What if justice is never served? What do victims and their families have to cling on to? The story is not only gut-wrenching, but also infuriating and alarming. I have cursory knowledge of the plight of many Native Americans in the United States gleaned from history classes in school, including some semblance of understanding about wars fought with European colonists, widespread disease they had no immunity towards, the Trail of Tears, forced relocation, decimation of their food sources and hunting grounds, forced reeducation by Catholic and Christian missionaries (including sexual abuse by priests)… but what happened to the Osage people in the 1920s was a whole new level of exploitation and utter transgression of human rights. This book reads like crime fiction, but it is not.
After the Osage were forced from their lands and confined to a small Indian Territory in Oklahoma during the 1870s, which Wah-Ti-An-Kah, an Osage chief chose because he believed it to be barren enough no white man would ever wish to claim it, they attempted to establish their way of life once again. However, just over a decade later, there were no more American buffalo left to hunt due to encouraged eradication by U.S. authorities. As Osage went hungry, there were systematic policies to force further assimilation. Allotment policies were created to destroy the Osage’s traditional communal land structures, and white people began to arrive in the area, buying (but mostly taking) land parcels not already distributed. The Osage discovered they were sitting on some of the largest oil deposits on the continental U.S., and were able to create a tribe mineral trust, resulting in every Osage family receiving a headright. The tribe began to lease land to whites for exploration and drilling, and the Osage eventually became the richest people per capita in the world. While the Osage had mansions, automobiles, clothes from Europe and even white people working for them, they were not allowed to spend their own money: every transaction had to be approved by a white guardian.
The scope of the book is really only one case, that of Mollie Burkhart and her family, wealthy Osage who lived in a small Oklahoma trading post called Gray Horse who possessed a significant headright. One by one, her sisters, father, brother-in-law, mother and former husband die– some clearly murdered by a gunshot to the back of the head, a house explosion, or poision, but others not so certain. It is very clear from the beginning that something is seriously wrong: no lawman, private eye, guardian, investigator, doctor or coroner get any leads to attempt to figure out what really happened. Other Osage die too, also under “mysterious” circumstances. After years of murders, paranoia and mistrust, the Bureau of Investigation, created only a few years earlier in 1908 by Theodore Roosevelt, sends Agent Tom White and others to investigate. This investigation was the controversial figure J. Edgar Hoover’s pet project and the Bureau’s first major investigation. White was eventually able to reveal a mass entanglement of lies and manipulation, but not without the aid of informants, undercover work and extensive investigation. The head of the criminal enterprise was none other than the guardian of Mollie and her family: William K. Hale, a respected and extremely wealthy businessman, who had actually wandered into Gray Horse as a poor nobody looking for opportunity. He systematically murdered various family members in order for Mollie to inherit each family member’s fortune. His nephew Ernest was married to Mollie, and the hope was when Mollie would die (or really, when she was mysteriously murdered), all the accumulated wealth would have nicely trickled down into Ernest’s hands. In order to secure this, witnesses, spouses, random street walkers, and really anyone who saw or heard any crimes committed were killed. The total number of people murdered by Hale was never known. Obviously, Hale and his nephews could not have executed this scheme alone. Agent White concluded that doctors, coroners, local and state government officials and other guardians were all in on this dirty “secret.”
The official Reign of Terror against the Osage took place during 1921 to 1926. But further investigation done by Grann as he spoke to surviving Osage relatives was that the killings began before 1921 and did not end in 1926. There weren’t just 20 Osage who were murdered for their headrights, and it wasn’t just Hale and his associates doing the murdering. There were hundreds of suspicious deaths, as in the case of a 21 year old Osage woman with a six month old baby who “committed suicide” in her front yard. The granddaughter of this woman suspected it was her grandmother’s stepfather, a white man, who had masterminded the murder in order to inherit her and her mother’s headrights. Grann writes “so many of the murders of the Osage were so well concealed” that no justice was ever given to the victims. White women married Osage men to murder them and inherit their wealth. Guardians killed the Osage they were supposed to watch over. Doctors injected morphine to kill Osage. Coroners issued false cause of the death documents. In the case of Mollie and Ernest Burkhart, Ernest had planned to kill Mollie and their three young children to inherit their birthrights.
What’s even more sickening is that Hale was only convinced for a few of the murders, and was actually later paroled and died a free man. Ernest was also paroled. Most murderers were never sentenced; in fact most murders were never declared murders and therefore there is no chance for true resolution or justice. This book does not offer resolution whatsoever. The last line is what a descendant of the Osage says, quoting what God tells Cain after he kills Abel: “The blood cries out from the ground.”