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.