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Systematic Murder

David Grann does the Osage murders justice in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

Author David Grann

David Grann has penned some of the most compelling nonfiction of the last two decades. A staff writer for The New Yorker since 2003, he’s written about everything from the Texas execution of an innocent man (“Trial by Fire”) to British explorer Percy Fawcett’s obsessive hunt for El Dorado (“The Lost City of Z”).

Grann spent half a decade on his latest book, “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,” which recounts the conspiracy behind Oklahoma’s horrific 1920s Osage Reign of Terror and the newly formed FBI’s investigation of the murders. In May, Grann returns to Oklahoma to discuss the book, with three different events in Fairfax, Pawhuska, and Tulsa.

JOSHUA KLINE: You seem to pick your subjects with great consideration and spend a lot of time on whatever project you’re reporting on. I’m curious what drew you to the story of “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

DAVID GRANN: This is a story I first learned about in 2011. I heard about it from a historian. I traveled out to the Osage Nation Museum and when I was there I saw this big panoramic photograph on the wall that had members of the Osage Nation and white settlers. It was taken in 1924, and I noticed that a panel was missing. I asked the then-museum director what had happened to the panel, and she pointed to that empty missing space and said, “The Devil is standing right there.” They had an image of the missing panel in the basement and she showed it to me. It showed one of the lead conspirators, one of the main killers during the Osage Reign of Terror. For me that was really a turning point in wanting to try to tell this story, to begin to investigate this incredibly sinister crime or conspiracy. 

The fact that the Osage were so wealthy and the fact that they had been systematically targeted because of their wealth, and that it had become one of the FBI’s first major homicide cases—all of those elements made it a story that I had a great interest in. The next challenge became: how could I find the material to tell the story? And that began a nearly five-year process.

KLINE: How did you piece together the narrative?

GRANN: The first part involved writing letters to every institution I could think of, and also doing Freedom of Information Acts to every institution I could think of that might be connected. 

I spent a lot of time in the National Archives, which is in Fort Worth. It looks like an enormous football field, like something out of [the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”]. One time, I pulled out a document which was basically guardian records—this deeply racist notion that the Osage, since they had money, somehow needed to have a white guardian. But they did, and the U.S. government approved this system. So this document listed the names of the guardians and then it would have the Osage that they were in charge of, and next to the name of the Osage I started to see the word “dead”—then another name and it would say “dead,” another name, “dead.” And you start realizing, even in this very forensic book that’s like a bureaucratic document, you’re seeing hints to what is a systematic murder campaign. 

KLINE: It’s interesting that the FBI’s first big case was investigating a crime that in some ways echoes how our country was founded—murdering or displacing a people in order to steal their resources. Did you think about that as you were writing the book?

GRANN: Yes. What’s incredibly unusual about the crime is how recent it is. We’re not talking about the 17th century of taking land, or even the 18th century, we’re talking about the 1900s when this is going on—all those same forces are playing out and it’s really a microcosm of those forces. I began to see the story both in terms of what was transpiring with the Osage with the oil money and with the systematic stealing of that wealth, as well as with the emergence of the FBI and the emergence of modern law enforcement. In many ways, this story has all the seeds of the formation of this country. 

KLINE: How did you arrive at the title “Killers of the Flower Moon”?

GRANN: The Osage have a name for each different moon, and the month of May is referred to as this kind of flower-killing moon because the little flowers spread across the prairie and then the larger plants come and sort of steal their life. The first murder took place in May—at least one of the first murders that Mollie Burkhart [the book’s central protagonist] became aware of when her sister disappeared—and there’s also another murder in that month, another disappearance, and so it seemed like a metaphor that reflected the story, and also began the story very much within the Osage tradition, which is how Mollie would have seen these events unfolding. 

KLINE: Obsession is a recurring theme throughout your work. It appears in the subtitles of two of your books, and it’s also a word that’s sometimes used to describe your reporting process. Do you think of yourself as obsessed? 

GRANN: I think I often write about obsessive characters. They tend to be people who are often doing compelling things, so I’m drawn to them. I tend to be fairly obsessive in my work in that the desire to kind of learn every dimension of a story can be very consuming. I think there’s a certain kinship between being a writer and being a detective, and many of the stories I write about have some element of detection. And it doesn’t mean that the subjects are necessarily professional detectives, but they’re people who are trying to make sense of the world and give some meaning and order to it. I certainly feel a kinship with that. 

KLINE: You’ll be in Tulsa May 1, and you’re also doing events in Fairfax and Pawhuska. How important was it for you to come back to Osage County with the book? 

GRANN: It’s the most important thing I’m doing on the whole trip. I could not have told this story without the help of the Osage. They were incredibly generous. They pointed me to leads, they gave me evidentiary material, they gave me oral histories, and, you know, I want them—my deepest hope is that I did this story justice. I tried my hardest and I hope they feel that way when they read it. Over so many years I became friends with many people there. Many people in Fairfax opened their homes to me—they would let me do interviews there, offer me a place to stay. For me, writing is really hard, but the reporting is kind of wonderful, and the nice thing about spending so much time on stories is that you really get to know the people.

Booksmart Tulsa and Magic City Books host David Grann
May 1, 7 p.m., OSU-Tulsa auditorium, 700 N. Greenwood Ave.
Seating is first-come, first-served.

For more from Joshua, read his article on Trump’s first week as President.