David Grann, staff writer for The New Yorker and author of The Lost City of Z (now in theaters), is one of the great architects of narrative non-fiction. He etches the framework of his stories painstakingly, so as to properly draw their dimensions before furnishing the interiors with the sharpest of details. His newest book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, not only extricates a long-forgotten volume of U.S. history but unearths a horrific new chapter.
This true-crime saga, five years in the making by Grann, picks up in the early 20th century after members of the Osage Nation were pushed out of Kansas into presumably worthless land in Oklahoma. But that land turned out to be far from worthless — these Native Americans’ land sat atop vast oil deposits, making them multi-millionaires, some of the world’s richest people, in fact. But many soon began dying in what was later revealed to be part of a methodical, diabolical scheme. Much of the bloodshed targeted the family of Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman who had married a white man and found herself not only caught between two civilizations, but surrounded by betrayal.
During this “Reign of Terror,” as local newspapers described it at the time, corrupt local and state law enforcement proved useless as the Osage were shot, poisoned, and bombed while private investigators who investigated the murders mysteriously wound up dead. In desperation, the Osage turned to the Justice Department, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover first botched the case but recruited a former Texas Ranger named Tom White — an analogous character to Burkhart — who cracked the case, setting the stage for bureau greatness.
As Grann found while researching this book, however, part of the mystery remained unsolved, and he discovered something even more sinister than previously imagined. Grann was kind enough to speak with us at length about his thrilling and heartbreaking new blockbuster.
You’re drawn to characters who are consumed by obsessions. In fact, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes and The Lost City of Z both fit that pattern so strongly that they both featured the word “obsession” in the subtitles. Many of the characters in Killers of the Flower Moon were fueled the same way. Were you attracted to their obsessive nature, or did you discover this after selecting the story?
I was drawn to the story without really being aware of that at the beginning. It was a story that I had never heard of, shockingly, until about 2011 when a historian had mentioned it to me. I did not know that the Osage had been the wealthiest people per capita in the world in the beginning of the 20th century. I had not known that they had been murdered. And I had not known that it had become one of the FBI’s first major homicide cases. And I think that the fact that this kind of grave, racial injustice in crime is something that had been lost to history, was something that drew me to the story, and then you begin to find the theme, the elements, the people, and the way into the story.
I visited the Osage Nation early in the process, 2012, and I met with the museum director then, and I describe in the book that you can see in the large panoramic photograph with the Osage that was taken in 1924. I noticed that a panel was missing [seen on page 244 of the book], and I asked why, and she said, “Because the devil was standing right there.” She had an image of the missing panel and showed me. It had one of the killers, the mastermind kinda lurking, peering out very creepily from the corner.
What drove me at that point was to try to understand who that figure was, that anguish in history that the figure embodied, and I think what also drove me early on was these sense that here was this picture that had been removed not to forget but because they can’t forget. And yet so many of us, including me, had no knowledge of this episode in our history and had either forgotten it or never learned it.
As I got into it, obviously the themes about people who are consumed by obsessions or ambitions or greed, kinda various drives — in some cases for goodness and some cases for quite evil — and that became more apparent as I got to know the people who were at the center of the story.
Do you feel more of a responsibility in writing about historical figures rather than if you were writing a fictional account?
Yes, unquestionably. I think you always feel a burden when you write nonfiction to rendering the story and the facts as faithfully and judiciously and sensitively as possible. I think you feel that with all nonfiction stories if you’re a nonfiction writer or reporter. I think in dealing with a case, a crime case, where there were real victims, and in many ways there’s a grave racial injustice, I think you feel that burden even more so — to be hopefully as sensitive as possible with how you render it. I tried to be very conscious of that when I did the work and the research.
The book illuminates the pervasive callousness toward Native Americans, and we’re still seeing that today in some ways. Do you feel like this book will contribute to the discussion of how Native Americans are still treated, especially in light of the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy?
I hope the book will … obviously, the Osage know their history very well, but so many people — whites, primarily, but other Americans — don’t really reckon with this history, don’t record the voices of these victims, are not familiar with the stories and the lies that these people lived and went through. It’s really important as a country that we reckon with this history. And I don’t think that you can understand things like Access pipeline unless you understand these other underlying stories.
There’s a reason so many Native Americans who I spoke to went out to North Dakota and joined forces — because they have similar-yet-different episodes in their own history. And I spoke to one Osage who’s a veteran of Afghanistan. He received a Purple Heart, and during the Access pipeline, he walked almost all the way from Oklahoma to North Dakota. He hitched a ride toward the end because he needed to get there by a certain date. But he walked a long way, and he told me that he thought about the murders and the Osage killings during that pilgrimage, and these incidents are separated by almost a century, and they’re very different in terms of the particulars.
I mean, the Osage had oil, and they were making money from the oil, but they’re about the same fundamental issue, which is the rights of Native Americans to protect their land and their resources. And one former Osage chief told me that she is still shocked that we’re still having this fight and this debate even today.
You referenced a passage from an old Harper’s Monthly Magazine piece, in which the author expressed disgust about growing Osage wealth and wrote, “Something will have to be done about it.” Did you find that to be nefarious?
I think that was nefarious. Was the reporter referring to murders? No. But what they were reflecting was this great prejudice that somehow the Osage … shouldn’t have money. Shouldn’t have the same rights to their fortune. And it produced great jealousy and scapegoating of the Osage in the 1920s, when you had this period of The Great Gatsby. Somehow, people were focused on the Osage wealth, and Congress even appointed white guardians to oversee how the Osage spent their money.
This was a racist system. It also led to an elaborate criminal enterprise where these guardians swindled millions of dollars through embezzlement. So, it reflected how the attitudes of the time produced policies that were greatly unjust. And of course, among some whites, the prejudices led to a systematic murder campaign to ultimately steal the Osage oil money.
Mollie Burkhart, the Marked Woman, is a sympathetic figure in a way, but you did not really frame her in any way as a victim. You held her out as a very strong figure.
And she was. That was really one of the things I took away, and I’m glad that came across because, you know, I tried to show as much as not tell. Now we’re talking, so I’m telling, but — and I’m interpreting — but when I write, I really want, at least, as best as I can know from historical records. You’re limited by the information you have and can glean and can get through history, and interviews.
Mollie — I never say this explicitly — but it took remarkable courage for this woman who was Osage, and her point of view was discounted by white authorities who were indifferent because she was Osage. They didn’t give her the same respect or rights because she was a woman, and in some cases, because they were complicit (in the crimes) and corrupt.
Yet here she was, crusading for justice when her family members are being targeted, one by one. She put out a reward, she hired private investigators. Every time she was doing that, she was putting a bulls-eye on herself, and in fact, she was a target and becomes a bigger target. But I thought, like Tom White, there’s a real quiet goodness about her and a courage about her. There was something about her that just struck me. It’s not ever said explicitly in the records, but I just kept thinking, “My god, this is so dangerous.”
And the scheme against her was so intricate.
Oh, it was awful and unfathomable. I spent all these years … I still can’t fathom that moment of recognition when people you think love you, you discover are betraying you and hiding their true faces. And when you live in a world where you don’t know who to trust and where everyone around you may be a conspirator, it’s just mind boggling and hard to reckon with.
The fact that she had to reckon with that truth, to me, was also something about her. That she had to face that reality at a certain point, and the way that she sat in the trials and watched and listened — it did take a certain resilience and strength that I can’t even fathom.
You said she was ostracized by both the white and Osage communities.
She was, and that was very anguishing, and I think that was anguishing when I spoke to her granddaughter, that sense of ostracism, because these were stories where the murders and the victims were often in the same household, so she was ostracized to a great degree.
Meanwhile, FBI Investigator Tom White could have walked right out of an Elmore Leonard book. Did you see him as sort of a mythical creature, or do you feel like that’s simply how he was portrayed in historical documents?
Sometimes those characters are very hard to write about. It’s the way he comes through in historical records, and one of the interesting things about him — and one of the things that gave me insight — is that he later became warden of Leavenworth [penitentiary], and I was able to find accounts from prisoners who had been under his care, and they spoke about him in positive, often glowing terms, about how he was a fair man, and a decent man.
One of the stories that was most striking to me — and not all of this made it into the book — there was a prison escape, and several prisoners took him hostage and shot him and left him to bleed out on the road. And when a couple of the inmates who tried to escape were caught, he gave the order while he was lying on his hospital bed (and many people thought he would die) to the prison officials not to basically beat the crap out of the people who tried to kill him.
One of the prisoners later gave an account to a historian that, basically, because of Tom White, we didn’t have our heads cracked in. Some of that I put in the book. But one of the things that I didn’t put in the book is that he and the prisoner later became friends. When that prisoner was an old man and was out of jail, he went and visited Tom White, who forgave him, and they became these great friends. I thought that was a very telling thing.
Oh, definitely, that sounds about right.
But Tom White is in many ways a very archetypal American figure. He is a transitional figure in the same way that Mollie Burkhart is a transitional figure. Tom White is somebody who grew up on the frontier in a log cabin. He grew up at a time of frontier justice when it was often meted out by the barrel of a gun. And then by the time of the Osage cases, he’s trying to learn fingerprinting, he’s trying to learn ballistic analysis, handwriting analysis, which becomes an important part of the case. He has to wear a suit and a fedora. He’s no longer riding a horse, and he has to file all this paperwork. In some ways, he’s a bureaucratic professional.
So, he kind of embodies that evolution of modern scientific detection, but also in some ways the emergence of a more modern country, and Mollie Burkhart is similar, too. In some ways, their two stories are similar, but they’re obviously part of two very different communities and cultures. And they’re thrust together, and that being thrust together is part of the story of America.
Do you think that when J. Edgar Hoover chose Tom White, that he knew what he was capable of, as far as reforming the image of the bureau?
Well, I think Hoover chose White for pretty certain reasons. The bureau had badly bungled the investigation early on … and so Hoover was afraid of a scandal. He was, in 1924, a new director, he was about 29 years old at the time. He was afraid that a scandal might threaten his career and his dreams of a bureaucratic empire. He needed someone who was an experienced investigator. And the people he was hiring at the time were these college kids who certainly didn’t have experience on the wild frontier.
He turned to Tom White, hoping that he would save Hoover’s career, and so it was a very calculating decision. I think he respected Tom White, but it was his self-interest. And then of course, Hoover takes credit when they are able to convict a few killers, never gives White or any of his other operatives any credit, uses the case to mythologize the bureau. And he prematurely closed the case, and so a much deeper conspiracy was never exposed, and some killers ultimately escaped justice.
When you peeled back that onion layer and found out that there was more of a twist than you had imagined, were you surprised to find out that there were more murders?
You know, you get hints early on in the sense that the Osage would give you stories that imitate other possible cases … the shock comes when you try to document it, and you begin to realize it’s true, and you begin to build the circumstantial evidence, and you begin to get a sense of the breadth of it. That’s when you’re just shocked, and that shock will never go away.
There was this document that I found in Texas in a giant archive that looks like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I found some guardian papers. And somebody next to the names of the Osage had just recorded as somebody who had passed away, and you start to see the word “Dead, dead, dead” … you start to see it if a guardian had five Osage under his charge, and then you see the word “dead” written five times.
You start to realize that this defies any national death rate. The Osage were wealthy, they had good doctors, there’s no way that five people in the span of years are all dying under one guardian. And you start to realize that you’re looking at hints of a systematic murder campaign, and of course, it’s concealed in a very bureaucratic document that looks like a ledger … like somebody was keeping merchandise in their store and just writing it down.
Do you want to talk about the Lost City of Z film and the reality of seeing your work come to life onscreen?
It’s funny, I really just focus on my writing and my books and my New Yorker stories. They take so much time, this last project took five years. So, what is great about the movie is the notion that the story that you worked on will suddenly reach an audience that you never imagined you would reach. The story of the Lost City of Z was not a well-known part of history anymore, similar to the new book. So, the nice thing is that you just never know what will come when they make a movie about your book, but in this case, it would up in good hands, and I was happy when I saw the movie.
Killers of the Flower Moon arrived in stores (and on internet shelves) on April 18.