David Grann’s meticulous literary journalism in “Killers of the Flower Moon: Oil, Murder, Money, and the Birth of the FBI” brings to light not only the forgotten Osage murders but also a close reading into the functioning of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. From the formation of the FBI to the politics of power play within the bureau, Grann presents a well-researched investigation of the investigators in his latest true crime non-fiction.
The Formation Of The FBI
The book starts with one of the Osage Indian families (Mollie Burkhart’s), the mysterious deaths of the members (either being shot, poisoned, or bombed), and the ultimate incompetency in the investigation. The narrative soon shifts to the case being taken up by the federal government, owing to the failure of the local sheriffs and private investigators. J Edgar Hoover, the ambitious bureaucrat, takes up the case of the Osage Murders, and he assigns special agent Tom White to investigate these odd killings. Thus begins the tedious operation of the FBI as they advance from being mere “fact-gatherers” to unraveling the dirty game of greed and deceit at play. However, Grann doesn’t forget to subtly point out how a major driving force behind Hoover’s interest in the case was also to establish and build up the image of the Federal Bureau under his direction.
It was only after four years after the first cases of the Osage Murders that the plea for justice by the Osage Indians was beginning to be heard. White assembled a team that would fit the requirements of the case. The first and oldest member was the former sheriff from New Mexico with the potentiality of a proficient undercover agent; next was a blond-haired Texas Ranger who was adept at handling risky and highly dangerous situations; the third was a “deep-cover operative” who could easily pass for an insurance salesman, John Burgher was the only agent who was retained from the previous investigation because of his prior association with the case; and after Frank Smith, White roped in John Wren, who was the only American Indian in the team.
The members then arrived in Osage County as undercover agents. White began his investigation by going back to the roots. He brought in a number of suspects and questioned them rigorously while checking and cross-checking their alibis. Given the intensity, history, and pronounced nature of the case, White was compelled to leave no stone unturned. Self-confessed criminals like Morrison were also brought on board. Morrison was to act as an informant in the case, and in return, the assault charges against him would be dropped. David Grann also takes the readers through the evolution of the FBI, as Hoover formed the “Identification Division,” where ‘fingerprinting’ and other scientific methods to identify criminals were then introduced.
With the help of inputs from Morrison and consultations from the Criminologists, White drew in a new angle in the case. A new suspect—”a strange white man”—had entered the big game. This new colluder was not only eradicating the evidence but also manipulating the line of investigation. Soon, new advancements and theories began surfacing, and based on a detailed study of the existing Osage murder reports; Hoover suspected the presence of a “rat.” The suspicion fell directly on attorney A.W. Cumstock, who acted as a guardian to a number of Osage families.
The investigation grew more taxing for White as he got closer to the principal conspirators. It was in the process of questioning one of the final suspects on his list, Bryan Burkhart (Mollie’s brother-in-law), that White was particularly perturbed. The original investigative reports of Anna Brown’s murder case somehow failed to corroborate White’s follow-up investigation four years later. It wasn’t much later that White made a keen observation of how the crucial witness statements from the case had been systematically erased from the archives. This only hinted at the bigger game of conspiracy that was in play, a game that connected all the Osage murders and was only getting murkier at every step.
The Final Revelation
The slow progress in White’s investigation received a blow when the information within the bureau was leaked. The presence of a mole was suspected, and the easy blame fell on Morrison, the informant, and it was decided that he would be exposed. However, the lurking threat of the possible presence of further moles and secret informants within the department was something that acted as a constant worry for the FBI. Amidst several setbacks and letdowns, White received his first major breakthrough in the case through Pike, who was the private agent hired by William Hale. Pike’s revelations about Hale raised some important questions, the answers to which could potentially unravel the case of the Osage Murders to a great extent. Pike’s statements made two things clear: William Hale wanted to protect Bryan Burkhart, and curiously enough, Mollie’s husband, Ernest Burkhart, was also involved in this ever-intensifying conspiracy.
With a new lead to follow, White began looking into William Hale. Forgotten testimonies and fabricated hospital statements further exposed how “the flow of oil money from Osage headrights” laid the foundation of the deaths in the Osage Tribe. The killings were not acts of casual greed and avarice, but rather systemic brutality and injustice heaved on the Osage Tribe to ostracize and rob them. It becomes obvious how every individual at every step in the process of the killings and the prolonged investigation was a mere pawn orchestrated by the former sheriff, William Hale. “The King of Osage Hills” and the uncle of Bryan and Ernest Burkhart, William K. Hale, turns out to be the master conspirator—the perpetrator in the guise of the protector.
The Conviction And Trial Of William K. Hale
With the help of corrupt doctors, fraudulent insurance policies, and forged documents, Hale had meticulously schemed to remove each member of Mollie’s family. Hale was aware that the only legal way to obtain “head rights” was to “inherit” them, and Mollie, being married to his nephew Ernest, was the easiest target. Therefore, starting off with Anna (her sister), then Lizzie (her mother), Rita (her sister), and Bill Smith (his brother-in-law), Hale had devised the killings in such a manner that the total inheritance resided on Mollie Burkhart, the only living member of her family and his nephew’s wife. And White believed that, finally, Hale had somehow created a channel to acquire the fortune himself through his nephew.
With the investigation coming to an end, another challenge that awaited White was the trial of William K. Hale. A confession from the crafty and conniving “King of Osage Hills” was an impossible task; hence, White turned to Ernest Burkhart. Although the FBI managed to secure evidence and testimony against the conspirator, Hale dismissed them and confidently claimed to fight the case. The case further took a dive when Burkhart flipped sides and denied giving his testimony against Hale, thus making a foolery of the FBI. However, in the end, Burkhart comes around and testifies against his uncle. Although the possibility was high that Hale could have bought the jury and obtained a favorable decision, such was not the case. William Hale and Ernest Burkhart were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. This section of Grann’s account takes a dramatic turn. White, after completing his investigation successfully, decided to leave the bureau and instead take up the designation of a warden just like his father. And in an absolute movie-like manner, White’s job took him to Leavenworth prison, where he had Hale as his prisoner.
See More: ‘Killers Of The Flower Moon: The Osage Murders And The Birth Of The FBI’ Book Review