Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (Doubleday, 2017) covers two-dozen sensational murders of Osage Indian men and women between 1921 and 1926. But further research by author and acclaimed New Yorker writer David Grann confirmed what Osage Indians had been claiming all along: that easily a hundred, and perhaps hundreds, of their relatives had been killed by unscrupulous whites just for the opportunity to embezzle millions of dollars in oil money. In a book praised by Ojibwe author Louise Erdrich as a “mesmerizing read” that “rescues unbearable truth” through “meticulous detective work,” Grann lays out the scope of the murders in excruciating detail.
Indian Country Media Network connected with Grann, also the bestselling author of The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (Doubleday, 2009) and The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession (Doubleday, 2010), to talk about what drew him to the Osage story, and how the reporting unfolded.
To start with, this case was about murders, and it was all a conspiracy, or a series of conspiracies?
In the early 1870s, the Osage had been driven from their lands in Kansas onto a rocky, presumably worthless reservation in northeastern Oklahoma, only to discover, decades later, that this land was sitting above some of the largest oil deposits in the United States. To obtain that oil, prospectors had to pay the Osage in the form of leases and royalties. By the 1920s, the two thousand or so Osage were considered the wealthiest people per capita in the world. Then they began to be systematically murdered for their oil money. There were shootings, poisonings, even a bombing. The period became known as the Osage Reign of Terror, and the crimes were some of the most sinister in American history.
Tell us about Mollie Burkhart; how did she become the focus of your story?
Mollie was a remarkable woman, who in many ways straddled not only two centuries but also two civilizations. Born in 1886, she grew up in a lodge, speaking Osage. Within a few decades, she resided in a mansion and was married to a white settler. In 1921, Mollie and her family became a prime target of the conspiracy. Her older sister was shot. Then her mother—one of the last of the Osage elders—died of suspected poisoning. Not long after, another sister was killed when someone planted bomb under her house. Despite the risks to her own life, Mollie crusaded for justice, issuing rewards for the killers and hiring private detectives. What she would ultimately discover about the plot against her family was unfathomable. The mastermind–a prominent white settler—was someone whom she knew well and thought cared for her. And that’s part of what made these crimes so sinister; they involved an incredible level of deception and betrayal.
Was it surprising to get a Native perspective of American laws and the elusive concept of justice?
Many of the white authorities refused to investigate these crimes because of prejudice—because the victims were Native Americans. Some of the authorities were also complicit in the crimes or bought off. As a result, the murders went on for years.
This case helped the FBI become what it is now known for. But there were faults and blunders, and J. Edgar Hoover got lucky, didn’t he?
In 1923, the Osage Tribal Council issued a resolution, demanding that federal authorities catch the killers. The case was taken up by the fledgling FBI and became one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations. For two years, the bureau badly bungled the case. Agents failed to make a single arrest. What’s more, they released an outlaw from jail, hoping to use him as an informant; instead, he robbed a bank and killed a police officer.
Hoover, who had been named director of the Bureau in 1924, feared that a potential scandal could end his dreams of a bureaucratic empire. In desperation, he turned to an old frontier lawman named Tom White to unravel the mystery. White put together a team of undercover operatives, including probably the only American Indian agent in the bureau at the time. By tracing the money to see who benefited from the killings, White and his team were able to capture at least some of the perpetrators.
White and his hand-picked investigators of “old cowboy agents” are the heroes of the story. How were they treated by the Osage?
Without the help of the Osage, White and his men would not have been able to bring any of the killers to justice. The Osage assisted them in their investigation and provided essential information. Hoover, who used the case to mythologize his own role, never gave public credit to White and his men; only the Osage Tribal Council acknowledged their efforts, issuing a resolution thanking them.
After you finish the main story, you have some final chapters that are revealing and disturbing.
The official death toll was listed as more than two-dozen Osage. But during my research I was shocked to learn that the breadth of the killings was far greater than the FBI ever exposed. There were scores, perhaps hundreds, of murders. An eminent Osage historian observed, “I don’t know of a single Osage family which didn’t lose at least one family member.” This was less a crime story about who did it than who didn’t do it. There were doctors who administered poisons, morticians who covered up the causes of deaths, and prominent businessmen and politicians and lawmen who were complicit in the crimes.
You have great details in the book that show your research comes from the Osage people themselves. What was most rewarding to you, or something you felt so important it had to be included or followed through?
Over the years, I had the privilege of getting to know many Osage, including descendants of the victims. One of the most powerful experiences I had was meeting with Margie Burkhart, who is the granddaughter of Mollie Burkhart. She told me what it was like to grow up without so many relatives because of the murders. Talking to her gave me a sense of how this history is still living. I recently visited Oklahoma and met with Margie and other Osage. I could not have done the book without their support, and I was honored to be able to finally share the book with them.