“Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,” by David Gann

“History is a merciless judge. It lays bare our tragic blunders and foolish missteps and exposes our most intimate secrets, wielding the power of hindsight like an arrogant detective who seems to know the end of the mystery from the outset.”

*****Book Club Review Results*****

The book club met on February 19, 2019, to discuss and review “Killers of the Flower Moon.” The review results, on a five point scale, are as follows:

Readability: 4.61

Content: 4.31

Overall: 4.41

Comments:

“My first 5 star rating this year.  Very impression story, very well written.  

“Easy to read for nonfiction-the price is content.

Very interesting. First time. I heard read about the Osage! Suspenseful.

Loved this book- The style of writing and the information gathering.

Hard to keep track of the characters without a list of characters.

Very dismaying but a great novel. Would love the read Lost City of Z (another book by the author).

Found it to be a fair overview of the murder and a pretty glossy overview of the FBI overall, wish [the author] had gone more in-depth of both topics.

Loved the book.

The Osage bought a reservation in remote northeastern Oklahoma in the mid-1800s in the hopes they would be left alone by settlers who pushed them off their old lands

But by the end of the century the discovery of oil brought the tribe immense wealth, and renewed interest from the federal government
An oil well in Osage County, Oklahoma: white settlers thought they had confined the Native Americans to the poorest land.

An auction under the Million Dollar Elm. 

Cast of Characters

Document in the “Hale-Ramsey Murder Case”, from the Oklahoman Collection at the Oklahoma Historical Society Photo Archives

The Family

Mollie Burkhart, a wealthy Osage woman whose family was targeted 

Mollie Kyle Cobb (1886-1937)

Lizzie, Mollie’s mother, deeply attached to Osage traditions even as the world around her changed; she suffered a slow, inexplicable death 


When their tribe struck oil in the 1920s, Mollie Burkhart *(left) and her mother and sister Anna became some of the wealthiest people in America. But they were soon the target of a ruthless campaign of murder by William Hale. Anna and Lizzie were killed a few month apart

Anna Brown, Mollie’s oldest sister, a divorcee who spent a lot of time in the reservation’s rowdy boomtowns


Mollie Burkhart (center), with her sisters Annie (left) and Minnie, both of whom were murdered.

In 1921, Mollie’s sister disappeared and was found shot dead in this ravine. Two months later her mother, Lizzie, was dead from poisoning. Her other sister, Rita, then died in an explosion

Rita, Mollie’s sister, and her husband, Bill Smith


Rita Smith and Nettie Brookshire, two of the bombing victims
The Smith house after the explosion

Ernest Burkhart, Mollie’s white husband, the father of her three children, and her official financial guardian

Mollie eventually married a white man, Ernest Burkhart, the nephew of William Hale. They had two children togetherE

Bryan Burkhart, Ernest’s younger brother 

Bryan Buckhart

William Hale, Ernest’s uncle, a self-made man of great wealth and staggering power; revered by many people as “King of the Osage Hills”


A transformed Hale standing with his wife and daughter.

Margie Burkhart, the granddaughter of Mollie and Ernest Burkhart; she shared her father’s memories of the “Reign of Terror” with Grann as well as stories about Mollie’s and Ernest’s lives in later years

The Bureau of Investigation

J. Edgar Hoover, the twenty-nine-year-old newly appointed director of the Bureau of Investigation; he saw the Osage cases as a way to redeem the bureau’s bad reputation and advance his own career

J. Edgar Hoover

Special Agent Tom White (left), a former Texas Ranger, with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. White combined modern investigative techniques with a frontiersman’s sense of justice.

Tom White, an old-style frontier lawman and former Texas Ranger who was put in charge of the investigation

Tom White

John Wren, recruited by White, he was then one of the few American Indians (perhaps the only one) in the bureau

Other Characters

Barney McBride, a white oilman who sought help for the Osage

W.W. Vaughan, a lawyer who worked closely with private detectives trying to solve the Osage cases 


W.W. Vaughan with his wife and several of their children.

James and David Shoun, local doctors (and brothers)

Scott Mathis, owner of the Big Hill Trading Company and a close friend of both Mollie Burkhart and William Hale; he managed Lizzie’s and Anna’s financial affairs and administered Anna’s estate


The Big Hill Trading Company was run by Scott Mathis, who was a guardian of Anna and Lizzie.

James Bighart, the legendary chief of the Osage who negotiated the prescient treaty with the government to retain mineral rights for the tribe 

George Bighart, James’s nephew who gave information to W.W. Vaughan 

Henry Roan, briefly married to Mollie when they were young; he borrowed heavily from William Hale and made Hale the beneficiary of his insurance policy


Henry Roan
A crop from the 1924 panorama showing members of the Osage tribe alongside prominent local white businessmen and leaders.

An auction under the Million Dollar Elm. 

Discussion Questions:

1. Before starting “Killers of the Flower Moon,” had you ever heard of the Osage murders? If so, how did you learn about them, and what did you know? Do you think this history should be taught in schools?

2. Grann begins the book with a line describing the flowers spread over the Oklahoma hills where the Osage Indian nation resided — and how those flowers break and die in May. How does this line set the tone for, and introduce the subject of, the rest of the book?

3. What do the contemporary media reports on the wealth and lifestyle of the Osage reflect about white perceptions of Native Americans (pp. 6–7; pp. 76–77)? In what way do they lay a foundation for the way the murders and mysterious deaths were treated by law enforcement?

4. What was your first impression of William Hale (p. 17)? How does Grann bring to life his strengths and appeal, as well as the darker side of his nature? What qualities does he share with people who achieve power and influence today?

5. What does Grann’s portrait convey about J. Edgar Hoover (p. 107)? What traits stand out and what do they foretell about Hoover’s future as director of the FBI?

6. Are there recent examples of racial prejudice and injustice that parallel those described in Killers of the Flower Moon? What has changed about the approach taken by law enforcement? About the attitudes expressed by the white community in the face of racial or religious discrimination? In what ways have things remained the same?

7. Grann ends the book with a quote from the Bible about Cain and Abel: “The blood cries out from the ground.” Why do you think he chose to close the book this way?


The Osage chief Bacon Rind protested that “everybody wants to get in here and get some of this money.”


Clockwise from left: A grouping of five of the Osage murder victims and another intended Osage victim. A young J. Edgar Hoover who was heading what would become the FBI when they investigated the Osage murders. The man who was convicted of masterminding the murder ring, cattleman William Hale.

About the Author:

David Grann

David Grann has written about everything from New York City’s antiquated water tunnels to the hunt for the giant squid to the presidential campaign. His stories have appeared in several anthologies, including What We Saw: The Events of September 11, 2001The Best American Crime Writing, of both 2004 and 2005; and The Best American Sports Writing, of 2003 and 2006. A 2004 finalist for the Michael Kelly award for the “fearless pursuit and expression of truth,” Grann has also written for “The New York Times Magazine,” The AtlanticThe Washington PostThe Boston GlobeThe Wall Street JournalThe Weekly Standard, and The New Republic

Before joining The New Yorker in 2003, Grann was a senior editor at The New Republic, and from 1995 until 1996, the executive editor of the newspaper The Hill. He holds master’s degrees in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy as well as in creative writing from Boston University. After graduating from Connecticut College in 1989, he received a Thomas Watson Fellowship and did research in Mexico, where he began his career in journalism. He lives in New York with his wife and two children.

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