David Grann is the author of the new book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. He also has written The Devil and Sherlock Holmes and The Lost City of Z. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and his work has appeared in a variety of other publications, including The New York Times Magazine and The Atlantic. He lives in New York.
Q: How did you first learn about the murders you write about in your new book, and at what point did you decide to write a book about this topic?
A: I first heard about [this history] about 2011. It was a subject I had never read about, and I went to Osage Nation in Oklahoma and visited a museum there. I saw on the wall an enormous photograph that showed members of the tribe and white settlers in 1924. I noticed a panel was missing.
I asked the museum director why, and she said, it was frightening; the devil was standing right there. It showed the conspirator behind the many murders of Osage. I wanted to know who the devil was, and why the Osage had removed the panel, and why so many Americans had excised this from history.
Q: What did your research involve, and was there anything that especially surprised you?
A: The avenues of research took two major paths. One was archival, trying to find archives that contain criminal records, crime reports, FBI reports, to track down the discovery of the murderers and the victims.
I spent about a year where I wrote to every institute that I could think of connected to the case. It often involved FOIA requests, to the FBI, the Department of the Interior, I sent letters to courthouses, and I waited for the records to emerge while I worked on other projects.
After a year I went to see what had emerged, and see if there were enough documents to tell the story. It was a fraction of what I’d need, but it gave me confidence enough to pursue the story. I met with the descendants and got a sense of how it reverberates today. It’s still living history for many people.
The most revealing moments—I spent a lot of time in archives in Southwest Texas, in Fort Worth; it looked like Raiders of the Lost Ark, all these boxes! I spent many weeks out there. Occasionally I’d open a box and find something revelatory, like the secret grand jury testimony, in their own voices.
In another box, I found a document that identified the guardians of the Osage, because there was such prejudice at the time, the U.S. government said the Osage had white guardians to manage their money; it became a system of graft.
This listed the names of the Osage and of the guardians. Under so many Osage, it said “Dead”—it defied any natural pattern of death. It was bureaucratic, unemotional, like a ledger. I was astonished—documents like that held [the details] of a system of murder. That was probably one of the most shocking documents.
One of the most emotionally powerful was meeting with the descendants. Margie Burkhart took me to the cemetery and shared stories about what the family knew. It brought the history to life.
Q: How did you come up with the book’s title, and what does it signify for you?
A: "Killers of the Flower Moon" is part of an Osage tradition in which they name each month of the year after a moon. May is flower-killing moon. Little flowers spread all over the prairie, and the taller plants come in May and begin to strangle the other plants…The first murder took place in May when Mollie Burkhart’s sister disappeared.
Q: What would you say is the legacy of these murders today?
A: I think the legacy is still felt upon the Osage to this day. They remember their history…For the country, it’s an important chapter in American history. It marks the emergence of modern law enforcement and also is a microcosm of conflicting forces, the clash between the white settlers and Native Americans, distilled into this chapter. It’s a part of our history that needs to be better understood and recognized.
I spoke to an Osage veteran of the U.S. Army, who received a Purple Heart in Afghanistan. During the Standing Rock protests, he walked from Oklahoma to Standing Rock in North Dakota. He thought about the murders [as he was walking]. They both are very different, but they come down to the issue of sovereign tribal rights. The issue still has reverberations today.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a New Yorker piece. It’s very different, more about exploration—closer to The Lost City of Z. I’m trying to find another book topic.
Q: Anything else we should know about your new book?
A: It’s a story that has many twists and turns. In many ways, it’s a mystery story but within that framework hopefully illuminates a subject that’s important to this country.
There’s the emergence of the FBI, and…between the settlers and the Native Americans, the clash between cultures. It’s a story more than anything I’ve written about the battle between real evil and real good, and you see these forces play out.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with David Grann, please click here.