Imagine being a journalist studying an historical story to learn who was behind a series of murders, and then discovering the conspiracy is so pervasive that the real question is: Was anyone in the town clean?
That’s the theme of two books showcased at Saturday’s Morristown Festival of Books, in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.
David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon examines the FBI’s role investigating an appalling series of killings within the Osage Indian Nation.
During the oil boom of the 1920s, members of the Osage tribe became the world’s richest people per capita. They owned land, property and cars, and had white servants.
Then they began being mysteriously murdered off, in a reign of terror that would claim more than two dozen lives.
Homes were dynamited while victims slept inside. People were poisoned. People were thrown off speeding trains. Fatal gunshots to the backs of heads never showed up in autopsy reports; anyone trying to break the code of silence risked being silenced, in grisly fashion.
The motive was clear — oil rights. But who was doing the killings? A young J. Edgar Hoover, trying to establish his Federal Bureau of Investigation, assigned a team of swashbuckling “cowboy” agents to the case.
They pioneered techniques that would become common investigative tools — fingerprinting, handwriting analysis and undercover operations — with limited success. Grann, a contributor to The New Yorker, suggested Hoover trod lightly, wary of embroiling his fledgling agency in another Teapot Dome-type scandal.
“Though the FBI caught several of the killers, there was a deeper and darker conspiracy that the Bureau never exposed,” Grann said.
Research for the book consumed Grann for more than five years, haunting him as he says it continues to haunt descendants of this stark and disturbing episode in American history.
“This history still reverberates deeply to the present among those people. Many of the descendants of the victims and the murderers still live in the same neighborhoods side by side,” he said.
The book changed Grann’s notions of history.
“I always thought of history as a way, when there was an injustice, to provide a proper accounting. To record the voices of the victims, and to identify the perpetrators. In some of the cases that was possible. But not all of them,” he said.
“I used to think of history, in dealing with crimes or holocausts or something of this nature, as the horror of what we know. But by the end of this book, I really started to think of it as the horror is what we don’t know.”
BLOOD AT THE ROOT, IN GEORGIA
Patrick Phillips’ story, Blood at the Root, drills into the history of another community — Phillips’ hometown in Forsyth County, GA.
At the turn of the 20th century, Forsyth was home to a large African American community that included ministers and teachers, farmers and field hands, tradesmen, and servants.
In September 1912, three young black laborers were accused of raping and murdering a white girl.
A brutal campaign of violence ensued. The entire black community was driven out. Churches were burned to the ground. Forsyth became known as the most racist area of Georgia, Phillips said.
By the time Phillips’ family moved in, carefully woven legends masked the history. Best if it wasn’t discussed, yes?
No, Phillips insisted. The Forsyth story is not an isolated incidence of racial cleansing. Prejudice has been passed down for generations. Census data, analyzed by his colleague, and recent events such as the white supremacist marches on Charlottesville, support his arguments.
Another theme common to Blood at the Root and Killers of the Flower Moon is how technology can illuminate the past. History does not automatically grow dimmer as time goes on.
The preservation of records in digitized, searchable form enables research to proceed at a pace never possible before. Both authors also were able to tap into oral histories.
Their cases also refute the idea that communities can “work these things out” locally. Generations after the atrocities against the Osage in Oklahoma and the black community in Forsyth, descendants of the perpetrators remained in charge of local governments.
The federal government’s record isn’t much better. Federal authorities overlooked the crimes in Forsyth to concentrate on moonshiners in the northern hills of Georgia.
This, Phillips pointed out, has distinct parallels to today’s war on drugs. Destroying a meth lab is much like busting up a still. The economics are identical.
In 1912, corn prices were depressed. Farmers could make far more money from jugs of “White Lightning” than from wagon-loads of corn. Today, it doesn’t take much capital to obtain opioids, crush up the pills and sell them. Profits far surpass the minimum wage.
While it’s discouraging to realize how much the past is prologue, Killers of the Flower Moon and Blood at the Root show that losing curiosity about the past is even more problematic.
The most damning evidence of bloodied hands, of course, came from following the money, which left a clear paper trail in both cases.
“It is shocking. But it doesn’t surprise me,” Connie Kruse, who came from Hackettstown to hear Grann’s talk, said of the Osage plight.
“You find out there is so much greed. People do a lot of things for money.”
Kevin Coughlin contributed to this report.