In Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, David Grann examines a startling and largely undiscussed episode in U.S. history.
BOSTROM: When did you know you would write this book?
GRANN: I knew after I made a visit to the Osage Nation Museum, in Oklahoma, several years ago. I came across a photograph, which was taken in 1924 and showed a seemingly innocent gathering of white settlers and members of the Osage Indian Nation. But part of the picture had been cut out. When I asked the museum director why, she said that it contained the image of a figure so frightening that she had removed it. She pointed to the missing panel and said, “The devil was standing right there.” It was one of the white settlers who had participated in the systematic killing of the Osage for their oil money. The Osage had removed the image not to forget what had happened but because they can’t forget. Yet so many others, including myself, had no knowledge of one of the most sinister crimes and egregious racial injustices in American history.
BOSTROM: Tell us a little bit about your research.
GRANN: I could not have written this book without the help of librarians and archivists. At a branch of the National Archives in Texas, I found the secret grand-jury testimony for several of the murder cases, which I don’t believe had ever been made public. I also came across a tattered logbook, which contained the names of white guardians. Because of extraordinary racism, the U.S. Congress had passed legislation requiring many Osage to have white guardians to oversee their wealth. The logbook also listed the Osage who had been assigned to each guardian. If one of these Osage had passed away under the guardianship system, a single word was usually scrawled by his or her name: Dead. I noticed that one guardian was assigned to 5 Osages, and all 5 of their names were followed by that word. Another guardian had 13 wards, more than half of whom had been listed as deceased. And so it went. The numbers were staggering and clearly defied a natural death rate. I began to get a sense of the breadth of the systematic murder campaign against the Osage.
Perhaps the most remarkable unexpected discovery happened when I told a librarian at the New York City Public Library about my research. To my astonishment, he told me that some members of his family were from Oklahoma and were related to several of the victims and the murderers I was writing about. He put me in touch with them. That blew my mind.
BOSTROM: The Lost City of Z film adaptation was released this year, and a Killers of the Flower Moon film is in the works. What has it been like to see the stories that you’ve spent so much time telling with words become movies?
GRANN: I tend to write about stories that have largely been forgotten. For me, the best part with the film adaptation is knowing that these stories—especially in the case of the Osage, which is about such an egregious racial injustice—will become part of our broader conscience.