How do you follow up a critically acclaimed, international bestseller, now-Hollywood movie like The Lost City of Z? If you’re author David Grann, you spend half a decade reporting on one of the darkest and most obscure chapters in American history – when members of the the Osage tribe of Oklahoma, newly rich from the discovery of oil on their lands, began being brutally murdered off in the 1920s.
In his masterful new book Killers of the Flower of the Moon: the Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, which comes out this week, Grann chronicles a tale of murder, betrayal, heroism and a nation’s struggle to leave its frontier culture behind and enter the modern world. At the beginning of the last century, during the oil boom, massive oil reserves were discovered on the Osage Indian Reservation in Oklahoma. In a short period of time, the impoverished Indians became some of the wealthiest people in the country. And then they started getting murdered. Men and women were poisoned, blown up and shot at a horrific rate, and the corrupt and incompetent local law enforcement proved useless at stopping the bloodshed, forcing the federal government to step in. Led by an ambitious young bureaucrat named J. Edgar Hoover who was determined to crack the case, the feds found themselves facing a vast and ruthless conspiracy that would stop at nothing – even the killing of friends and family – to steal the Osage’s mineral rights.
Filled with almost mythic characters from our past – stoic Texas Rangers, corrupt robber barons, private detectives, and murderous desperadoes like the Al Spencer gang – Grann’s story amounts to a secret history of the American frontier. In part a chilling true crime mystery, the book also works on a much deeper level, deftly depicting the brutal transition of a young country lurching towards modernity but unable to leave behind its violent and racist nature. It’s a haunting tale of unimaginable betrayal, naked greed and the birth of modern law enforcement.
The Osage case is almost 100 years old, but Grann says the reporting and writing was some of the most intense of his career. “This is as close a story to good and evil as I ever came across,” Grann says. “I spent so much time with the evil that it was very disconcerting. But I really was determined not to just catalog the victims. I wanted to find the descendants who could help try to give the dead some voice.”
How did you come upon the story? It’s a story I imagine a lot of Americans are not familiar with.
I had never heard of it. A historian mentioned it to me, and I was surprised I’d never read anything about it, never heard anything about it in school. And then I kind of did two things: I began to write [Freedom of Information Act] letters to government agencies and courthouses to see what materials existed. Then I went out to the Osage Nation in Oklahoma. I describe the scene in the book where I visited the Osage museum, and the museum director showed me a panorama photo on the wall of the members of the tribe taken in 1924. But there was this panel that was missing. I asked her why. She told me it was too painful to look at, then she pointed to the missing piece and said the devil was standing right there. Then she went down into the basement. She took out that missing panel and it had an image peering out from the side of one of the killers.
Seeing that face sent you on your path?
For me, that was really kind of a turning point and I really wanted to tell that story because, one: Here was something that didn’t take place that long ago, in the 1920s. And while the Osage couldn’t forget, this country had basically cut out the panel from our memory. And then, obviously, it began a longer period of trying to kind of understand who the devil was. Was he this single evil figure? What were the other dimensions of the conspiracy? Figuring that out sent me on my way.
One of the characters, William Hale, who is dubbed the King of the Osage Hills, plays a pivotal role. You describe him as almost like William Faulkner’s great villain Sutpen from Absalom, Absalom!
He’s just kind of a quintessential American figure in the sense that he comes from nothing. He shows up in the Osage territory right at the turn of the century. Shows up on a horse and in rags. He’s this man from nowhere; he has no discernible past. And he completely reinvents himself and becomes this powerful cattle baron who refers to himself as the Reverend. And of course, the question will always be: What is his past? He was very skillful at obscuring the means of his own transformation. I don’t want to give too much away. In all my 30 years of reporting, I don’t think I have ever crossed a character quite so astonishing as him. He really was like something out of a Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy novel.
The book is also about the birth of a federal law enforcement agency: the FBI. And while J. Edgar Hoover is just as Machiavellian and paranoid from the start as one would expect, I found the lead investigator on this case, Tom White, to be an incredibly admirable character.
Yeah, he’s very quietly good. It’s funny because reporters are always trying to dig and find a skeleton. But he just had a quiet goodness. He’s not superhuman. He makes mistakes. One of the things that was so striking to me was when he later became a warden, he’s abducted and shot and nearly dies. And when one of the people who was part of that abduction was caught, White gives the instructions to the guards while he’s basically lying near death, “Don’t beat him up.” And that’s not a common thing. Years later, the inmate reached out to White and they became friends. As an old man, he went to visit White. And here are these two old men, you know, having lived a century on opposite sides of the law with this unusual friendship – that involves a kind of Christian forgiveness. I spoke to somebody that actually interviewed this prisoner, and the inmate just kept saying White was the greatest man, the most decent man he’d ever known.
In a way, White is the flip side of many of the villains of this piece, who are also so very American and part of the frontier. He sounds like a real-life Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda.
Yeah, all these individuals are caught up in this crucible, which I saw to be the formation of a modern country. And they are all transformative in a way. You have many villains who transform themselves through greed and murder. And then you have others like Tom White who go through the same transformation – born in a log cabin, policing the frontier at a time when justice was pretty raw. There’s a picture for me that’s so amazing: White’s got a cowboy hat, he’s riding a horse, and he’s got a gun. In a later picture, you see him with a fedora, he’s trying to use fingerprints and he’s got to file paperwork, which I just always love, because he clearly hated the paperwork.
What about the Osage themselves, the victims of such horrific crimes?
Mollie Burkhart to me is no less a remarkable figure, because she’s also in this crucible – this country that’s being born out of all of these clashing forces and, to some degree, original sin. She’s born in the wigwam and she’s speaking Osage and then in a 30-year span, she’s living in a mansion. She has a white husband. She speaks English. She has white servants. She kind of is straddling, the way Tom White was straddling two centuries – but in her case, she’s straddling two civilizations. And her family is being targeted by an American conspiracy. And yet she’s trying to get justice – which took such quiet courage.
Her bravery in the face of such terrible violence and fear is striking.
Yeah, everyone around her is getting murdered. You don’t know who is conspiring against you. She was kind of the driving force to try to solve some of the murders, and that put a bull’s eye on her. In many ways, this is a story of quiet goodness and innocence and a lot of evil. It’s a microcosm of good and evil. It’s a microcosm of the clash of civilizations. It’s the microcosm of kind of the birth of law enforcement.
Let’s shift to Hoover. I couldn’t help but think what a different country it would’ve been if somebody like Tom White had been running the FBI. But I don’t think White could’ve created the bureaucracy that Hoover created.
No, he couldn’t have. He was much more of a man of action. He didn’t have the political ambitions. Certainly not any of the Machiavellian or political ambitions of Hoover. Hoover’s interest in the case is about burnishing his ego and burnishing his reputation. And of course, he never gives credit to any of the investigators that do all the work.
Ah, that’s tragic.
It’s really kind of tragic. I mean, what’s amazing is, the only people who end up recognizing the investigators who did the work were the Osage. Hoover would never name any of them, simply because he wanted the credit for himself.
What did this case teach you about the FBI?
The case showed there were kind of these two sides to the bureau: When it sticks to investigatory techniques, and the facts, and keeps its nose out of all the other stuff, it’s a very powerful and effective organization. You really could see the need for the FBI with a case like this because there was so much local corruption. But on the other hand, it also created a really powerful organization, which if in the wrong hands or bent the wrong way can be corrupted itself. So you see both sides of the FBI right from its very origins, playing out of this case.
What did you learn about Hoover, just as a person?
Oh, you can see the seeds and early emblems of his character, his paranoia, his concern with scandal.
You met with many descendants of the survivors of these crimes. What was that like?
One of the things I found with so many of these cases was people were still living with this three generations on. There wasn’t a kind of clean resolution, and you could see how it still really profoundly affected people.
There is some justice in the book, but one of the things the FBI does is try to wrap it up and tie a bow on this thing.
They do. There was a lot of pressure from Hoover to resolve the case. It’s almost a psychological thing. I think it is much easier to conceive of a crime when you have a singular villain. And the idea that the law comes in and removes that evil, then society returns to normal, that’s kind of the construct we all live with. That’s the way we think of crime stories. But it’s far more frightening to conceive of the possibility that there are many, many ordinary people complicit in a crime.
So all of society was really to blame?
It’s societal. It’s funny – well not funny, but when I began the story I was thinking, you know, I was like, ‘It’s a whodunnit kind of thing, right?’ And by the end, what I said to my wife was, like, ‘Who didn’t do it?’ That’s what’s so shocking.
It really was a vast conspiracy.
It’s one of the rare times – as a reporter, 99 percent of my job and life is just basically knocking down conspiracies. I always say anytime people think of conspiracy theories [that] it’s usually just a bunch of incompetence, people just fumbling and messing up, but people want to attribute this kind of great design to something. Yet this was a case where there really was a conspiracy. One of the things that I wanted to try to show, hopefully, in the book, by telling it through three different points of view – the Osage and Mollie Burkhart, Tom White and then me in the present – was to show the process of the accumulation of knowledge that only unfolds over time. Each person, as they live through history, can’t see it all. There’s a tendency when we write history to do it with the power of hindsight and then assume almost god-like knowledge that nobody living through history has.
Mollie has limited knowledge, and she’s trying her best to see through the murk. Tom White is doing his best to solve the case, and then in the last section, I’m hopefully trying to fill in some of the blanks that have emerged over time. But getting back to your question, I discovered there is a limited trail of evidence; there are gaps. I had always kind of assumed that history was kind of a horror that you know. And this was a story that left me profoundly with a sensation of maybe the real horror is what we don’t know.
There were so many more murderers out there who went unpunished.
Yeah. And how many murders were there? And how many conspirators got away and died natural deaths and absconded with money?
This history is still very much alive for the Osage, no?
I just spoke to an Osage army veteran [who had served in] Afghanistan, who during the Standing Rock protest basically walked hundreds of miles from Oklahoma to North Dakota. When I spoke to him, he said, “I was thinking about the Osage murders.” The issue is very different, obviously. The Sioux were not getting wealthy from oil, and it’s really about protecting burial sites and water, but it’s the same fundamental issue, which is tribal sovereign rights and protecting them, and we’re still having that debate today. When I spoke to a former Osage chief, also not that long ago, there’s some talk about trying to privatize reservations, and he just said, “I can’t believe we’re having this conversation in 2017.”
So going back to Faulkner again – it’s like history is not even history, right? How much these murders still resonate so many generations later.
Yes, so many Osage I met regularly go out and decorate the graves of the victims. And we really don’t know how many Osage were murdered. I think you could say scores. It was a reign of terror. It had a genocidal quality.
I follow you on Twitter, and you’re on it all the time! How do you find the time to research and report this type of book?
Well, my Twitter habits are diminishing. It’s so funny, my Twitter habits were really big during parts of this book, where I think I was losing my mind. The book was just so much research and years living in a hovel that I think Twitter let me live in my mind.
So you’re dialing back on social media?
Yeah, dialing back. Well, until I lose my mind again.