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By unearthing buried narratives, bestselling author David Grann ’89 resurrects larger than life characters.
By Maria P. Gonzalez
story tip led author David Grann to Oklahoma where he learned about the devil who lived among the Osage Indians.
Grann, the bestselling author of The Lost City of Z, is driving through Manhattan while we speak, just days before the premiere of the book’s film adaptation and, coincidentally, the same week Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murdersand the Birth of the FBI is set to publish.
Grann mentions how a conversation with a historian took him to the Osage Nation Museum in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, which holds the stories of the Midwestern Native American tribe of the Great Plains who historically dominated much of present-day Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma.
Grann stood in front of a panoramic black-and-white photograph taken in 1924, which spans nearly the length of one of the museum’s rooms, and shows members of the Osage Nation beside prominent white businessmen and leaders. Yet a section of the photo was clearly gone.
“It looked very innocent,” Grann says, recalling the impression made by the image on first glance. “I asked the museum director why that panel was missing. She explained the missing piece was because the devil was standing right there.”
The “devil” was William K. Hale, a powerful and prominent white leader in Pawhuska who lived alongside Native Americans and helped hire private investigators when tribal members started turning up dead. Hale was an ally—or so it seemed.
“Here was this [section of the photo] that the Osage removed because they could not forget what had happened. It was an element that most Americans, including myself, have forgotten or didn’t know about. That’s what really led me to begin the quest to try to tell this very mysterious and sinister crime story.”
A copy of the original panoramic photo is the first image on the title page for Killers of the Flower Moon. The narrative nonfiction tale is set at the turn of the 20th century when members of the Osage Nation were among the richest people in the world thanks to vast oil reserves exclusive to their lands. This oil afforded the Osage mansions, and the most luxurious cars and clothes money could buy.
And then wealthy Osage members started turning up dead. Some were clearly murdered, yet the deaths went unsolved. Still more died of mysterious and sudden illnesses.
Mollie Burkhart, a central figure in Grann’s work,watched as her three sisters died around her. Minnie died of a strange wasting illness. Anna’s body was discovered, a bullet having pierced her skull. Rita’s death was particularly grizzly: a nitroglycerin bomb detonated under her house, killing her and her husband, as well as a young, white maid who lived with them.
Capturing the voices of forgotten Osage tribal members like Mollie and her sisters guided Grann as he delved into five years of research.
“[Mollie is] an Osage woman at a time where the power structure is white and quite male, and they’re discounting her point of view,” Grann explains. “And yet she’s steadfast in trying to pursue justice, trying to get these crimes accounted for. She’s hiring private detectives; she’s putting out rewards. And every time she’s doing this, she’s putting a bullseye on her.
“She was a target. [Seeking justice for her sisters’ deaths] took a great deal of courage, and goodness and determination.”
Grann interviewed descendants of both the victims and the murderers to form the book’s core.
“All the people I wrote about I thought of as transitional figures. Mollie Burkhart was born in the 1880s, she grew up in a lodge, she didn’t speak any English and she dressed traditionally. Within three decades she’s living in a mansion with white servants; she’s married to a white husband; she’s speaking English; and she’s really straddling not only two centuries, but two civilizations.”
To assemble the pieces of the story, Grann pored over documents at the National Archives at Fort Worth, Texas. The end product is a gripping murder mystery with compelling characters: Burkhart, the wealthy Osage woman who watched with increasing terror and desperation as her loved ones died or were murdered. Tom White, the former Texas Ranger who assembled a covert crew to investigate the murders through the new Bureau of Investigation, which helped launch the modern FBI.
And Hale. The devil himself.
“You would spend days [at the archives] pulling documents trying to find materials and often you were just crying because you didn’t find relevant information and your eyes are watering because you’re so tired,” Grann says.
“And then every once in awhile, you’d open a box or folder and there would be a secret grand jury testimony from the trial, that to the best of my knowledge hasn’t been made public before, and revealed so much about the people involved. You could hear their voices.”
LOST CITY OF Z
The adventurous archaeologist Indiana Jones, the fictional hero of Raiders of the Lost Ark, is believed to be modeled after real-life British explorer Percy Fawcett, the main subject of Grann’s The Lost City of Z.
While Killers of the Flower Moon took Grann to Oklahoma, and to the National Archives in Texas, his work piecing together the narrative for The Lost City of Z drew him to the Brazilian jungle.
Fawcett’s disappearance in 1925 alongside his eldest son and his son’s friend is well-documented, but his ultimate fate—whether starvation, disease or death at the hands of a violent tribe—remains disputed.
In the years since Fawcett disappeared, other would-be explorers have followed what was believed to be his last known route. Some were captured by hostile tribes and held for ransom. Many more are believed to have died on their quest.
Over two months, Grann retraced Fawcett’s fateful 1925 expedition to look for any evidence to support Fawcett’s belief that an advanced, undiscovered civilization—which Fawcett dubbed Z—existed in the Brazilian Amazon.
Fawcett was steadfast in his belief of an advanced civilization. And although he was discredited initially, Grann’s narrative has helped shed light on evidence to validate the claims.
“In the very area where I wrote about, archaeologists are now finding evidence of ancient pre-Columbian settlements. They’re mind-blowing discoveries, transforming our understanding of what America looked like before the time of Christopher Columbus.”
While The Lost City of Z and Killers of the Flower Moon are each framed around mysteries, Grann says his works “are really about human perceptions, and the quest to make sense of the world.”
“Each of the people I write about, who are living within a conspiracy and living within history as it unfolds, in that murkiness, are trying to make sense of the world in which they live, and piece it together.”
A VISCERAL VOICE
A Watson Fellowship after college took Grann to Mexico, where he lived with several families while documenting the political climate of a country living under a new, more democratic political party for the first time in generations.
While in Mexico, Grann refined his writing by dispatching occasional daily news stories for an American magazine. Back in the U.S. he earned a master’s in creative writing from Boston University, and secured his first full-time reporting job with The Hill newspaper in Washington, D.C. A job at The New Republic followed, and then Grann worked on the story that would steer him toward long-form journalism and narrative nonfiction.
It was covering a notorious U.S. congressman from Ohio with known ties to the mob whose criminal activities remained unproven by authorities for more than 20 years: James Traficant.
“I went out to Ohio and I found the courthouse where the early investigation was before he made his way to Washington. I found a recording that had apparently been made by one of the mobsters talking to a guy who later disappeared.”
Traficant, a plain-spoken populist, was widely popular in Youngstown. Yet the secretly made tapes revealed a tough-talking Traficant at ease with mobsters, and talking like a mobster, eager to cut deals and take bribes.
“Here was this guy who was coming in as an honorable gentleman from Ohio, and in Washington everybody speaks a certain way. On the recording, it’s completely different— [he had] a more candid, visceral voice—and it had an authenticity to it.
“I realized that I wanted to get deeper into people, the way they really are, not just the way they present themselves on C-SPAN.”
Grann has been a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine since 2003, with long stretches often separating his stories, time necessary to burrow deep beneath the surface in search of the missing story. In researching Killers of the Flower Moon, Grann recalls a moment when one untold element emerged from obscure documents.
“You would often find these kind of forensic, almost bureaucratic documents that seemed almost sanitized because they’re done by bureaucrats, and sometimes they would mark the number of deaths in Osage. It would just say ‘dead, dead, dead, dead.’ You don’t realize what you’re looking at and then when you look at it again, you realize you’re looking at a systematic murder campaign against the Osage, because there’s no way they died, in this short span of time, by natural causes.”
Researching these types of stories requires an acknowledgment that some facts will remain unknown.
“Part of this story is about how some trails of evidence are lost,” Grann says. “I researched as much as I could, but the conspiracy was much deeper than was exposed … and there are other unsolved cases and bits of trails of evidence.
“Part of the story is reckoning and knowing there is this horror of unknowability about the deaths of the conspiracy and just how far it went, and that’s part of the book.”
What Grann hopes readers take from Killers of the Flower Moon is a deeper understanding of a forgotten but still relevant narrative from the past.
“You want to tell it in a compelling way, because if you do that you can get some very important scenes about a serious racial injustice, about reckoning with a part of history that we are often reluctant to reckon with,” Grann says.
“It’s also about the birth of modern law enforcement, and in many ways it’s about the birth of a modern country.”