In 1921 in the Osage Nation town of Gray Horse, 30-something Mollie Burkhart harbors suspicions about the death of her sister Minnie and the disappearance of her sister Anna.
So begins journalist David Grann’s real-life mystery, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, which spent more than 49 weeks on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list.
In 2011, a historian told Grann about what has been called the Osage Reign of Terror. Due to oil on their land, Osage tribal members became the richest people in the world per capita. However, many Osage suffered horrible deaths or vanished.
His curiosity piqued, Grann visited Pawhuska’s Osage Nation Museum, where he noticed a 1924 photograph showing white settlers and Osage tribal members. But someone cut out part of the photo.
Grann says then-museum director Kathryn Red Corn told him the missing part “contained the image of a figure so frightening that she removed it, saying ‘The devil was standing right there.’ It was one of the settlers who participated in the systematic killing of the Osage for their oil money. The Osage removed the image not to forget what had happened but because they can’t forget. Yet so many, including myself, had no knowledge of one of the most sinister crimes and egregious racial injustices in American history. That prompted me to investigate the story.”
A native New Yorker, Grann enlisted help to find where research materials were housed. With librarians and archivists navigating his path, Grann spent years sifting through government files and musty boxes. Gathering thousands of pages of materials, including court records and secret grand jury testimonies, he also “interviewed descendants of both the murderers and the victims, many of whom still live in the same neighborhoods.”
Grann usually visited Oklahoma twice annually and stayed about a month each time.
“Oklahoma has wonderful museums and historical archives,” he says. “I’m grateful to many people who helped me and became friends along the way.”
After writing for almost five years, Grann saw his riveting tale released in 2017. He describes a culture of murder where monsters, enabled by lawyers, politicians and other powerful people, killed with impunity. Some who investigated the deaths ended up dead themselves.
Killers of the Flower Moon has received numerous awards and accolades. Grann, a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2003, has penned two other nonfiction books. He has written for the New York Times Magazine, Atlantic, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal and Weekly Standard. He was senior editor at The New Republic and executive editor of The Hill.
Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese has adapted Grann’s book for the screen and promised Osage Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear that he will shoot the film in Oklahoma, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro as confirmed leads. Filming is expected in the spring and summer in and around Pawhuska.
In November, casting calls were held in Pawhuska, Tulsa, and Oklahoma City.
“My hope is the movie will make this history part of our national conscious, where it belongs,” Grann says.
OKC Town Hall
As part of this monthly lecture series, Grann will speak at 11 a.m. Feb. 20 at Church of the Servant, 14343 N. MacArthur Blvd.