Mollie Burkhart (right), with her sisters Minnie (left) and Anna (center)
Unlike The Lost City of Z — David Grann’s last bestseller, and now a major motion picture — the author’s new book, Killers of the Flower Moon, didn’t start with a New Yorker story. It originated with a tip from a historian, and as soon as Grann did even a little reading up on this little-known story of greed and murder in Oklahoma’s Osage Indian territory in the 1920s, he knew it was too big for a magazine piece. “It had to be a book,” he says.
Killers focuses on two main characters: Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman married to a white man whose close family members begin to die suddenly and suspiciously, and Tom White, an FBI agent sent to Oklahoma by J. Edgar Hoover to look into the suspicious deaths. Hoover suspected a conspiracy, with some culprit — or culprits — killing off Burkhart’s family in order to accumulate their oil rights. Because the barren patch of plains land sold to the Osage by the U.S. government turned out to be lousy with oil, this relatively small population of Native Americans became, for a time, the richest people per capita on the planet. It also made the Osage an immediate target for exploitation. White and several other relatively inexperienced federal agents went undercover and began to assemble evidence of a shocking, widespread conspiracy that stretched to the highest levels of local and state government.
Grann spent more than three years on the project and found, through interviews and archival research, that the crime was actually far larger and more insidious than even the FBI let on.
Tell me how this book came to be.
A historian mentioned the story to me in 2011, and I was surprised that I had never heard of it, never read about it in school. The Osage were the wealthiest people in the world? The FBI had been involved? There were all these elements, and I was like, “Well, how have I not heard of this?” So then I went out to the Osage Nation to just get a better sense of what was there. And that was what began the process. I think the biggest challenge, and the reason it took a long time, is because I really did not want it to be just a cataloging of the dead. In most things I had read about it, you never heard the voices of the victims, or who they were as people. My hope was to try to reclaim some of that to history. It took a long time to find the right words to do that.
This was once a very prominent story, covered in every magazine and newspaper in America. The FBI promoted its success in a movie! Why did it get so lost?
I don’t know if I have the perfect answer. I had a similar question with The Lost City of Z, because Percy Fawcett had once been very famous and then was totally forgotten. I think in this case it was probably twofold. Early on, it got attention because Hoover seized upon it to self-mythologize and to promote the bureau. And then the 1930s came and there were bigger cases in the war on crime, like [the gangster John] Dillinger. And then I think there is an element of prejudice, in the sense that the Osage remember the history, but many of the people writing the mainstream history books don’t seem to pay it much attention. The stories are a part of the history that gets neglected.
But when you do read about the case, it’s unforgettable — it’s just such an incredible, dark story of premeditated murder.
It was systematic. One of the things that drew me to this story is that it is a microcosm of the clash between white settlers and Native American cultures that has played out in this country over the years. Here it was kind of playing out in the modern era, which is unusual; it’s happening in the ’20s. But it’s almost a microcosm of all those forces.
The striking thing about these murders is how methodical they were, plotted by men willing to do seemingly anything.
There’s a calculating quality to them. And it’s not just the taking of money and life — they involve an emotional exploitation as well, which is very disconcerting.
Did you expect to actually pick up the investigation yourself? That was a surprise to me, when I got to the book’s final section.
I had hints early on, from when I would meet with some of the Osage, that this conspiracy may have been much broader than we understand. But I had no idea that I’d be able to find the evidence to support it. Before that, I was just worried if there was enough information out there to tell the main story. That was a huge hurdle to climb — to find the descendants of the victims of the murders. And then I was bewildered by how to tell the story, because the material was so sprawling. There were so many investigations, there were so many characters, there were so many victims. I couldn’t figure out a way to organize the material. And then, gradually, that structure appeared to me.
What was your solution?
I wanted to make sure it was an Osage story. So I decided to begin with Molly, an Osage woman who’s a prime target of the conspiracy. And then I was able to pick one investigator, Tom White, who could lead us through the investigation. They were both transitional figures, and that part of the book is about the emergence of a modern country and all these undercurrents that are at play. She being somebody who was born in a lodge or a wigwam, and within a span of thirty years, she’s living in a mansion with a white husband speaking English. That’s a radical transformation in a very short span of time. And Tom White, similarly, was born in a log cabin during a period of frontier justice — justice in the barrel of a gun — and then he’s trying to learn fingerprints and ballistics and has to wear a suit and file paperwork and wear a fedora. So I see them both as stepping-stones from the Old West to modern America.
Was there a point in the reporting where you thought you were just going to tell the story as a tidy narrative, with the head conspirator going to prison?
Early on I did. Early on I certainly thought of it as just self-contained, with a clear beginning and end. And then I thought maybe I would update with an epilogue of what happened later. But I found that there was a deeper, darker conspiracy — much deeper than the bureau had exposed, much deeper than I had thought.
And that tarnishes Hoover’s own telling of the story a little, of this great, heroic FBI success against all odds.
Right. It’s hard to know exactly what they knew. There is a quote from one agent, not White, that suggests . . . I don’t remember the words exactly, but I think he said, “There are hundreds of murders.”
And yet they didn’t pursue those cases. I think there was enormous pressure from Hoover to solve the case and get it wrapped up. It’s very expensive. Even though the Osage had to fund some of it — which is outrageous — he wanted to declare victory. And so if there were other trails, I think nobody was pressured to keep digging. And then, I also think they fell prey to something that makes our consciences feel better or easier to live with. Which is this notion that when there is a brutal crime, there’s kind of a singular evil force, and that if we catch that singular evil force we can remove it. And then ordinary, normal society returns. It’s almost like a cancerous tumor that has been removed. So the notion that this cancerous force bled into the hearts of so many ordinary, white, prominent citizens . . . I think was something they were not prepared to stare down. When I began the story, I saw it very much as a “Who did it?” By the end, I just kept thinking, “Oh my God. This is like, ‘Who didn’t do it?’ ” It was basically the reverse of what I had originally expected when I began research.
Was this easier or harder to do than The Lost City of Z?
Physically, much easier. I ate much better. But it was harder psychically, in the sense that it took a long time, and it dealt with subject matter that can be very disturbing and that I had to live with for a long time. It was also the first pure piece of history I’d done, and it just had a time intensity. I was really conscious of, hopefully, documenting these voices that had not been recorded. And to find those voices in the materials just took a lot more hunting than I had to do for Z. Fawcett had all his letters, and he gave them to the Royal Geographical Society, or they were with the descendants, and I got them all. This was always fragmented, and I could only get as close as I could get. With history, you’re always up against that: The material will only give you so much.
You spent a lot of time opening dusty boxes in archives. What was your most memorable discovery?
I found this book of guardian papers. Guardians were appointed to oversee the Osage’s money. Somehow, during the roaring ’20s of Gatsby, they didn’t think the Osage could be trusted with these fortunes. The idea that the Osage were the people who needed to have guardians was absolutely ridiculous and abhorrent. I went through those records, and a lot of it’s just kind of accounting — like, expenditures. But there was one book I found that had a list of guardians with their Osage “wards,” because that’s what they’d refer to them as. There’d be a list of wards, and next to the names was written “dead,” if they had died. And that’s all it said. So you’d have a guardian with, like, six people under his name, and it would be the ward’s name and “dead.” Doesn’t give a cause of death. But you realize that this bizarre bureaucratic document is concealing in itself hints of a systematic murder campaign. Because there’s no way these people, in a span of three years, were all dying of natural causes. It defies any logic. Also, they were very wealthy. They had very good medicine. These were not people that were hungry and living at the margins of society.
And how did you react to that?
It made me want to dig deeper! How was that bureaucrat keeping this record at the Department of the Interior, writing, “Dead, dead, dead”? In the middle of the 1920s! I didn’t ever say this explicitly in the book, but all the oil barons were going to Osage country and making a fortune during the murder campaign. And I couldn’t find a single comment from any of them about this. So I’m not saying that they were necessarily complicit, but that’s a complicity too. A complicity of silence. Everybody was getting rich. Nobody wanted to rock that boat. There are different levels of complicity. There were the conspirators who were killing, and there were an ungodly number of them. There were the conspirators who helped cover it up because they were getting kickbacks or were profiting in some way or paid off. And then there were the conspirators who — just because these were Native Americans — kept silent. For years these cases went on, and nobody did a damn thing.
It makes it even more impressive to consider those who did stand up in that context.
Like Mollie. I was very struck by her. It took an inordinate amount of courage for her, as an Osage woman in the 1920s, to be pursuing justice. Here are families being targeted one by one. She’s a woman, and back then, the jurors in the cases were all male. You have a society of male law enforcement, and she was Osage, who they considered not fully human, and she’s pursuing justice in her own quiet way — hiring PIs, putting out a reward, pretty much putting a bull’s-eye on herself. And she didn’t flee. It took an enormous amount of courage on her part. And then to also eventually have to confront the truth that is the most appalling truth I think I’ve ever encountered, of anything I’ve ever written about.
Worse than doing the Cameron Todd Willingham story, for the New Yorker, in which you realized that Texas almost certainly executed an innocent man?
I guess the difference with Willingham was that there was a system that failed at so many levels. In this case, what was particularly awful was that people you thought you loved turned out to be the very people plotting against you. And so that added some element of deception that’s off the charts. One of the things that struck me about this case — and it has some overlaps to Willingham — is that I didn’t have a sense until I worked on this project how lawless the country was and how fragile so many of our legal institutions are. How much corruption there was. How little training there was. And just a lack of professionalism — a kind of impartial pursuit of the truth that’s not corrupted, where you don’t tilt the finger to justice for the powerful. You realize how important it is to be a nation of laws and how, with this case, we really were not a nation of laws. You could literally murder people for years and get away with it. And in some cases, never get caught and never get punished. To the bureau’s credit, and certainly Tom White’s credit, they were able to at least capture some of the conspirators who most people believed would never be punished. And even when they caught them, everyone’s just like, “They’re not going to serve a day in jail.”
Let’s talk about movies. This one was already optioned, after a crazy auction, but you’ve been through all this before. Z was in and out of production a few times, right?
So many times. That was optioned in 2008, before the book came out, and now it’s 2017. So what’s that, nine years? It was definitely like a roller coaster, and I discovered that making a movie is harder than trekking through the jungle looking for a lost city. For me, it was like, “OK. I have a book.” I did my thing. I mean, this would be wonderful, but this isn’t my creation. My creation was the book that you will draw from, so I just keep that in mind, but now that it actually happened — it’s totally crazy exciting.
So you’ve learned your lesson, and now you won’t get your hopes up about the movie actually getting made?
I think you can’t help yourself. You are going to get emotionally invested, and then you have to talk yourself off the ledge. I’m the most neurotic person around. I talk myself off the ledge constantly, but then I come down and I sound good. Just don’t get me on the day when I’m on the ledge.
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
By David Grann