31 | An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz

Gun violence is a tricky subject– highly politicized, I feel like I hardly understand what it is like to be caught in the crossfire when you’re from a community that it plagues. When I saw this book on my local library’s audiobook selection, I was excited. Published in 2019, Kotlowitz uses an ethnographic approach to examine what life is like for a handful of people in Chicago and how their lives are shaped by gun violence. He had clearly built rapport with the main cast featured in the book, sharing their deepest fears and anxieties about what lies ahead for them. With ethnographies that deal with sticky issues, I always worry the text may feel leech-like and inappropriate, but I really respect the way Kotlowitz was able to approach the topic in a depoliticized way, not pretending to know what the magic cure is to gun violence.

One of the stories that stayed with me after reading the book was that of a young woman who grew up in the inner city. She recalled having a best friend who was a boy and a crush on her best friend’s friend from another school. As she grew up and went to high school, the boys around her began getting into serious trouble, getting shot, going to jail, and some even getting killed. They hardened and became criminals, no longer innocent kids. Her childhood best friend ended up getting pregnant at 16 and he eventually went to prison for participating in a murder attempt. As soon as she could, she left Chicago, knowing in her heart she could not stay and that the street would catch up to her. She went to college, got a job, and tried to sever the emotional ties to Chicago, distancing herself emotionally and mentally. She catches word that her childhood crush is killed in a gang shooting and tries to reconcile her upbring and where she is in that moment, college-educated and out of the nightmarish city she grew up in. It is such a tragic vignette of her life, I don’t know how she is strong enough to pick herself up and continue on.

I highly recommend this book and note to my future self, would/should read this again. It’s highly relevant and most of us are in a privileged enough position to learn as much as we can on the topic. I did not feel like this ethnography was voyeuristic or problematic in anyway; though it is obviously very unsettling content, it is important to learn how others experience life, dictated by the fear of and also status quo of gun violence.

29 | I Will Find You: Solving Killer Cases from My Life Fighting Crime by Detective Lt. Joe Kenda

I found this book while browsing my local library’s audiobook app and thought the blurb sounded interesting, I mean, how boring could a book be if he stars in his own TV show? Detective Lieutenant Joe Kenda narrates his own book in a very deadpan, matter-of-fact manner, sharing his own thoughts while at various crime scenes throughout this career. You can tell he is a very dedicated person who has hardened after years in law enforcement, investigating child abuse cases, murders, and all kinds of violence due to drugs, alcohol, and mental health issues. He is at the front lines, witnessing the devastation and chaos, the blood and the bodies, broken families and grieving ones. I admire and respect people in law enforcement– there is no way I could bear to see what they do and be strong enough to compartmentalize it in order to lead a somewhat normal life.

One thing that struck me with Kenda’s book is how little experience/education he has in trauma-informed language and looking into the systemic reasons for violence and abuse. Trauma is known to be transgenerational, meaning if someone was abused as a child, they are likely to abuse their own children. Kenda frequently says he wants to do to the abuser and the abuser has done to the victim, and while I understand that may be the gut reaction, it is critical to address why violence occurs in the first place. Are there mental health problems that run in the family? Is there high levels of toxic stress in the family? Are finances unstable? Do they have access to healthcare? Food? Stable housing? All of the instability in people’s lives contribute to drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence rates and crime in general. To merely arrest people and throw them in jail is not stopping the cycle of violence. It can actually be extremely traumatic for children to have incarcerated family members– it is considered an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). Other ACEs include physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, and divorce. If Kenda had known about trauma-informed language and looked at violence from a public health perspective, he may have had a positive impact by helping to actually break the cycle of trauma. If he worked closer with social services and service providers, maybe things could have been different. Violence is preventable; by strengthening economic supports around parents and shifting the narrative away from “it’s a problem with the individual” to it’s a transgenerational problem, we can stop abuse before it happens.

9 | Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales by Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

“Anthropologists and insects can reveal the truth about a crime, but they can’t force the wheels of bureaucracy to turn, and they can’t guarantee that justice will be done. All they can do is serve as a voice for victims, and hope that voice is heard.”

This book is a fascinating read– a much more informative read than Mary H. Manheim’s The Bone Lady and one that reads more seriously and with more gravity than Mary Roach’s Stiff. Mostly because Manheim writes about her career in before the 1990s, before the advent of DNA technologies while Bass is writing about his career which spanned the 1940s until the 2000s. Intertwined with case reviews of some of the biggest cases he has ever worked on and accomplishments as the department head of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee (UT) at Knoxville, Bass writes about his personal life, the deaths of his first and second wives to cancers and how he threw himself into his work to seek solace.

I’ve always wondered why people pursue such professions– homicide investigators, coroners, forensic entomologists/anthropologists/etc. It’s because they believe in a greater mission and are able to look past the literal-ness of their work. By solving crimes, they are keeping their communities safer, pioneering the use of new scientific methods and testing and cataloguing information to help solve other cases. There’s no shortage of colorful description about how Bass’ colleague, a leading fingerprint expert, asks Bass to cut off a hand of a murdered prostitute’s corpse, or how Bass himself reviews hundreds of crime scene photos of three dead and bloated bodies of a man, his wife, and their four year old daughter, left to rot in a mountain cabin for a month, as he looks for maggot pupae in order to determine the time of death. The reality of the job is sickening yet incredible- it is because of the diligence and dedication that people like Bass have to their jobs that crimes are solved, criminals are successfully prosecuted and victims receive some justice.

One of the most remarkable parts of Bass’ legacy is the creation of the Body Farm, an anthropological research facility at UT literally borne out of genuine curiosity with how to answer questions like: how long does a body take to decay outside, in the dead of winter? In the heat of the summer? What about in water? What kinds of residue is left in the soil? How can you tell if a body has been moved after the death? However macabre these questions are, there’s no doubt how critically forensic evidence needs to be investigated in order to shed light on the scene, without the murderer or the victim saying what happened. The level of scientific expertise developed due to the research efforts at the Body Farm is amazing, so much so that federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have consulted with Bass and his proteges on hundreds of cases. Bass really exemplifies what it means to bridge his academic work as a professor of anthropology to the “real world,” frequently going to crime scenes to collect and examine evidence. He doesn’t skimp on the explaining the science (in layman terms) of what happens when bodies are burned– as the body looses water, muscles and tendons clamp up and the body begins to curl. By examining the structure, color and density of the bone, one can tell how hot the fire was, the position of the body as it burned, but it can also reveal, though burned, if there were peri or post mortem wounds to the bone– perhaps a gunshot entry/exit wound or blade mark.

To me, crime fiction in books and television seems perverse in a way– many times what happens in fiction is inspired by something happening in real life. “Good” crime show producers and writers consult real world experts- forensics scientists, FBI agents, police, in order to make something as “real” and “believable” as possible. I personally don’t read or watch anything to do with crime fiction for the reason I don’t think someone’s lived and post-mortem experience should be fictionalized to create a sensational story, with fake blood and the like. But reading Bass’ book and learning about the very “down to earth” research conducted at the Body Farm seems less and almost not at all disturbing as the research is only necessitated because of real crime.

6 | Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

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.”