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David Grann reflects on the painstaking research that sparked his true-crime book

Author David Grann pored through the depths of the National Archives and secrets long-held in forgotten documentation to write and report his true crime tale, “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

The book is an investigation of a number of murders of wealthy Osage Indian tribe members in 1920s Oklahoma, which sparked one of the first major investigations by the FBI.

Grann, an American journalist, writes that he found the most telling information in boxes of unorganized archives.
In the pages below, Grann describes the painstaking research he conducted (often looking for just a single name) to find a wider pattern that eventually revealed “hints of widespread murder” in Osage.

Click on the highlighted words to see Grann’s revelations.


I returned the archives in Fort Worth and resumed searching through the endless musty boxes and files. The archivist wheeled the newest batch of boxes on a cart into the small reading room, before rolling out the previous load. I had lost the illusion that I would find some Rosetta stone that would unlock the secrets of the past. Most of the records were dry and clinical—expenses, census reports, oil leases.

In one of the boxes was a tattered, fabric-covered logbook from the Office of Indian Affairs cataloging the names of guardians during the Reign of Terror. Written out by hand, the logbook included the name of each guardian and, underneath, a list of his Osage wards. If a ward passed away while under guardianship, a single word was usually scrawled by his or her name: “Dead.”

I searched for the name of H. G. Burt, the suspect in W. W. Vaughan’s killing. The log showed that he was the guardian of George Bigheart’s daughter as well as of four other Osage. Beside the name of one of these wards was the word “dead.” I then looked up Scott Mathis, the owner of the Big Hill Trading Company. According to the log, he had been the guardian of nine Osage, including Anna Brown and her mother, Lizzie. As I went down the list, I noticed that a third Osage Indian had died under Mathis’s guardianship, and so had a fourth, and a fifth, and a sixth. Altogether, of his nine listed wards, seven had died. And at least two of these deaths were known to be murders.

I began to scour the log for other Osage guardians around this time. One had 11 Osage wards, eight of whom had died. Another guardian had 13 wards, more than half of whom had been listed as deceased. And one guardian had five wards, all of whom died. And so it went, on and on. The numbers were staggering and clearly defied a natural death rate. Because most of these cases had never been investigated, it was impossible to determine precisely how many of the deaths were suspicious, let alone who might be responsible for any foul play.

Nevertheless, there were strong hints of widespread murder.

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