The Innocents by Bridget Walsh

This is the second in the entertaining historical mystery series Bridget Walsh launched last year with The Tumbling Girl. The stories are set in a somewhat seedy Victorian England music hall called the Variety Palace.

The Innocents takes its title from a mass-casualty event that occurred at Christmastime fourteen years before the main story. In a different theater, subsequently closed, a sold-out audience of children had been promised presents after the show. Actors on stage threw the treats toward the audience in the stalls. Seeing they would never get any of the presents, the children seated upstairs in the balconies and galleries rushed downstairs only to find that the doors into the main auditorium bolted shut against them. In the massive pileup of small bodies, pushing and shoving, many children were injured and one hundred eighty-three suffocated. No one was ever held to account for the tragedy—a bitter pill in the hearts of a great many families.

Minnie Ward, protagonist of the earlier novel and this one, is a skit-writer for the Variety Palace. She is temporarily in charge of the Palace while her boss, Edward Tansford (Tansie) recovers from the tragic events recounted in the earlier book. (While author Walsh makes frequent reference to those events, it isn’t necessary to have read the earlier novel in order to follow the story in this one.) Minnie is again teamed up with former policeman, now private detective, Albert Easterbook. You can’t help but believe that, if the series goes on long enough, those two will finally capitulate to their obvious mutual attraction, but so far Minnie is holding fast. Well, wavering.

Now it’s 1877, and the theater world has experienced a series of recent murders. They hit close to home when one of the Palace’s performers reports his brother missing and asks for Minnie’s help. When Minnie and Albert discover the missing man’s body in his dressing room, the realization gradually takes hold that all of the dead were connected in some way to the Christmastime tragedy. What’s more, all the deaths involved some form of suffocation. With so many people and families affected by the children’s deaths, it’s a challenge for Minnie and Albert to figure out where to begin their investigations.

Tansie reemerges, ready to take the helm of the Palace again but soon distracted again—this time by the disappearance of his monkey, who, he believes, has been snatched by a nefarious character who runs dog fights. Here Walsh gives you a peek at not just the talented and sometimes tony denizens and patrons of the Victorian theater world, but also a look at a decidedly seamy side of London life. Her vivid descriptions of these distinctive settings and the picturesque people they attract add considerably to the charm of the whole narrative.

Of course Albert worries about Minnie’s safety and of course she takes chances she shouldn’t, but in the fast pace of events here, you don’t have time to dwell on her occasional lapses of good sense. Nor do you lose confidence in the basic goodness of the main characters. Flaws and all, they are eminently likeable (even the monkey, who hides in the theater’s rafters and pees on the audience below).

Meanwhile, other complications have arisen. There’s plenty of plot here, engaging characters, a  colorful setting, and a fast pace. If you like to lose yourself in another era with a solid historical mystery, this is one you may really enjoy!

An Unexpected Gem: A Fire Museum!

On Saturdays in Allentown, NJ, the New Jersey Fire Museum and Fallen Firefighters Memorial opens to the public. It may sound a tad remote, but if you’re on the NJ Turnpike (unlucky you) approaching exit 7A, you’re only 4.5 miles away!

It’s a volunteer-run facility, and the time investment and thoughtfulness of the volunteers are evident at every turn. The museum building has an interesting collection of esoterica. You find out how fire alarm boxes work. You find out about “fire grenades” (glass bulbs filled with water or carbon tetrachloride thrown at the base of a presumably small fire. They were outlawed in 1954 not only because of hazardous broken glass, but because burning carbon tet produces phosgene, the deadliest WWI gas). You find out why US firefighters’ helmets have such an unusual shape: the long back brim keeps water from running down inside the firefighters’ collar, and the peaked front, often featuring an animal, can be used to break glass), and much more.

The photo above shows a hand-pumper purchased in 1822 by the Crosswicks (NJ) Fire Department for $100. Damaged at a fire, it was rebuilt in 1850 and still being used in 1922—giving the community more than 100 years of service! The horse-drawn fire wagon pictured below is from 1789, the year George Washington became President. (The flowers seem an unusual touch, though early luxury automobiles sometimes offered bud vases, as did the Volkswagen Beetle, with its blumenvasen.)

A barn adjacent to the museum houses a fantastic collection of mostly vintage fire trucks, mostly restored to dramatic beauty (see more here). Lots of red paint. Clearly a labor of love. Kids (adults too, I suppose) can sit in the driver’s seat. Also there’s a gift shop in the museum. If you’re in the market for a stuffed Dalmatian, you’re at the right place. Another reason kids will enjoy this museum? A roomful of fire trucks and related toys.

The memorial component is woven into mission of the organization. The website includes a list of fallen firefighters, noting nine whose Last Alarm was in 2021, 12 in 2020, and a list of 107 whose service dates back more than 200 years. An area is set aside to honor the 343 firefighters and paramedics killed on 9/11. The memorial itself will be on the Museum grounds, when it’s complete.

From One White House to Another

Herbert Hoover is one of only two US Presidents (John F. Kennedy was the other) who declined to accept pay for that job—a rather thankless one in Hoover’s case. His personal fortune and Quaker values made that choice possible. Was he heir to a life of wealth and privilege? Not at all. He was born in 1874 in the two-room Iowa cottage pictured and lived there with his parents and two siblings.

At age 9, Herb became an orphan, and family members took the children in, eventually sending him to an Uncle in Oregon. He traveled there by train, by himself, at age 11. The uncle was a lumberman, but also ran a Quaker school, which must have been a pretty good one, because, besides learning his uncle’s business, Herb was a member of the first class at the then-new Stanford University (now home of the Hoover Institution).

He studied geology, aiming toward a career as a mining engineer, met his to-be wife Lou (the first woman student in Stanford’s geology department), and eventually worked for a British mining company. Sent to Australia, he discovered a sizeable gold mine, which was the foundation of his personal fortune. He and Lou were living in China when the Boxer rebellion broke out, and she remembered sweeping the brass cartridge cases off the front porch every morning.

Hoover made his name in public service by helping Americans stranded in Europe at the start of World War I, then managing famine relief efforts in Europe after the war (and later after World War II). He relied on his own and others’ volunteerism, and a fundamental tenet of his personal philosophy was that, if you ask people to help, they will. Alas, this worked against him after he became President, just before the start of the Great Depression. Too many people were affected. His conviction that government’s role in relieving poverty should be minimal contributed greatly to his unpopularity, and for many years, the good things he accomplished were overlooked.

Hoover had a lifelong interest in the Boys’ Clubs of America, as Lou did with the Girl Scouts’ organization. I was surprised and glad to learn that there was more than I thought to his legacy; it’s a shame that a career of serving others is obscured by the dark shadow of the early 1930s and a financial catastrophe too big for him to manage.

On our recent Midwest trip, we visited West Branch, Iowa (just east of Iowa City), his boyhood home, where his Presidential Library and Museum are located, along with his birthplace cottage, gravesite, and other late-1800s buildings. Not on the beaten path, but well worth a visit.

Quad Cities Attractions

Everyone knows what the big US cities are all about. But the country’s mid-sized towns also offer possibilities for tourists and aren’t so overwhelming. And there’s parking. We recently visited the Quad Cities—Davenport and Bettendorf ,Iowa, and Rock Island and the Molines in northwest Illinois—population 468,000. Whoever thought of going there? My husband.

We stayed two nights at the restored Hotel Blackhawk in Davenport—a 1915 gem (lobby ceiling pictured), beautifully restored and now one of Marriott’s autograph collection hotels. The restaurants were fine, not fabulous, the martini bar was fun, and the guest rooms had many little touches to make a guest’s stay more enjoyable. They were the epitome of “it’s the little things that count.”

Because of the cities’ size, they’re easy to get around in, but you have to cross the Mississippi River to travel from one state to the other. We wanted to see the Rock Island Arsenal and associated attractions which are entered from the Illinois side (GPS saved us) via the Moline Gate, and you have to get a military ID card at the Visitors Control Center—they check your criminal record, BTW. I guess we were “OK.” It’s the largest government-owned weapons manufacturing arsenal in the country and a National Historic Landmark. Both a National Cemetery and Confederate cemetery are there.

We knew the Rock Island Arsenal had been a major manufacturer of US arms and armaments in both World Wars up until today, but we hadn’t realized it’s also the home base of the First Army, so lots of barracks and military housing, as well as beautiful old stone buildings.

A Mississippi River visitor center is on the island, and that was our first stop. It’s smallish, with enthusiastic staff. It’s also well positioned, overlooking two locks (Locks and Dam #15) that help boat traffic navigate the changing depths of the river. There are 29 lock and dam structures along the upper Mississippi that maintain a 9-foot navigation channel, allowing boats of all kinds to travel from St. Paul, Minn., to St. Louis, Mo.—around a 400-foot drop. Below St. Louis the incoming water from the Missouri, Ohio, Illinois, and Arkansas rivers widen and deepen the Mississippi, and the lock are no longer necessary.

Nearby is a still-used, historical railway swing bridge, one section of which can pivot out of the way to allow taller boat traffic to pass beneath. (If the accompanying animation will work, you’ll see the bridge in action, as well as Mississippi barge traffic entering and leaving the locks.) The locks and dam structures are the province of the Army Corps of Engineers, which has a headquarters building on Rock Island. The building has a clock tower, built in 1867, and the clock isn’t working. Hmmmm. They should fix that. And, of course, you’re thinking of the Rock Island Line and Johnny Cash. The Rock Island Railway was so famous in its day it was Jesse James’s choice for his first robbery.

The museum, with the history of armaments (focusing on their manufacture) was well done and impressively large. You may be glad to know that the military is up-to-date with 3D printing, and at Rock Island it’s tested for use in creating spare parts no longer available or quickly needed tools and parts in the field, as well as lighter-weight gear. In the military, 3D printing is termed “additive manufacturing.” The museum takes pains to acknowledge the contributions to its history from Black Americans, who guarded its camp for Confederate prisoners, and women, who took on the manufacturing jobs when the men went overseas.

A great way to spend half a day! We skipped the botanical gardens (rain) and went to the art museum instead.

It’s a Fast-Changing World. It’s the 1880s!

Each Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery volume, published by Belanger Books, includes at least a dozen stories, filling in the years 1881-1886. Holmes and Watson were already together then, but Watson was uncharacteristically quiet about their adventures. In Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, edited by Richard T. Ryan, contemporary writers make up for Watson’s reticence, creating excellent adventures to help fill in the gap.

Naturally, the challenges in writing a story set almost 140 years ago are significant. No cell phones, no video surveillance, no DNA evidence, no criminal databases, and no other scientific or organizational trappings modern crime stories employ. I asked my fellow authors whether these differences are a help with their stories or a hindrance. Here’s what they said:

The Victorian setting allows for a more “classical” mystery, says George Gardner. For his story, he researched how much the Victorians knew about dynamite. He admits that he “may have bent some rules in terms of chronology there,” but since dynamite was invented by Alfred Nobel in 1866, George is on pretty solid ground, it seems.

The Victorian setting “is an advantage more than a hindrance as the instantaneousness of modern communications can get in the way of a good story,” says Kevin Thornton. The telegraph is the fastest communications technology available to Holmes, and in Thornton’s two stories, he makes good use of it. Another advantage, says George Jacobs, is that he can “keep Holmes’s mind at the forefront of the adventure.” What’s more, “having to rush around London (or farther afield) on foot or in a cab, and sometimes engage in fisticuffs with the villains” adds to the adventure.

The authors strive to be sure that not just the technology, but “the feel of every story is right,” too, says Katy Darby. This includes language and dialog, style and social etiquette, and even making sure the types of characters are true to their times. How to accomplish this? Darby says, “The 1860s-1880s is my second home, period-wise, and my Victorian library is ever-growing.” Shelby Phoenix noted what is an extra attraction of the Victorian era for her: It “allows for so many more paranormal approaches, and who can say no to making things seem spooky?”

It’s really a balance. By setting a story in the Victorian era, authors avoid having modern technology “short-circuit the elaborate investigation” they’d planned. Nevertheless, Holmes’s era was one of rapid scientific and technological progress, and authors must pinpoint when these advances took hold, says D.J. Tyrer. Over the period in which the Holmes stories are set—roughly 1885 to 1914—much about society, science, and politics changed. But, “whatever level of technology Holmes has access to,” says author Paul Hiscock, “I always see him as being at the cutting edge of forensic science.” Whatever the technological details, “a good mystery is about how the detective puts all the pieces of evidence together.”

Many authors say that one of the aspects of writing in that era that they like best is delving into those details. As an example, Kevin Thornton’s two linked stories involving shenanigans related to new North American transcontinental railways offered numerous enticing rabbit holes for this author to pursue. As Watson extols the excitement of shortening travel times, Holmes points out that “as the citizenry disperses, so does crime.” This observation foreshadows a visit from a representative of the much-indebted Canadian Pacific Railroad, fearful of a hostile takeover. Watson needs an explanation of this financial predicament, which leads to a lucid explanation of the constraints faced by a publicly traded company. Other examples of Thornton’s research include descriptions of the myriad ways Holmes could visually identify an American, military training, Eastern martial arts, American railroad moguls, the action of poison, and the lineage of the Earl of Derby, the Honourable Frederick Stanley. (In 1888, Stanley became Governor General of Canada, and Thornton helpfully notes that the famous hockey trophy is named for him.)

See how these authors put fact and fiction together. Their stories in Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885 are:
George Gardner – “The Adventure of the Damaged Tomb”
Kevin Thornton – “Tracks Across Canada” and “Tracked Across America”
George Jacobs – “The Mystery of the Cloven Cord”
Katy Darby – “The Adventure of the Lock Hospital”
Shelby Phoenix – “Sherlock Holmes and the Six-Fingered Hand Print”
D.J. Tyrer – “The Japanese Village Mystery”
Paul Hiscock – “The Light of Liberty”

The Scarlet Letter

Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, brings to thrilling life the world premiere of Kate Hamill’s adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, directed by Shelley Butler, from February 9’s opening night through February 25th. In the hands of Hamill, Butler, and a superb cast, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s poignant story moves along with both speed and passion.

Hamill has made something of a cottage industry out of adapting classic works, becoming one of the country’s most-produced playwrights. While Hester Prynne has numerous feminist fans, and while Hester’s story set almost 400 years ago reverberates loudly today, Hamill has not written a polemic. Instead, her Scarlet Letter is a story of love and revenge, almost equally thwarted.

Hester Prynne (played by Amelia Pedlow), a member of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, is a presumed widow, her husband lost at sea for some two years. When she becomes pregnant, she’s accused of adultery, whipped, and must wear a scarlet A, always. Despite efforts to humiliate her, she remains a dignified, affectionate mother.

Resplendent and full of his authority, Governor Hibble (Triney Sandoval) cannot persuade Hester to say who baby Pearl’s father is. Hester’s husband (Kevin Isola) unexpectedly returns in the guise of a doctor and blackmails her to keep his true identity secret. He’s determined to discover the father, not out of love or loyalty, but a desire for control. Meanwhile, the town’s clergyman, Rev. Dimmesdale (Keshav Moodliar) sermonizes about guilt and sin. Addressing the theater audience as his congregation, Moodliar’s delivery is pitch-perfect, and his portrayal of the conscience-stricken Reverend inspires great sympathy.

The governor’s prunish wife, Goody Hibbins (Mary Bacon), is not sympathetic. She’s embittered by unsuccessful pregnancies, and claims Hester has bewitched her. We know, as Hawthorne did, what a dangerous accusation this is, only a few decades before the Salem witch trials. (One of the presiding judges was Hawthorne’s great-great grandfather, John Hathorne—the only one of the judges who never repented his actions.)

Most of the play takes place when Pearl is about four, and special mention must be made of the puppet that plays Pearl, animated and voiced by Nikki Calonge. As Hamill said about the decision to use a puppet, “In some ways a real child is too real. The magical thing about puppets is that they accomplish the real and the otherworldly.” Feisty, stubborn, uncharming Pearl seems determined to displease the Puritans, chanting, “I love sin! I love sin!” By clever staging, Calonge becomes Pearl’s shadow. You don’t forget she’s there, but it’s Pearl who shocks Goody Hibbins.

The admirable but minimalist sets work hand-in-hand with the sound design to move you quickly from scene to scene, town to country. A memorable production, beautifully presented!

Two River Theater in Red Bank, N.J., is easily reachable from NYC by New Jersey Transit. For tickets, call the box office at 732-345-1400 or visit the Box Office online.

Weird Synchonicities

Or is that synchronisms? What I mean is when two unrelated things turn out to have something in common after all. Or when two totally different aspects of your life come together in an unexpected way. We’ve all had that experience, and the immediate reaction is, “Hmm. Weird.”

So, as a crime writer, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that in working on my family genealogy, the matter of crime comes up. Like the mysterious death of an ancestor in colonial Virginia and the two murders my family was involved in. (Stories for another time.) Looking back through old newspapers, I found a juicy crime story concerning my second cousin, twice removed, whose 25-year-old wife shot and killed her 18-year-old sister, because of her husband’s attention to the younger woman. The young sister must have been quite something, because a subsequent story said public sympathy was with the accused, and an acquittal was expected.  

Having vaguely in mind the kind of gems those old newspapers can hold, I was drawn to a recent story in the Library of Virginia newsletter. It reports on the results of a patron’s random inquiry into the nearly century-old newspaper record regarding far southwest Wise County veterinarian, game warden, and lawman JL Cox. The Library staff’s research found police-media relations were just as fraught back then as they are now.

A 1927 story in Crawford’s Weekly reported the attempted arrest of a man on outstanding warrants. Refusing to surrender, the man threatened the officers, including Cox, who’d come to get him. “We had to be shoot or be shot,” Cox told the paper. He said, “Some folks may criticize, but I’d like to know what they would have done had they been in our place.”

Two weeks later, Cox was involved in another exchange of gunfire. But a few days later, after Cox complained about the coverage of the event, the newspaper issued a correction, saying Cox had not returned fire. Over the next couple of years, Cox repeatedly called on the newspaper to correct stories about his activities. It’s a distant echo of today’s uneasy relation between law enforcement and the media.

After this frequent pushback, it appears the newspaper adopted a policy of not abrading Cox’s thin skin. The way I read some of the Weekly’s later stories, the editors learned to get their digs in more subtly: “Some may have criticized Dr. J.L. Cox, county officer, for being quick on the trigger in past performances . . .” Note the vague “some.” Politicians still use that gambit today. “People tell me . . .”

In a story about a stolen car, the paper suggested that “whoever did it thought they were wreaking vengeance on County Officer JL Cox, whose Chrysler also is a maroon coupe, because of his unrelenting enforcement of prohibition, traffic, and game laws.” Readers of Crawford’s Weekly might have had strong opinions about those laws and how vigorously they should be enforced. Talking about his “unrelenting enforcement” might not have been viewed as a tribute to his dedication. It was moonshine country, after all. (A moonshiner’s wrecked car and cargo shown above, police officer standing by.)

It turns out that Cox may have been too diligent for rural Virginia, and in 1931, he was shot and killed trying to serve a warrant on a man for dynamiting fish in the Guest River. The man claimed self-defense, but the case was dismissed. Why? Doc Cox “had been fooling with” the man’s wife. That story never appeared in the newspaper; the Library staff found it in the memoir written by the Game Warden who succeeded Cox in that post. The conclusion that can be drawn from this little research project by the Library is, I suppose, that times change, but people don’t.

On the Big Screen: The Boys in the Boat

The predictable uplift sports movie generally provide is one of the greatest sources of its appeal: big goal, lots of work, sacrifice, setbacks, and, in the end—triumph! And sometimes an inspiring musical score too, viz., Chariots of Fire, Rocky.

The Boys in the Boat follows this model almost too well (trailer). Written by Mark L. Smith and directed by George Clooney, it breaks no new ground as it presents the amazing struggle by an eight-man crew from the University of Washington to compete in the 1936 Olympics. You know, the one when American athlete Jesse Owens (Jyuddah Jaymes) won four gold medals and scorched Hitler’s hackles.

The ragtag crew, brought together in the heart of the Depression, was led by actor Callum Turner (playing Joe Rantz), with my favorite performance coming from the megaphoned coxswain, who calls the speed and spurs his crew on, played by Luke Slattery. The cinematography is beautiful, and there’s a stirring score by Alexandre Desplat.

Not only were the Huskies underdogs when pitted against the East Coast Ivy League rowing powerhouses, the boat Coach Ulbrickson (played by Joel Edgerton) chose to enter in the preliminaries wasn’t even his most experienced crew. It was his junior varsity boat. Noses were out of joint. But Ulbrickson saw in the hunger and desperation (and shoes with holes in them) a drive that might take them first over the finish line. Joe Rantz gets some extra motivation through informal “occupational therapy”—late-night sanding and painting—with the elderly boatbuilder, played by Peter Guinness, as they work on the new racing shell for the Huskies team.

The Boys in the Boat is a feel-good film and, as it’s based on a true story (told in a 2013 book by Daniel James Brown), you don’t feel like you’ve been manipulated into those good feelings. The scores below tell the story.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 57%; audiences 98%.

Ben Franklin vs. the Counterfeiters

Wartime is always an opportunity for foes to flood rival economies with fake currency. Destabilizing a country’s finances can bring it to its knees pretty quickly—a contributor to the social disorder described in Michael C. Grumley’s new dystopian thriller set in the near future, Deep Freeze. The value of real money drops and inflation soars. The historical aspects of counterfeiting offer equal inspiration to authors.

In colonial times, when the country wasn’t even formed yet and faith in its future may have been a bit shaky, counterfeit money was a particular risk. Colonials preferred to rely on coinage—they could always give it the “bite test”—but when coins were in short supply, they would accept paper money more as an IOU, rather than final payment. Eventually, of course, paper money grew to be trusted and had intrinsic value. Demonstrating how seriously the legitimate currency producers took this issue, Franklin and other authorized producers often printed “to counterfeit is death” on the notes they produced. And, indeed, several Tories most responsible for distributing counterfeit bills were hanged.

This was before holograms, imbedded security strips, 3D security ribbons, microprinting, color-shifting inks, and before at least 18 countries adopted polymer plastic banknotes developed and printed in Australia. Nevertheless, printers such as Franklin (he was an inventor, after all) deployed a succession of new printing methods and materials to foil the criminals.

Earlier this week—on Franklin’s 318th birthday—the American Philosophical Society (founded by Franklin in Philadelphia) presented a talk by Khachatur Manukyan from the University of Notre Dame on Franklin’s innovations. He and his team in the Nuclear Science Laboratory have done detailed analyses of some 600 paper money notes, printed from 1709 to 1790 to identify Franklin’s methods. Of course, he didn’t have these scientific tools, but he certainly was aware of how to differentiate his currency from that of a common counterfeiter.

For a time, Franklin printed the skeleton of an actual leaf on the back side of his bills (sage, maple, parsley, for example). A leaf’s complex structure is hard to duplicate. He used deliberate misspellings and deployed natural graphite pigments and colored inks that differed from the darkness and composition of inks counterfeiters usually had available, and his inks may have been more stable in color over time. He developed the threads of color in the paper, watermarks, and grainy, translucent fillers, like powdered mica to establish a gloss. Some of his efforts also made the paper more durable. One of his bills just “felt” right. As his methods changed over time, counterfeiters were forced to keep innovating too.

Counterfeit “detectors” and a good eye helped colonists steer clear of bogus bills. Cashiers who run your $20 under a UV light are following a long, venerable tradition!

Skeletal leaf photo by Mark Longair and Ben Franklin photo by Ervins Strauhmanis; both with Creative Commons license 2.0 Generic licenses.

Killers of the Flower Moon

You think three hours and 26 minutes makes for an awfully long movie? You’re right. Yet, Martin Scorsese’s true-crime epic, Killers of the Flower Moon, completely held my attention throughout (trailer). Even though I knew the story, because I’d read the fascinating book by David Grann that the movie is based on, still there were no saggy lulls. It is time well spent.

The New York Times calls it “An Unsettling Masterpiece,” which recounts the terrible outcomes of white men’s unrelenting, murderous greed when oil is quite unexpectedly discovered on the Oklahoma lands that had been considered so worthless they might as well be given to the Osage tribe.

If I had a complaint, it would be that there was too much attention to Robert DeNiro as the “King of the Osage Hills,” cattleman William Hale. (Hale even asks people to call him “King.”) He gives an excellent performance, but, unlike the other characters, he doesn’t change; he’s the same throughout—a malicious, manipulative, avaricious local operator—and you understand him from the beginning.

Leonardo DiCaprio sets aside any vanity and is neither handsome nor savvy in playing Ernest Burkhart, Hale’s nephew. Because the tribe members are deemed incompetent to manage their assets, they are required to have white guardians. A quick way for a white man to become a guardian is to marry an Osage woman, just as Burkhart marries Mollie Kyle, memorably played by Lily Gladstone. Then if the wife dies . . . you can guess the rest.

Thanks to the oil, in the early 1920s, Osage members were the per capita richest people in the world. Much too tempting a target for undereducated, unprincipled roughnecks. Believe me, you’re grateful when Jesse Pelmons as Tom White, an agent of J.Edgar Hoover’s nascent FBI, appears on the scene.

The movie was filmed on a grand scale in Oklahoma, though there are plenty of intimate, emotion-packed moments in which Mollie and Ernest demonstrate real love for each other. Her penetrating gaze recognizes Hale and Burkhart’s schemes, but loves her husband anyway.

The film is dedicated to Robbie Robertson, whose last project was composing its music.

At the beginning, there is what seems an unnecessary statement by Scorsese about why he made this movie. That opening fits when he gives its closing words as well, bookending the film during a creative approach to telling “what happened next.”

The ill-treatment of indigenous people was one of America’s two greatest original sins and, in the arc of history, this sorry episode was not so very long ago.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; audiences: 85%.