In the early 1920s, a Kansas City-based private detective named Pike traveled to Whizbang, Okla., for a clandestine meeting with a rancher named William Hale.
Hale, a pillar in the community, had hired Pike — “a brooding man who smoked a corn pipe” — to work undercover on a series of mysterious murders occurring on the Osage Indian Nation in northeastern Oklahoma.
Pike probably didn’t know it at the time, but he was just one of a cadre of private detectives, crooked local sheriffs and, eventually, earnest young agents with the fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation looking into what amounted to the genocide of wealthy Native Americans.
Pike’s involvement in the case is one of several Kansas City connections to the murders, which are expertly re-investigated in David Grann’s latest book, “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.”
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A bulging envelope of clippings on the case in The Kansas City Star’s library includes a 1926 story asserting that the more superstitious among the Osage believed that some white men could control them by placing a “love bug” or “sickness bug” on them, thereby convincing them to marry the murderous white settlers.
The methods for dispatching these original Americans included poisoning, bludgeoning, shooting, stabbing and, in one case, blowing up a whole family.
But the killers didn’t stop there. Pike may have dodged a bullet himself because some of the investigators looking into the case were also killed, including an Oklahoma attorney, W.W. Vaughn, who apparently got too close to the truth.
Vaughn was thrown from a speeding train 30 miles north of Oklahoma City. His body was discovered near the tracks, half naked and with a broken neck.
Grann’s expertly crafted narrative begins in the 1870s, when the Osage were driven off their land in southeastern Kansas and relocated to a seemingly even more worthless plot in northeastern Oklahoma.
In the end, it was a deadly eviction. Hence Grann’s title, explained early in the book:
“In May, when coyotes howl beneath an unnervingly large moon, taller plants, such as spiderworts and black-eyed Susans, begin to creep over the tinier blooms, stealing their light and water. The necks of the smaller flowers break and their petals flutter away, and before long they are buried underground. This is why the Osage Indians refer to May as the time of the flower-killing moon.”
As it turned out, the Osage’s new home was underlain with what was then the richest oil deposit in North America.
The Osage quickly became the wealthiest people per capita in the world.
As Grann more eloquently explains it, “… virtually every year the payments increased, like the prairie creeks that joined to form the wide, muddy Cimarron, until the tribe members had collectively accumulated millions and millions of dollars.”
And that made them the targets of white settlers, who murdered with impunity for years in a methodical plot to separate them from those payments.
The federal government had in fact set the table for the whole thing by ordaining that Native Americans weren’t competent to manage such wealth.
Soon after the first oil wells began producing, Congress began monitoring the spending habits of the wealthiest among the Osage and required those deemed “incompetent” to have white “guardians” keep track of their spending.
What was the definition of incompetent? As Grann explains it, “Full-blooded Indians could expect to be deemed ‘incompetent’ and in need of oversight, whereas those of mixed blood were allowed to manage their own affairs.”
Grann lays out this “reign of terror,” all but forgotten except among the relatives of the Osage victims, in gruesome and riveting detail.
A historical detective of the first order, Grann weaves his work of narrative nonfiction so well and so subtly that he puts the reader right there in that time and place, revealing plot twists only as they became known.
Grann also blends into his narrative how the murders became J. Edgar Hoover’s first significant test of the capabilities of the fledgling FBI.
The early G-men got their man — or men — for sure.
But what Grann proves with his own historical detective work nearly a century later is that the FBI’s victory lap was a bit premature. Explaining precisely why that is would give too much away.
Reach Mike McGraw at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow his stories online at flatlandkc.org and @FlatlandKC.
“Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,” by David Grann (298 pages; Doubleday; $28.95)