In the 1920s, the Osage tribe of Oklahoma were the wealthiest people per capita in the world after oil was found on their land in the early 1900s. That statistic belies the reality of the situation, though, in which many of the Osage who owned valuable headrights had to have a white guardian to control their money and financial affairs. Nonetheless, much was made of the wealth that was on the reservation.
And in 1921, wealthy tribe members started disappearing and turning up dead. Still others succumbed to suspicious instances of alcoholic poisoning and a mysterious “wasting disease.” People who began investigating the deaths also started disappearing and dying. Within a few years, over two dozen people had died under suspicious circumstances. Eventually, the FBI under a newly appointed director named J. Edgar Hoover were brought in to investigate.
As someone who is interested in the 1920s, true crime, and Native American history, I was really surprised that I had never heard of the Osage “Reign of Terror” when this book was released earlier this year.
The story on its own is riveting, but author David Grann does a wonderful job of walking readers through an incredibly complex and, at times, convoluted tale of greed, murder, and betrayal. Honestly, this is one of the craziest true crime stories I’ve ever read, and if it wasn’t nonfiction, I probably would have stopped reading it because I would have thought the turn of events was too farfetched to be believable–nitroglycerin bombings, hit men, double and triple agents acting as moles, witnesses who change sides multiple times, near fist fights in the courtroom, witnesses who turn up dead, a dangerous bank robber tapped to investigate the case. (You can imagine how that ended.) There were probably about five or six different times while I was reading that the latest revelation had me literally gasping in shock.
And one thing that I appreciated is that as melodramatic as the material could be, Grann never engages in sensationalism or rubbernecking. This story is probably the most unsettling and disturbing that I’ve read all year–and I read a book about Jim Jones–and Grann takes the time to acknowledge how the case still affects the Osage.
Grann is also one of the only nonfiction writers who knows when and how to employ first person narration. I’ve ranted quite a bit about this before–I hate when nonfiction authors feel the need to insert themselves needlessly in a narrative by rambling on about their difficulties researching the story. That’s what footnotes and interviews are for.
In the last few chapters of Killers of the Flower Moon, Grann does switch to first person to describe his experiences researching the story, but I think it works because he isn’t just talking about the research process in general. Instead, he is discussing how in the course of his research he discovered that the time span of the murders and the number of victims are far greater than originally believed.
If you like true crime and/or history, you need to read this book. Last week, I asked if there was something you thought needed to be adapted into a television show. I hadn’t read this book yet, but I think this would work much better as a TV miniseries than as a movie, though the rights to make it into a film have already been acquired. But to me, there are just way too many people and murders and too much background to contain in a movie.
(Thanks to my parents for buying this book for me and telling me about it to begin with!)
Recommended for those who enjoy Jeff Guinn and Carl Hoffman.
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Had you heard of the Osage Reign of Terror? What’s your favorite book that was released this year? What’s the best book you have ever received as a gift? Tell us in the comments!