Grann: On Osage Murders & Start Of FBI

Jul 19, 2017

David Grann
Credit Matt Richman

The story resembles what is taught in history textbooks about Native Americans: the forced migrations, the pillaging of land and natural resources, the murderous treatment of the tribes. It’s the story of author David Grann’s new work of nonfiction, Killers of the Flower Moon, but this isn't colonial history. It took place less than 100 years ago just south of our Kansas border, in the Osage territory of Central Oklahoma.

“The Osage once controlled much of the central part of the country. But like so many American Indian nations they were driven off their lands," explained Grann. "Eventually they were bunched into a territory in Kansas. And they had to search for a new homeland.”

Grann says a great Osage chief suggested a move to Indian territory that would later become Oklahoma. The rocky terrain and infertile ground was considered worthless by the white man, and the chief thought the tribe would finally be left alone.

“And then, lo and behold, the seemingly forsaken territory turned out to be sitting upon some of the largest deposits of oil then in the United States and the Osage became the wealthiest people per capita in the world,” said Grann.

When the Osage purchased the land and divided it among the tribe members, they had the foresight to mandate that although tribe members could sell their own surface land, the mineral rights had to remain under tribal control and could not be sold. Oil became their livelihood.

“And just to give you some sense of the wealth," Grann said, "in the year 1923 alone those few thousand Osage collectively received what would be worth today more than $400 million.”

After decades of hardship at the hands of the white man, life seemingly ended up okay for the Osage. But then two members of the tribe were murdered within just a few weeks of each other. And the deaths continued.

“They began to be targeted one by one. I describe in particular in the book the family of one woman, Mollie Burkhart, who becomes a prime target of this criminal conspiracy," Grann explained. "And in May of 1921 her older sister Anna disappears. And a week later her body is found in a ravine, shot in the back of the head. And it's the first hint that the tribe is being targeted and her family is being targeted.”

Not long after her sister’s murder, Mollie’s mother becomes mysteriously ill and dies. And another sister seems to have died of the same affliction. While it was not detected at the time, evidence surfaced later suggesting they were poisoned. 

“Mollie had a younger sister who was so frightened by these killings she moved closer to town to be near Mollie," Grann said. "One day at about 3:00 in the morning Mollie heard this loud explosion. In the distance where her sister's house had once been, somebody had planted a bomb under her house killing her sister, her sister's husband, and a white servant who lived there.”

And so Mollie Burkhart was the only member left in this family. Grann writes that she lived in dread, knowing that she was likely the next target.

“Mollie showed enormous courage and crusaded for justice," Grann said. "But really very little was done because of prejudice, because many of the victims were Native Americans and the white authorities and lawmen ignored them; or because of corruption, because of complicity, because so many authorities were profiting from these crimes.”

And those who did try to help were met with an untimely end. An attorney returning to Osage territory with evidence about the killers was thrown from a train. And another friend of the tribe was abducted and killed in Washington, D.C., before he could ask for federal assistance in investigating the murders.

“And so by 1923, after more than two dozen Osage murders, the Osage tribal council issued a resolution demanding and pleading for federal authorities uncontaminated by corruption to step in and catch the killers," Grann explained. "And it was then that the case was taken up by a rather obscure branch of the Justice Department. It was then known as the Bureau of Investigation and of course we would later know it as the Federal Bureau of Investigation as it would be renamed. And the case became one of the bureau’s and one of J. Edgar Hoover's first major homicide investigations.”

The bureau had been suffering from incompetence, corruption and scandal at the time, so Hoover assigned an old frontier lawman from the Texas bureau to take over the case. His name was Tom White.

“He was a lawman early on at a time when justice was often meted out by the barrel of a gun," said Grann, "and by the time he takes over the Osage case in 1925 he has to wear a suit, he has to file paperwork which he can't stand and he's struggling to adopt modern techniques like fingerprinting and handwriting analysis.” 

White assembled a team of undercover agents posing as cattlemen, an insurance agent, and the only American Indian agent in the bureau. Together the team conducted a credible investigation.

“The investigation has many twists and turns that in many ways was less like a criminal investigation than an espionage case," he said. "There were moles, there were double agents, and possibly triple agents.  It was impossible to know who to trust, who was your ally. But ultimately what they do is they follow the money.”

In particular, the team followed the trail of evidence to determine who was ultimately profiting in the case of the murders of Mollie Burkhart's families. The trail led the investigators to someone whom Mollie knew well. To someone she and many of the Osage trusted.

“One of the things that made these crimes so sinister is that they were deeply intimate crimes that involve an extraordinary level of betrayal in which the perpetrators often pretended to love their victims while over years plotting to kill them,” Grann said.

Although the FBI determined that the case was solved, Grann still had some unanswered questions after his research into historical records. He traveled to Oklahoma and conducted a modern investigation, uncovering a wider plot not exposed by the FBI.

“And the more I researched the case I realized that this was less about who did it but who didn't do it. There were in fact many conspirators, many more perpetrators," explained Grann. "This really was about a culture of killing. The death toll was not 24-27 as the bureau assumed, but really in the scores and perhaps even hundreds.”

Although we think we know our history, Grann says that this history is "still playing out in the heart of the country" today.

“History is still living," he said. "It still reverberates to this day. And in fact many of the descendants of the murderers and the victims still live in the same neighborhoods with their fates intertwine. In many ways that is the story of America.”

Author David Grann will be in Wichita Thursday, July 20, for an event at Abode Venue, hosted by Watermark Books.