15 | The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

I became interested in reading The Lost City of Z after reading David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon; I really enjoyed his journalistic style: investigative but also critical of how justice played out in the case of the Osage. This book was published eight years prior to Killers and I would have to say it’s quite different. It is a blend of biography, self-reflection and clear speculation as Grann chronicles the story of Percy Fawcett, a British man with an insatiable appetite for exploration and an obsession with finding the lost city of Z, an El Dorado-like untouched paradise, deep in the Amazon rainforest. There is also much more meandering throughout the book, as Grann discusses the stories of various other explorers including Fawcett’s main competitors, Fawcett’s companions and the drama on certain expeditions (every expedition has a Judas, apparently) and parts of Fawcett’s life that are a bit too tangential for my liking including his early days in Sri Lanka where as a young officer he met his wife and heard folklore about a treasure trove in a cave (he did not find it). But Grann does go to considerable lengths to piece Fawcett’s story together: traveling to England’s Royal Geographical Society where Fawcett was trained and his expeditions funded and to the Amazon itself, retracing Fawcett’s last known location. He also conducted extensive archival research, interviewed Fawcett’s surviving relatives who provided him with access to Fawcett’s journals, papers and private correspondences with his wife and sought help from anthropologists who studied both ancient and contemporary Amazon tribes. Grann paints a grim picture of what an obsession with the Amazon did to one man and his party.

Incredibly, Fawcett didn’t just explore the Amazon once, he went multiple times, each time exploring a different route. He, along with his eldest son Jack and his son’s best friend Raleigh, disappeared in 1925 on what would be his fifth Amazon expedition. No one has found their remains or knows what happened although many con-men have claimed to know what happened. Attacked by a violent tribe? Contraction of disease? Infection? Jaguar attack? Poison dart frog? Piranha? Starvation? The list goes on and on of the terrible things that could have happened to Fawcett and his party, all of which are plausible, but none confirmed. In the end, Grann doesn’t find out what happened to the missing group or if Z was real. Instead, the reader gets a glimpse into what kind of a culture facilitated this mission and infatuation with a mystical civilization.

When thinking about what I learned from this book, one word kept repeating itself in my mind, over and over again. Ego. Ego drives people to do the most extreme things, to the most extreme places, to submit oneself to the most extreme of circumstances. For name, recognition, reward, who knows what exactly what was going through Fawcett’s mind, but this explorer’s ego wasn’t uncommon in 20th century England, or 19th, or 18th or 17th. The idea of discovering, conquering and subjugating the foreign is rife in European (and American) history. Domesticate the savage, excavate his riches and profitting, was surely the mantra of colonizers who not only sought to exploit people and their labor, but also the land for agriculture and resources. Not only was the Royal Geographical Society, mostly focused on drawing accurate maps and developing the tools to do so, in on the idea of discovery, so were institutions like the Royal Botanic Gardens and the Crown. All these ideas of superiority in race, language and cultural values were used to justify European conquests of parts unknown and to educate and Christianize savages they encountered. It was violent: disease decimated those with no immunity, many were enslaved or murdered by rubber barons and miners, not to mention those who lost ancestral lands to burning, logging and damming. I think Grann should have highlighted this more, just how embedded this mindset of superiority, stemming from European cultural institutions was in explorers of Fawcett’s day.

While Grann is no anthropologist or scholar, there were some fascinating tidbits about the Amazon’s cultures and ecology. While there are hundreds of tribes all throughout the Amazon, many are insulated by the jungle and do not have any contact with government authorities. Some are violent and will kill any trespasser on site. On the other hand, there are many other tribes who do have councils of their own and lobby on the national scale for various Indian rights. There are Indians who have integrated into Brazilian and Bolivian societies (though Grann does not write about the challenges they face). There is amazing diversity in cultural practice, language and custom in the region, the landscape acting as an impermeable barrier to keep egoistic white men out and natives safe. I would be open to reading more literature on South America both fiction and non-fiction as there is just so much to learn.

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.”