The author discusses his book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.
Author David Grann
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
With so much talk these days about the FBI, a conversation tonight about the birth of the organization and one of its first major homicide cases, the Osage murders. In the 1920s, at least two dozen and perhaps as many as a few hundred members of the Osage Indian Nation were murdered during what became known as a yearlong reign of terror.
David Grann is a journalist and staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. He spent years researching what he calls one of the most sinister crimes in all of American history. The new book is called “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI”.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with David Grann in just a moment.
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Tavis: So pleased to welcome journalist David Grann to this program. He is, of course, with The New Yorker magazine. He spent years researching his latest book. It’s called “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI”.
The feature film adaptation is already in the works with names like Scorsese, DiCaprio, De Niro rumored to be considering. David, an honor, sir, to have you on this program.
David Grann: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
Tavis: You care to confirm or deny those rumors?
Grann: I will not deny nor confirm [laugh].
Tavis: You don’t have to confirm or deny, but we all read the trades. And for those who have not been following this, who’ve not been following the story about this book, before this thing even came out, the bidding war — I’m going to embarrass him — but the bidding war, we are told, went over $5 million dollars just for the rights to do the film.
And those names I mentioned ago give you some indication of how big this thing is expected to be here in Hollywood where David Grann sits with me today. That must feel good, though, when you spend — I mean, set your modesty aside for a second — it must feel good, though, when you spend that much time writing something that you’ve clearly put your heart into and people get it, they get it.
Grann: No, it does. You don’t know. This project took close to five years and there’s a part of it when you’re about two and a half years in when you wonder if anyone will ever read it or what will become of it so that the story actually resonates. And the nice thing about a movie is that with as many people as you can reach with a book with a story like this, you can reach a lot more with a movie.
Tavis: The story does resonate, so I want to give you time to get into the story in just a second. But help me understand first, though, that germ of an idea. When did you start to think or know or how did you figure out that there was a story here worth telling?
Grann: Yeah, so it’s interesting. So I first heard about the story in 2011 and, at that time, I had no idea that the Osage Indians of Oklahoma were the wealthiest people in the world back in the 1920s. I had no idea that they were serially and mysteriously murdered in one of the most sinister crimes in American history.
And I had no idea that the case until then had become one of the FBI’s first major homicide cases. This was all new to me and I was shocked because it seemed like such an important thing. I traveled out to the Osage Nation after I heard this just to see.
At that point, I wasn’t sure about a book or anything and I visited the Osage Nation Museum in Oklahoma. On the wall, they had this large panoramic photograph. It was taken in 1924. It showed members of the Osage Nation with white settlers. It looked very innocent, but a part of the photograph was missing.
I asked the museum director what had happened to that part of the photograph. She said it contained a figure so frightening that she decided to remove it. She then pointed to the missing panel and she said, “The devil is standing there.”
In the book, that was really the seed that began because that figure was one of the killers of the Osage. I just kept thinking here was something. The Osage had removed this picture not to forget as so many of us had, but because they can’t forget. And how is it possible that such a sinister crime that explains so much of our history has been kind of excised from so much of our consciousness?
Tavis: So now we’re off and running [laugh]. Tell me about the Osage people. We’ll get to how they got so wealthy in a moment, but tell me about the tribe.
Grann: Yeah. So the Osage are a very vibrant nation to this day. Back in the 17th century, they controlled much of the central part of the country. President Thomas Jefferson referred to them as the great nation and, in 1804, he actually met with a delegation of Osage Chief and he promised and assured them that the U.S. government would treat them as friends and benefactors.
And then, within a few years, he began to push them off their land and, within a few decades, Osage were forced to leave more than 100 million acres of their ancestral land and they were confined to a reservation in Kansas. And then in the 1860s, once more they were under siege. There was a massacre.
Once more, they were forced to search for a new homeland, and it was then that a great Osage chief stood up and he said we should move to what was then Indian territory, but later would become Oklahoma, because the land is rocky and it’s infertile. The white man considers it worthless and they’ll finally leave us alone.
So they actually bought the land and they resettled. There’s only about a few thousand of them left, and they resettled in northeast Oklahoma. And then, of course, lo and behold, this seemingly forsaken land turned out to be sitting upon some of the largest deposits of oil then in the United States.
Tavis: Why did Jefferson — what prompted Jefferson to go back on his word?
Grann: The same avarice for land that prompted so many administrations to force the Native Americans off their land. I mean, it was essentially to take the land from the Native Americans to provide them to white settlers. In Oklahoma, many of the tribes were allotted than even in the late 1800s, and you could see these land runs where white settlers would rush out on their horses and on foot.
And if they could get to a parcel of land first and put a stake in it, they would lay claim to the land. It was really about land. In many cases, these murders became a microcosm of those same earlier forces that had been playing out in the country for centuries.
Tavis: How long before they were in Oklahoma and realized that they were sitting on, you know, sitting on oil?
Grann: Yeah. So…
Tavis: They had the Beverly Hillbillies experience.
Grann: So, yeah. The thing that was amazing about it is that the Osage tribe was allotted, and what that means to kind of break it down was essentially the U.S. government forced Native American tribes and their communal ownership of land and to turn them into private property owners.
When the Osage were negotiating their allotment, they managed to slip into their agreement a very curious provision which said that they will maintain all subsurface mineral rights to their land. So even if they lost their surface territory, they still control what was underneath.
Now they had a hint that there was some oil — this was around 1906 when these negotiations were going on. They had some hint that there was some oil on the land, but nobody thought they were sitting on a fortune. So they very shrewdly managed to hold onto this very last realm of their land, a realm that they could not even see, and they became really the world’s first underground reservation.
Tavis: In retrospect, it was beyond brilliant that they, as you put, slipped that in their negotiations. How did the good white men, the smart white men, allow that to happen?
Grann: Well, there were two things going on. One is the Osage were led by one of the greatest chiefs at the time and they deserve an enormous amount of credit. They were led by a man who spoke seven languages, including Latin, French and Sioux, as well as Osage. They had more leverage than other Native American tribes because they owned a deed to their land.
So it was a little bit harder for the U.S. government to just force upon them because they had purchased their land and a deed. They very shrewdly and relentlessly negotiated and the whites were in a rush to make Oklahoma a state. They didn’t want anything to hold up this process and they allowed it basically to slip in and slip by them.
So the Osage suddenly became the wealthiest people per capita in the world as more and more oil was discovered. In 1923, in that year alone, there were only about 2,000 or so Osage. They collectively received what would be worth today more than $400 million dollars.
Tavis: I was about to ask, how rich were they [laugh]? You answered that question. All right, so I can see where this story is going. All right, so they pushed the Indians around, pushed the native peoples around once, two, three times. They get to Oklahoma, they discover with a smooth move that they’re sitting on oil, they’re super rich now. Let me just guess. The white man ain’t too happy with that.
Grann: No, they are not too happy. To extract that oil, they have to pay royalties and they have to pay for leases. And there was such demand for this oil that there were actually auctions at Osage territory and so many oil men who we know of today — J.P. Getty and his family — they first made their fortune drilling for oil in Osage territory.
E.W. Marland, Harry Sinclair, they would attend these auctions bidding for leases and they would gather under this tree that became known as the million dollar elm tree because the price of the leases were so high. But as the Osage prosperity increased, many Americans began to express growing alarm and this is where you begin to see, again, these forces of prejudice playing out.
It got to the point that the Osage were scapegoated for their wealth. Here we were in the 1920s, the time of the Great Gatsby, time where oil men were making fortunes and blowing them, but somehow the Osage fortune became this topic of discussion.
What are we gonna do about all these basically American Indians with money? And they would literally hold hearings in the U.S. Congress. You can read the transcripts to this day and they’re just shocking. They would debate what are we gonna do?
And what they did is they actually passed legislation requiring many of the Osage to have white guardians. This system was quite literally racist. It was based on the quantum of Osage blood. So if you were a full-blooded Osage, you were deemed “incompetent” — I put that in quotes — and granted or given a white guardian.
This guardian could dictate, you know, here you could be this great Osage chief that led his nation, have millions in your trust, and you have a white overlord telling you that you can buy this car, you can’t buy this car, you want to get this toothpaste, you can get this toothpaste.
Not only was the system racist, of course, it created one of the largest stain of federally sanctioned criminal enterprises because these guardians ended up swindling millions of dollars.
Tavis: All borne of legislation.
Grann: All borne of legislation, borne of legislation.
Tavis: It’s one thing to be an overseer, an overlord, to tell them what they can or cannot do with their money, but I know the story doesn’t stop there. What the white man really wants is the money, not just control over you. They want the money. So what happens next?
Grann: So I write in particular about one family and I think it illuminates it. There’s a woman named Mollie Burkhart and her family. In 1921, she lived in a mansion. She’d grown up in a lodge. In many ways, she straddled two centuries and two civilizations.
By the 1920s, she’s married to a white settler and in May of 1921, her older sister disappears and Mollie looks everywhere for her. A week later, her body is found in a ravine. She’s been shot in the back of the head. And it’s the first hint that Mollie’s family and the whole Osage tribe are being targeted for their money.
And just to give you a sense, within a few days, Mollie’s mother grows mysteriously sick and, within two months, she stops breathing. Evidence would later suggest that she was poisoned. Not long after that, Mollie had a younger sister, a woman named Rita Smith. Rita was so terrified of these killings. She had moved from the countryside to be closer to Mollie, to be closer to town.
One night at three in the morning, Mollie hears a loud explosion. She gets up, she goes to the window, she looks out and, in the direction of her sister’s house, all she can see is this large orange ball rising into the sky. It looked like the sun had burst violently into the night. And where her sister’s house had been, there’s nothing left.
Somebody planted a bomb underneath it killing Mollie’s sister, her sister’s husband and a white maid who was 18 at the time and left behind two children. And that’s just Mollie’s family. Other Osage were being systematically targeted. There were poisonings, there were shootings and, of course, there was this horrific bombing.
Tavis: All the while, as your subtitle suggests, as these Osage murders are taking place, we are witnessing the birth of the FBI. So overlay Hoover and the FBI into this.
Grann: Yeah. So one of the things that really shocked me is just how lawless this country was back then, how fragile our legal institutions are, which I think has a lot of resonance today. The Osage and Mollie Burkhart, they pleaded for justice, but because the victims were Native Americans, they were often ignored because of prejudice. There was also a great deal of local corruption.
And in 1923 after more than 24 Osage had been killed, they issued a tribal resolution pleading for what was then known as the Bureau Investigation — we would later know it as the FBI. We renamed it FBI — to come in and investigate.
So this case falls to the Bureau. Now the Bureau was kind of a ragtag operation back then and they initially badly bungled the case. They got an outlaw out of jail, a guy named Blacky Thompson, thinking they’ll use him as an informant. Instead, he slips away. He robs a bank and he kills a police officer.
And J. Edgar Hoover who, believe it or not, was just 29 when he became director in 1924, is worried about his power. He’s worried about his security and he eventually recruits and brings in an old field agent, a guy named Tom White, to take over the case, and they launch an undercover operation.
What’s most interesting is, among those undercover operatives, is an American Indian agent, probably the only American Indian agent, I think it’s fair to say, in Hoover’s bureau at the time. They begin to follow the money to try to hunt down the killers. And what’s interesting is they need to adopt many of the modern techniques of criminal detection, fingerprinting, handwriting analysis.
Tavis: How successful was Hoover?
Grann: Well, these agents, Tom White, they really deserve more of the credit than Hoover. They’re able to, by following the money, to capture at least one of the masterminds and some of his henchmen. And what’s so sinister about these crimes is it turns out to be not only a prominent white settler, it turns out to be somebody who Mollie knew well and trusted.
And one of the things that makes these crimes so sinister is that they involved an unbelievable level of deception and betrayal. It involved white men pretending to love you while all along plotting to kill you, and these plots would play out over years.
But one of the things I discovered is, while the bureau captures a few of these killers, there was a much deeper and darker conspiracy that the bureau never exposed, that there were really scores, perhaps even hundreds of murders, that went unsolved. They were in such a rush to close the case that these other crimes went unsolved.
Tavis: So to this day, those crimes were just never…
Grann: They were never solved. The money was never recovered. And when you — one of the most powerful things was I spent a lot of time where the Osage Nation is and I tracked down descendants of the murderers and I tracked down Mollie Burkhart’s granddaughter.
They tell you what it was like to grow up without family members. You get a sense of how these crimes still linger today. But a lot of the Osage, because these crimes remained unsolved, have spent years and decades trying to figure out who the perpetrators were.
They will give you folders of evidence. They will ask you to look into it. One of the most nefarious elements of these crimes is that, because this was a real cover-up, this really was a story not about a single perpetrator.
It was about the evil lurking in the hearts of actually many seemingly ordinary white men and women who perpetrated these crimes. There were morticians who covered up the murders. There were doctors who administered the poison. There were lawmen who were on the take. There were politicians who were on the take or directly complicit.
And because they covered up these crimes, in many of these cases, they’ve denied the victims even their history, to help them figure out exactly what happened, because they’ve covered up the trails of evidence.
Tavis: Let me go back to that first visit you made to the Osage Museum in Oklahoma. To your eye, did you see an exhibit, a museum that was about celebrating the fact that the nation is still here? Or was it more of in memoriam? What did you see?
Grann: Yeah. I mean, what was interesting about this photograph is there was very little specifically on the murders when I was there, and this photograph was there and cut out. I think that it’s important to understand about the Osage is that they really are a vibrant nation to this day.
They have about 20,000 voting members. They’ve taken precautions to try to stop these kind of conspiracies. They have their own court system. One Osage lawyer told me, “We were victims of these crimes, but we don’t live as victims.” And I think that point gets to your question that came across…
Tavis: That’s what I was getting at. I’m just trying to figure out how they process it all these years later.
Grann: I mean, they are still haunted by it. I mean, they are haunted by these crimes because so many of us have neglected these crimes. They’ve lived with these intimately. I mean, I was there and there was an Osage ballet and they had a section in the ballet about the killings. So this is still a part that reverberates to this day, but they are also an incredibly vibrant nation that have endured incredibly despite these crimes.
Tavis: I was in a conversation with some Black folk, some friends of mine the other day, and we were sitting around having dinner. We saw the TV was on and there was, you know, one of these teasers for a story coming up after the break.
Somebody made the comment, as I have done, as every Black person honestly has done at one point or another in their lives, you say, “I hope this ain’t a negro. I hope that the story they’re about to show in a minute is not a Black person.” Because whether it’s right, whether it’s just, whether it’s fair, you feel that burden as a Black person that you don’t want this to be done at the hands of another Black person.
I say all that to ask, as a white man, how did you process researching and writing what you had to write about white people? I’m not suggesting you should have owned that, but I’m just curious to get inside your heart. How did you process what these white men did as a white man writing the story what they did to the Osage?
Grann: You know, it’s funny. I think like a lot of journalists. Journalists are often portrayed as cynical. I often think it’s the opposite. I think we often have illusions. We’re driven by a certain kind of moral impetus and I’m often naïve when I begin a story in the sense that I’m not an expert in this when I begin this story.
This was all new to me. Before I saw that photograph in the museum, I didn’t know about this history. As far as crime stories, I was disturbed in a way about this more than anything else I’d ever covered.
Because it got to that question of it’s easier to think of this case, which is the way the FBI thought of it, as a kind of singular evil figure, right? That somehow just one person is so bad who did these things, and if the law comes in and removes that person, everything goes back to normal.
What was so hard to reckon with, that so many seemingly ordinary white citizens — we’re talking about people in prominent society — were complicit in these crimes. And that was something that shook me. I mean, I’m being honest with you.
And in the telling, you feel a certain moral burden in both telling it, but also reckoning with it. You know, when people often ask me why I did the book, one of the reasons I did the book was to address my own ignorance. Because how is it possible that I was not taught this in history? How is it possible that I had never read about this?
Tavis: But you know the answer to that question, though. You know the answer to that [laugh].
Grann: Well, yeah, because these stories have been marginalized because of prejudice.
Tavis: And it doesn’t make the white man look good to teach you this in school.
Grann: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: I mean, it doesn’t put him in a starring role that he wants to be.
Grann: So, for me, you know, I think this is an important part to reckon with. And I also don’t think we can understand our current life and world if we don’t understand this. First of all, this was the 1920s. We’re not talking about the colonial era. We’re talking about less than a century ago when these crimes took place.
Tavis: That’s right.
Grann: I interviewed an Osage, a guy named Chris Turley who fought in Afghanistan in the Army. He was a scout. During the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota, which you were just talking about, he walked from Oklahoma almost all the way to North Dakota.
He hitched a ride at the very end to get there for a certain date. He told me that during that pilgrimage, during that quest, he thought about the Osage murders. When you look at the particulars, they seem different.
The Sioux aren’t getting money from oil. They’re trying to protect their land. But he said it was the same fundamental issue, which is the rights of Native American nations to protect their land, to protect their sovereignty and to dictate the fate of their resources. I’ll just give you one story because I think it gets to that question.
The woman, Mollie Burkhart, I wrote about? I found a document in an archive two years before she died in 1936. It was an appeal by her of her “incompetency” and the court had finally deemed her competent in 1934, two years before she died, that she was finally allowed to control her money, her destiny, her fate that she was finally granted the rights of an American citizen. And I think, again, that’s recent.
Tavis: After all those years of having an overlord tell her what she could and couldn’t do, yeah.
Grann: So two years before she died, the court finally deemed her competent. But, again, when you have so many Osage going out to Standing Rock, and a former Osage chief told me about Standing Rock.
He said, “There’s been also talk about even trying to privatize and break up reservations today and there’s members of the Trump administration who have expressed this interest” which is basically the old unfettered settlers’ dream to get this land, which gets back to what you get to.
This former Osage chief by name of Jim Gray, told me, “You know, I can’t believe it’s 2017 and we’re still having this fight.” So I think, unless we reckon with this history, we can’t fully understand the country we live in today.
Tavis: I’m glad you raised the Standing Rock thing because that’s exactly where I was going to go. Because I think it’s important for fellow citizens today who sort of poo-poo this stuff or don’t really understand it, don’t pay attention to it, don’t understand why they’re so upset. It’s just a pipeline. No, no, no. There’s a history here.
Grann: There is a history.
Tavis: And you have to understand how they have been maligned from the very beginning, to understand why they do not want to be trampled on yet again.
So I was going to say that the flip side — it seems to me, David, the flip side of bearing that burden as a white man that you spoke of earlier, that you felt writing this book, the flip side of that is that — how can I put this — that if the truth isn’t told, then it ends up being rendered invisible.
And when the truth is rendered invisible, then none of us benefits from that. So the flip side of that burden is that somebody has got to tell the truth and we owe you a debt of gratitude…
Grann: Well, thank you very much.
Tavis: For taking the time to tell this story and, wow, I can’t wait to see it on the big screen [laugh]. It’s called “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” written by David Grann. You got another movie out right about now, don’t you?
Grann: Yes. “The Lost City of Z” [laugh].
Tavis: “The Lost City of Z” is also his project. That’s in movie theaters even as we speak. David, congratulations. Thanks for doing this, my friend. Good to have you on the program.
Grann: Thanks so much. I appreciate it.
Tavis: My pleasure. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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