In his latest book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, the veteran reporter and New Yorker staff writer David Grann uncovers how this grisly series of murders was orchestrated by a serial killer in pursuit of Osage oil money. Grann spent years with archival materials to tell this story. His work led him to discover that the conspiracy of the Osage murders extended far beyond the killer himself, whose capture served as a tidy success story for a young J. Edgar Hoover, who was striving to grow the influence of the FBI. The truth, Grann learned, is much more insidious than the murderousness of a single bad seed. An extensive network of complicity—involving law enforcement, oilmen, politicians, doctors, neighbors, and even white relatives of the Osage by marriage—conspired to conceal the systematic killing of the Osage by white opportunists.
Killers of the Flower Moon is sharply focused yet sweeping in scope. Told in three “chronicles,” centered, respectively, on Mollie Burkhart, Tom White, who was the chief investigator, and Grann himself, the book details the United States in a period of transition, witnessing the final years of frontier life, the formalization of criminology as a discipline, and the institutionalization of law enforcement. It depicts lawlessness from small-town Oklahoma to Washington, DC, and the struggles of J. Edgar Hoover’s fledgling Bureau of Investigation. And it considers the limits of historiography, wondering how to narrate a past whose archives have been fragmented into illegibility by an obscurantist web of white complicity.
Grann is the author of two previous books, The Lost City of Z, a number-one New York Times bestseller recently adapted for film, and the essay collection The Devil and Sherlock Holmes. He is widely recognized among fellow writers for the workmanship of his reporting and the polish of his craft. Of Killers of the Flower Moon, Louise Erdrich writes, “It brings shattering resolve to a story that resonates now. As Native Americans fighting to protect resources on the remnants of our lands, we confront the same paternalism, hypocrisy, and greed that destroyed Osage lives and culture in the early 1920s. David Grann . . . creates deeply human portraits of every character in this drama—the evil, the just, the innocent, the doomed. Through meticulous detective work, Grann rescues unbearable truth.”
We talked over the phone on a recent Saturday morning. In the face of technical difficulties on my end, he was friendly, patient, and generous with his time.
—Dan Sinykin for Guernica
Guernica: You’ve said before that one of the things you look for in a story is high intellectual stakes. What first tipped you off to the Osage murders, and what are the intellectual stakes, for you, of this story? And did your sense of the stakes change over time?
David Grann: I first heard about the story back in 2011. I knew nothing about it before I started—some cursory research told me the Osage were the wealthiest people in the world in the 1920s. They began to be serially murdered and it became one of the FBI’s major homicide cases. I had a sense of the murders as a racial injustice that had not been fully documented. I went out to visit the Osage—this was pretty early in the process—to get a better sense of the story and what materials might exist, and to try to find descendants. At the Osage museum, there was a panoramic photograph on the wall that showed the white settlers and the Osage. It was taken in 1924. But I noticed that a panel was missing, and I asked the museum director why. She pointed to the empty panel and said the devil was standing right there. She then showed me the missing panel, this very creepy picture of a Norman Rockwell-looking killer peering out from the edge, and that, for me, was a turning point. I wanted to know who this figure was, I wanted to know why it was so painful that the Osage had removed this picture—why they couldn’t forget and why so many people, including myself, had forgotten. This story had certain stakes that I felt pretty early on, then, but my understanding of the story changed over time as I got the sense of the breadth of these murders, and of the levels of complicity. It became less of a story of who did it than a story of who didn’t do it.
Guernica: Something that struck me about this book is that the facts underneath are a mess. We don’t learn till the end why the facts are such a mess, that it’s because of the complicity of this enormous network of white folks. Could you say a bit about how you structured the book, how you ordered this mess, the decision to divide it into three “chronicles,” each centered on a different figure: Mollie Burkhart, Tom White, and you?
David Grann: I spent a good year where I was not yet committed to the project, where I was just writing to every institution I could think of: the FBI, the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, every sheriff’s office, every police department, FOIAing—more than a year of seeing what materials came in and what the trails of evidence would be. And for the first year and more of the process, I was very bewildered about how to tell the story, and very overwhelmed. Because it sprawled so many years, there were so many murders, there were so many perpetrators (as it turns out), there were so many victims, and there were different investigations. I was struggling to find an organizing principle. Often, when you’re reading documents about cases, or reports or newspaper accounts, there’s a dry cataloging of the dead, and there’s never a sense of who these people were, of the experience of what they felt. I wanted to find a way, as best I could, based on the available historical record, to rectify that. And so organizing it in the three parts gave me a way to center the story around the Osage in the very beginning, with Mollie. It was very important to start the story with an Osage and with Mollie’s story. Whenever I would read about the case, here was this woman, Mollie, at the very center of it, and yet she’s the one who received almost no attention.
But the other thing is, as I did research, one of the things I began to realize is that, especially in a conspiracy, people can only see part of the story and they only know elements of the story—not because they’re unreliable narrators but because they only have partial access to information, because people are often conspiring around them, trying to obscure the truth. And so each of these people, Mollie and then Tom White, has access to only part of the information. By doing the third chronicle, it lets me brings you to the present and fill in the gaps in the historical narrative that only over time became apparent. Many Osage would give me little bits of evidence or leads for me to try to investigate mysterious deaths in their families. In some cases, I could follow the traces of evidence to the end, but in many cases, because it’s been nearly a century, there just aren’t enough trails of evidence, you can’t question witnesses, you can’t interrogate suspects, and so I began to realize that, even in my own case, I’m really no different than Mollie and Tom White. I can see part of the picture but not all the picture. The structure gave the story an intimacy that is really important, so that these crimes are felt and aren’t just statistics. And it gave me a way to acknowledge both how history becomes clear only over time and how often even over time there are elements that elude us.
I always thought of the horror of history being what you know, but by the end of the book I started to have the sense that the even worse horror of history is the horror that you don’t know. That was certainly true for many of the Osage, who, for generations, have lived with these mysterious suspicious deaths that in many cases have remained unresolved.
Guernica: Something that I found compelling, even though it’s a light touch, is how you invoke William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! as an intertext. That resonates with a lot of things you’ve been describing about the structure, both in terms of the three chronicles, and of how the person who’s closest to the story has least access to what happened. And both Faulkner’s novel and your book have a historical horror at their heart. I wonder how deep the parallel goes for you.
David Grann: It’s interesting that you point that out. I was struggling with how to tell this story. I didn’t have a whiteboard, so The New Yorker gave me this big, flattened cardboard box. I put it up and wrote out the names of everybody. I was trying to figure out all the people involved and the chronology and the connections between people, the murderers and the victims. It became a cliché, that scene in every cop show now where you see some board of semi-madness on the wall. And it looked like just a total mess. I really didn’t know how to tell the story, to the point where I didn’t know if I could tell it. I was so bewildered by the structure.
At that time there was a story in The New York Times Magazine about Absalom, Absalom! I had never read the novel, so, having nothing to work on for my own book, I said, well, I’ve never read that novel, maybe I’ll read it. So I started to read it, and it was while reading it that I thought, Wait a second, three narrators, that would be a way to control the story.
Faulkner’s book has an oral-history quality to it, the elliptical-ness of oral histories. The way I was gathering my research was often through oral histories, some passed down and some actually recorded at the time. They’re very different books obviously, but they deal with racism, and with trying to sift through and make sense of history, and to make sense of history through oral histories. It was a subtle influence, but a very unexpected one, and one that came about through sheer fortuity. This is why I believe, even when you’re researching something, it’s so important to read things that you don’t think are connected to your project. Just to read. Because it’s through reading that unexpected influences happen, it stirs your imagination.
Similarly, totally unexpectedly, it was many years later, and I had collected a ton of photographs—archival photographs became important to me as a way to see the people and to describe scenes—and I was reading W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. I saw how he integrated photographs into the text, and I thought, Oh, my gosh, I have these incredible photographs, and this is a story about the Osage, and a story about documentation, so images became an important part of the book. And so Austerlitz also became a totally unexpected influence. Reading and having your brain jarred in certain ways—it’s an unpredictable process. If you stare at a problem head-on, as I was doing with that cardboard box, I could not figure it out. It was when I let my mind relax and read other stuff that I could suddenly think of how to do the book.
Guernica: The pictures are great. They’re part of a back-and-forth in the book between unearthing these stories that have been lost in the sense that they’ve been buried and acknowledging what has been lost lost.
David Grann: A couple of years in, a new challenge emerged. I started to realize the dimensions of the conspiracy and that there were all these shadowy figures—I was suddenly confronting this unknowability. Your first instinct as a historian is this is a barrier that undermines you, or that you can’t figure a way around. I think sometimes writers have an instinct to try for omniscience or to elide weaknesses in an attempt to save what you hoped you were going to find when you set out. So when you suddenly realize, Oh, my God, there are these cases I can’t solve—one of the things that came to me as I was wrestling with that problem was how the reader is going to want to know answers to some things that I’m not going to know. Rather than eliding the problem, I decided at a certain point, well, actually that’s part of what this book is about. This isn’t something to elide; this is a central theme, this chasing of ghosts, this trying to grasp history as it’s disappearing and you’re grabbing at it. Living with the unknowns and the gaps in the historical record. This story has been purposely obscured over time because of racism and because there weren’t proper investigations and because there were cover-ups and because there was complicity. That is the story. It’s not a problem, it’s the essential heart of the story.
Guernica: Can you say a little bit about the decision to introduce the first person in the third chronicle?
David Grann: When I originally conceived the story, I didn’t think there would be any first person. Originally, I thought of it just as a historical narrative that would stay within the confines of historical time. But as I began to realize that there were these gaps in the historical narrative, these huge gaps that the Bureau never exposed, that Mollie Burkhart and Tom White were not aware of, and that were not recorded at the time, there was no way to include those without putting myself in at the end as a way to fill in those gaps. My role, as I see it—I’m not a character in any way, I’m the vehicle for information, I’m a reporter in the most cipher sense. I’m just a collector to help you understand what has happened today, nearly a century later. It’s also a way to be honest with the reader. The reader becomes aware of what you know and what you can’t know. Using first person was a way to do that.
Guernica: Tell me about writing this particular book as a white writer.
David Grann: I’m always sensitive to the challenges of interviewing people, getting their stories. In a case where there’s racial injustice, I think the sensitivities are really high. The most important thing I try to do is be as sensitive as possible, and what that means is really just being very rigorous, or as rigorous as I can be, and that means interviewing every descendant I can find, going back to the descendants over again, going over the material they share with me, finding the historical records that underlie the story, and trying my best to hopefully do it justice.
Guernica: When people think about police today, it’s often in the context of Black Lives Matter and the police abuses in the news. But you have Tom White at the heart of your book. You have the villainous J. Edgar Hoover and then you have the virtuous Tom White. I’m wondering if that crossed your mind, thinking about the story that you’re telling, with an FBI agent who becomes the hero, given our contemporary attitudes around law enforcement.
David Grann: The job of the writer is to be as true to the material as possible. In this case, it’s not fiction; you are given the people who populate the story. You need to be as true to that as possible. That’s your ultimate obligation and you have to go where that takes you. And maybe it takes you to a place that isn’t exactly where you would expect. Let me go to Tom White. He was an interesting guy, a transitional figure. He grew up in a log cabin in a time of frontier justice, his father was a frontier lawman. By the time of the Osage cases, he is trying to learn fingerprints and handwriting analysis, and he’s gotta wear a suit, and he’s wearing a fedora, he’s no longer riding on horseback, and he has to file all this paperwork that he can’t stand. I learned he was a quietly good person. He’s not Sherlock Holmes, he doesn’t see every dimension of a case, but he’s quiet and methodical and there’s a certain goodness to him, the same way there is to Mollie Burkhart. You’re trying to figure things out about somebody. You know you’re limited by the records that exist. But I kept thinking there must be other dimensions to him that maybe aren’t as good. And I eventually found accounts from prisoners from when he was warden, and they all spoke about him in such decent terms.
There was one account in particular that was really striking. White is kidnapped as warden and shot and left to bleed out on the road. People thought he would die, especially in the first twenty-four hours. I found an account of one of the inmates who was part of the kidnapping. When White was in the hospital, he gave an order back to the prison. White says, essentially, Don’t beat the shit out of them. If it hadn’t been for that, they would’ve had their heads knocked in. Then, many years later, when that kidnapper got out of prison, he went to visit White and they became good friends. He would always say that Tom White was the best man he had ever known. And the notion that here was this man who was a lawman, befriending the man who—he didn’t pull the trigger, but he was part of the group that nearly put him in the ground. That takes a certain kind of character and forgiveness. When you uncover stories like that, that’s where the story leads you and you follow.
Guernica: In the book, you discuss the thoroughgoing corruption of the Harding administration, the Teapot Dome scandal, the lawlessness in Washington and in Oklahoma. Did this give you any perspective on our contemporary political moment?
David Grann: I certainly see a connection to the Dakota Access Pipeline. I interviewed an Osage not long ago who is an Army veteran, won a Purple Heart, was wounded in Afghanistan as a scout. Last year, during the protest, he walked most of the way, hundreds of miles, from Oklahoma to North Dakota, so he could participate. I spoke to other Osage, including a former chief, who talked about how the Dakota Access Pipeline makes them think about the Osage murders, which they still deeply remember, unlike so much of the country. In some ways, the cases seem totally different—they’re separated by years, the Sioux aren’t making money from the oil, it’s about protecting their land. But the fundamental issue is the same, which is the rights of American Indian nations and communities to control their lands and resources. That was the thing in the Osage case in the twenties, and it’s the same thing today.
When I spoke to the former chief, he said he cannot believe we’re having this conversation still today, that these rights aren’t being recognized. There’s even some talk about trying to privatize American Indian communal landholdings, which is the long-held dream of many white settlers. It was the dream of many of the white settlers who were killing the Osage back in the twenties. That’s why it’s important that histories like that of the Osage, for people like me who were totally ignorant, become part of our narrative. I don’t think we can fully understand the protests at Dakota and understand why so many delegations from so many American Indian nations went to join the protests until we begin to understand these stories of dispossession. And the Osage murders, they’re modern, they happened in the 1920s. We’re not talking about three centuries ago.
Guernica: And almost every white person in power was somehow complicit.
David Grann: It’s shocking. I think it’s important to understand that the scales of the money here are huge. We’re not talking about a bank hold-up or a train robbery. We’re talking about stealing and swindling millions and millions of dollars. In 1923, the Osage, a couple thousand of them, earned the equivalent of what today would be four hundred million dollars. The sums are enormous. And there were so many layers of complicity. There were the murderers, there were the people who helped facilitate the murders. Maybe they were the mortician, and they didn’t say, “Well, wait, there’s a gunshot wound in the back of the head.” Instead, they said, “Let’s bury this body quickly.” There were doctors who were facilitating the drugging and poisoning. There were no press investigations. Local lawmen were bought off and sometimes directly participating. There were many willing executioners. And then there was a complicity of silence by others who knew that all this was going on and didn’t say anything.
One thing I don’t say explicitly in the book and maybe I should have: all these oil barons were making fortunes in Osage territory. What’s remarkable about this story is how many people intersected with it in the formation of the country. You have J. Paul Getty going out there and making money, and E. W. Marland. All the oil barons of the Americas were going to these auctions, and they just kept going during the murders, and I could never find a single comment from any of them about the crimes. Everyone was getting rich.
The final element—the other thing that was shocking—was how the US government created a system of guardianship, a classic system of paternalism. The notion that the Osage could not handle money, even in a period of The Great Gatsby and F. Scott Fitzgerald, led to the sense that they needed white guardians, a system that claimed to protect them. It’s under that veil that these murders happened. The more Osage blood you had, the more you were determined to need a guardian to control your wealth. That on its own is outrageous, but then it became an utter system of graft and corruption. The whole system became a criminal enterprise, and it was a criminal enterprise involving millions and millions of dollars being swindled. And so this all goes back, for me, to how when you start to research a story, you don’t really have a sense of its dimensions—until you get deeper into it.