Killers of the Flower Moon

Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI


  • Media: #Books #Books 2020
    • Author: David Grann
    • Status: read
    • Date: 2020-12-14
    • Tags: #nonfiction #truecrime #history #US #mystery
    • Rating: ★★★☆☆
    • Idea richness: ★★☆☆☆
    • Links: Highlights, Goodreads

Summary (feat. Spoilers)

"The world’s richest people per capita were becoming the world’s most murdered."

Does it count as spoilers if it's a true story? I don't know. But the way this narrative is told, it's treated like a mystery with spoilers more than a history so yeah... spoilers I guess.

Killers of the Flower Moon chronicles what appears to be a series of murders in Osage County. The Osage, after being forced out of Kansas in the 1800s, were resettled in a seeming worthless region of Oklahoma. Little did anyone know that 'worthless' rocky region was sitting on a fountain of black gold that would make its forced settlers millionaires, setting the stage for a miraculous comeuppance... or murder and greed.


  • Race & injustice
  • Greed & conspiracy
  • Law and for whom it is enforced

Blood and oil

“Your money draws ’em and you’re absolutely helpless. They have all the law and all the machinery on their side. Tell everybody, when you write your story, that they’re scalping our souls out here.”

When oil was discovered in Osage County, everyone wanted a piece of the pie. But there was a catch. After Oklahoma entered the Union as the 46th state, Osage could sell their surface land but 'headrights' to the oil beneath could only be inherited, ensuring the mineral trust remained under tribal control. However greed is nothing if not creative.

To get at the money:

  • Surface land to drill on was quickly snapped up by millionaires. Once, some literally fought, "rolling on the ground like rabid racoons", at an auction (this deserves a a super dramatic oil painting).
  • Osage were deemed to require a certificate of competency. Those deemed incompetent were forced to have a white guardian who authorized all spending. Embezzling began next, as some of the countries richest people could not spend their own money. "One government study estimated that before 1925 guardians had pilfered at least $8 million directly from the restricted accounts of their Osage wards."
  • Marriage and murder alike became a business proposition. Whatever it took to get in line for inheriting a headright.

Murder: a family connection

With the amount of money flowing and the issue of inherited headrights, disconnected killings and 'accidents' began to take on a more conspiratorial glean. But 1900s Oklahoma, law was not regular and it was difficult to find any who would investigate (let alone who could be trusted). Finally, in the beginnings of the FBI, the government stepped in with help from Texan ranger White, who (ironically with the name) actually set about trying to see justice done for the Osage Indians even if that meant convicting a white guardian.

Killers of the Flower Moon primarily follows the killings surrounding Mollie Burkhart (an Osage married to a white man) and her family. What at first seems like a series of suspicious murders becomes a gut churning conspiracy as it becomes clear that not only is someone picking off her family to get at the inheritance, but the killings are calculated for maximum return. "Even the chronology no longer seemed haphazard but was part of a ruthless plan." With each death, headrights were directed into Mollie's hands. Her husband, his brother, and uncle Hale were all directly involved (along with the town doctors, by the sound of it). Even then, bringing them to justice was like pulling teeth. "It seemed impossible to find twelve white men who would convict one of their own for murdering American Indians."

“It was a business proposition with me.” Bone chilling stuff. And that was only the beginning.

Systematic injustice: the silent conspirators

"Indeed, virtually every element of society was complicit in the murderous system."

After revealing the truth behind the killings, Killers of the Flower Moon pivots to the author's modern investigation into the Osage 'Reign of Terror' and delivers the gut punch the systematic injustice should have made obvious: the evil was not an anomaly.

"The murders of the Osage for their headrights were not the result of a single conspiracy orchestrated by Hale. He might have led the bloodiest and longest killing spree. But there were countless other killings—killings that were not included in official estimates and that, unlike the cases of Lewis or Mollie Burkhart’s family members, were never investigated or even classified as homicides."

"Scholars and investigators who have since looked into the murders believe that the Osage death toll was in the scores, if not the hundreds. Officially, though, only 24."

"In cases where perpetrators of crimes against humanity elude justice in their time, history can often provide at least some final accounting, forensically documenting the murders and exposing the transgressors. Yet so many of the murders of the Osage were so well concealed that such an outcome is no longer possible. In most cases, the families of the victims have no sense of resolution"


5/5 for content and the chilling story of the murders, 3/5 for the actual telling.

Overall, the book felt more like a long article and is written in the same breezy style. Spread over a 200+ page nonfiction book, though, the narrative felt a tad disjointed. Personally, I'd have liked to see the three sections (the murders, the FBI and trial, and finally the first person archival detective story) woven together more. As it stands, Killers of the Flower Moon feels not so much about the birth of the FBI (quite a misleading subtitle, to be honest) and more of a true crime report with a surprise punch at the end.

Enjoyable but as a history, I am torn. The reveal of the true extent of the (mostly unsolved and uninvestigated) murders is a definite gut punch which reframes the entire narrative up to that point. However, for a more meaty analysis it could have been nice to see that perspective tackled throughout the book to properly explore the racism, greed, lawlessness, and forgotten nature of the crimes. A different book, perhaps, but since Killers of the Flower Moon is also not really about the birth of the FBI that does not feel too far fetched.

Misc. History Notes

  • =="Only in the mid-nineteenth century, after the growth of industrial cities and a rash of urban riots—after dread of the so-called dangerous classes surpassed dread of the state—did police departments emerge in the United States."==
  • "Inquests were a remnant of a time when ordinary citizens largely assumed the burden of investigating crimes and maintaining order. For years after the American Revolution, the public opposed the creation of police departments, fearing that they would become forces of repression."
  • "In 1932, the bureau began working with the radio program The Lucky Strike Hour to dramatize its cases. One of the first episodes was based on the murders of the Osage."

[[!Further Reading]]

  • Cecil, Matthew. Hoover’s FBI and the Fourth Estate: The Campaign to Control the Press and the Bureau’s Image
  • Horan, James D. The Pinkertons: The Detective Dynasty That Made History
  • Johnson, David R. American Law Enforcement: A History. Wheeling, Ill.: Forum Press, 1981.
  • Kessler, Ronald. The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI. New York: St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2003.
  • Trachtenberg, Alan. The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.
  • Walker, Samuel. Popular Justice: A History of American Criminal Justice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.


  • "There’s a lot of talk,” the sheriff was quoted as saying. “But you have to have proof, not talk.”
  • "Mollie turned to the Osage medicine men, who chanted when the eastern sky was red like blood, and to the new breed of medicine men, the Shoun brothers, who carried their potions in black bags."
  • "It didn’t seem right for any man to play judge, jury, and executioner."
  • "The archive reflects the human need to document every deed and directive, to place a veil of administrative tidiness over the disorder of famines and plagues and natural disasters and crimes and wars."

Scrapbook Concepts

  • Harve: fifty-eight-year-old, three-hundred-pound frontiersman sheriff #characters
  • In the old days, an Osage clan, which included a group known as the ==Travelers in the Mist==, would take the lead whenever the tribe was undergoing sudden changes or venturing into unfamiliar realms.
  • The tribe, led by one of its greatest chiefs, James Bigheart—who spoke seven languages, among them Sioux, French, English, and Latin, and who had taken to wearing a suit #characters
  • Millionaires in cat fight at auction
  • The prairie became as hard as stone, birds disappeared from the sky, and the Grandfather sun looked pale and distant.
  • “Sheriff Death is on his black steed, is but a short distance away, coming to arrest the soul of this man to meet the trial at the higher bar where God himself is supreme ruler, Jesus, his son the attorney, and the Holy Ghost the prosecutor.”
  • “My dad had to live knowing that his father had tried to kill him,” #characters
  • “certificate of competency”