David Grann will never forget the moment he realized that he had to write his new book. He was standing under a large portrait on a wall at the Osage Nation Museum, in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. At his side was Kathryn Red Corn, then the director of the museum and Grann’s guide for the afternoon. He’d gone to Pawhuska, the heart of the Osage Nation, to see what he could find out about a shocking story he’d heard — a tale of conspiratorial murder by opportunistic white invaders that led to the death of dozens of Osage citizens. And he was staring at a panoramic photograph of white settlers and Osage Indians when he noticed a blank spot. A panel had been removed.
“Why is there a piece missing?” he asked Red Corn.
“Because the devil was standing right there,” she replied.
“That for me was the real turning point,” Grann says today, sitting in a café on the western fringe of the West Village. “I said, ‘I want to understand who this figure, this devil, was.’ The Osage had removed this panel because they can’t forget. And here we are — myself included — with no memory of these events that turned their world upside down.”
The devil was William Hale, a cattleman from Texas who’d come to the Osage Reservation in the latter years of the nineteenth century and accumulated a fortune in land and assets, earning himself the nickname “the King of the Osage Hills.” No amount of money and power seemed to be enough for Hale, however, and in 1921 he set in motion a meticulous and horrifying plot to kill off an entire family of Osage in order to obtain the rights to their land, which sat atop an ocean of oil.
After a series of forced relocations during the nineteenth century, the Osage, by a stroke of fate if not luck, had become the wealthiest people, per capita, on earth. Every Osage owned 650 acres of land and the rights to whatever lay on or under it. The proceeds from those leases were divvied up; in 1923 alone, Osage tribe members shared $30 million in royalties, the equivalent of $400 million today.
Hale was after those rights, and he wasn’t alone. The first killings were quiet, barely noticed, but by 1925 sixty wealthy members of the Osage tribe had turned up dead under suspicious circumstances. When word eventually reached Washington, an ambitious young J. Edgar Hoover decided to solve the crime. The resulting case, which led to Hale’s conviction, was trumpeted in newspapers across America. And then, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the story was seemingly lost to time.
That is, until 2011, when a historian told Grann about the murders. A longtime staff writer for the New Yorker, he’d made his name bringing to life incredible tales of adventure, obsession, and true crime. A previous book, The Lost City of Z, had been out two years, a runaway bestseller on its way to the big screen, and Grann was looking around for ideas. He found one in the Osage killings.
The book that resulted, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, focuses in part on the agent who led Hoover’s investigation, a former Texas Ranger named Tom White. But the heart of the story is an Osage woman named Mollie Burkhart. It was her family at the center of Hale’s plot, and if not for Mollie’s courage and perseverance this ugly episode in American history may never have been exposed. The truth was gutting. Her own husband, Ernest, was a key conspirator in the murder of numerous members of her family. “She had to confront the truth that is the most appalling truth I think I’ve ever encountered,” Grann says.
As one of the country’s finest nonfiction writers, Grann is famous for tackling complicated narratives. But this one challenged even him. “The reason it took a long time is because I really did not want it to be just a cataloging of the dead,” he explains. Few books had been written about the murders, he says, “and in everything I read, you never heard the voices of the victims, or learned about who they were as people. My hope was to try to reclaim some of that to history.”
The book follows Burkhart, White, and Hale as well as other nefarious characters drawn to Osage lands by the promise of riches. It exposes greed and corruption at every level of government and paints a vivid picture of life in what Grann calls a “transitional period” in American history, when the West was being settled and the old world was giving way to the modern one. Mollie Burkhart was born in a dirt-floored lodge and ended up in a mansion. Tom White was a frontier lawman who adapted to suits and fedoras as well as new investigative techniques such as ballistics and fingerprinting. And J. Edgar Hoover, well, we all know what happened to him.
Grann spent over three years on the book, including two full years on leave from his job at the New Yorker, and just as it hits stores, the movie adaptation of The Lost City of Z — a project that was in and out of development several times — is riding into theaters on a wave of critical acclaim. Today, Grann’s relief is obvious. “I definitely discovered that making a movie is harder than trekking through the jungle in search of a lost city,” he jokes. A Killers movie seems likely, too. The book was optioned months before publication, in a furious auction, and a screenwriter is already plugging away on an adaptation. With every passing day, those five years of reporting seem less grueling.
“I don’t know if I could have done it any other way,” Grann says. “You just have so many hurdles to get the material and have it be accurate. And I just felt the moral burden for this kind of story is too high.”
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
By David Grann