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Osage Reign of Terror comes alive in 'Killers of the Flower Moon'

Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report
David Grann signing a copy of his newest book on Tuesday at Full Circle Bookstore.
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Grann, author of Lost City of Z, uncovers Oklahoma murder conspiracy in new book

OKLAHOMA CITY – When David Grann, famed New Yorker Magazine journalist and author of The Lost City of Z (now a major motion picture), studied an old photograph depicting Oklahoma’s Osage Nation and white settlers in a group, he noticed one panel of the photo was missing.

Grann, a hunter of mysteries, had heard from a historian in 2011 about a “great reign of terror” that befell the Osage Indians in the early 1900s, at a time when the Osage were the wealthiest people on the planet, per capita.

But in the 1920s, that wealth came with a deadly price. One by one, the Osage were being murdered, shot, blown up and poisoned. Between 1921 and 1925, approximately 27 Osage citizens were killed in what the tribe called the Reign of Terror. 

“I made a trip out to the Osage Nation in northeast Oklahoma, and I visited the museum that was there,” he said. “I saw this panoramic photograph. I noticed a portion had been cut out, as if with a pair of scissors. I asked the director what happened to the missing panel. She said she had removed it.”

A figure in that missing panel was so frightening, he was told, that she cut it out.

“She pointed to the missing panel and said, ‘The devil was standing right there.’ And the book is really about who that figure was and the anguishing history he embodied,” said Grann.

With that brief visit, Grann embarked on a multi-year investigation into the Osage Nation’s Reign of Terror, uncovering what Grann said was a murderous conspiracy that spanned not only Oklahoma, but the nation. It revealed “pure evil,” and pain that remains to this day a part of the Osage people’s history.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI is the new book by Grann, released just as his iconic The Lost City of Z debuts in theaters. Grann spoke about his five-year quest to delve into the mysteries and answers surrounding the murders of the Osage Indians Tuesday night to a packed crowd at Full Circle Bookstore.

“It was pure evil,” he said. “It led me on a search to what I would come to realize was one of the most mysterious and sinister crimes in American history, one I believe tells a much larger story of this country. Over time, you get a deeper sense of what becomes apparent – this was a national conspiracy.”

The Osage tragedy

In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson invited a delegation of Osage chiefs from their tribal lands, located in the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase, to meet with him. Jefferson was taken with these regal men, calling them the “finest men we have ever seen.”

From that meeting, Jefferson promised to treat their tribe fairly, telling them that, “they shall know our nation only as friends and benefactors.”

That promise would be broken – repeatedly and cruelly. Over the next two decades, the Osage would be stripped of nearly 100 million acres of land, forced into a smaller parcel in southeastern Kansas which the government promised would be theirs forever, and then, yet again, forced out into Indian Territory.

The Osage looked for land that no white settlers would want. They settled in the rocky and scrubby hills of northeast Oklahoma, buying the land and negotiating a provision that the land’s “oil, gas, coal or other minerals” would be owned by the Osage, too. No matter what, the Osage would own whatever was below their parcel of land, which was roughly the size of Delaware.

What the nation didn’t know at that time was the land held treasure, and that treasure was a vast reservoir of oil. After oil was discovered, prospectors would pay leases to the Osage to drill. In 1908, those checks that were paid to the remaining 2,000 or so members were a few hundred dollars, then became thousands of dollars and then millions.

“In 1923 alone, the Osage received collectively what would be worth today more than $400 million,” Grann said. “They were considered, per capita, the wealthiest people in the world. The public became transfixed with the Osage wealth.”

Because the tribe had negotiated “headrights,” the sale of oil rights were prohibited and each full member of the tribe received these headrights, which were passed down through inheritance. The Osage were rich. They lived in terracotta mansions and were chauffeured in fancy cars and had white servants.

“It was said at the time that while an American may own one car, each Osage owned 11 of them,” Grann said. “

The nation was both fascinated and horrified. How could Native Americans – usually thought of as poverty-stricken and savages by years of stereotyping – be wealthier than anyone in the world?

“Many whites across the country because of prejudice and envy expressed a growing alarm,” Grann said. “It got to the point where the Osage were scapegoated for their wealth. Congress would sit in hearing rooms and debate about ‘what are we going to do about all this Osage money.’”

They passed a system where they appointed white guardians to oversee Osage fortunes. Full-blood Osage were deemed incompetent to handle their own fortunes, and they were given white guardians to dictate how those fortunes could be spent.

And, whenever vast fortunes are involved, murder follows.

The killing sprees

Mollie Burkhart was a member of the Osage tribe who, along with four sisters, were wealthy and married to white men. Grann tells the story of Killers of the Flower Moon through her eyes as, one by one, members of her family began dying.

One sister, Minnie, died from a “peculiar wasting illness.” A few years later, Mollie’s sister Anna disappeared one night. She was found a week later dead in a ravine with a gunshot to her head. Two months later, Mollie’s mother also died of a strange, unknown wasting disease.

Mollie’s remaining sister, Rita, was so terrified that she, her husband and 18-year-old white servant moved to town to be safer. One night, a great roar filled the sky as Rita’s home exploded in a ball of flame, killing everyone in the house.

Charles Whitehorn, another Osage, was also found shot to death days after Anna’s body was found. William Stepson, a champion steer roper and Osage member, died from poisoning.

The killings kept coming. Two dozen Osage members died from gunshots, poisonings and bombs from 1920 to 1924. Attorneys and friends of the Osage, white men who tried to uncover the suspects in the crimes, were also murdered. One attorney was thrown from a train when he announced he had evidence to present after interviewing a man dying from poison.

The birth of the FBI

A rich oil man went to Washington to insist on a federal investigation into the murders of the Osage, but he was found dead in a culvert, stabbed more than 20 times. The book takes a turn into the involvement of the newly-formed Bureau of Investigation and an agent named Tom White, a former Texas Ranger, who would lead the investigation.

White created an undercover team which posed as cattle rancher and insurance salesmen to “follow the money” and discover the mastermind behind the killings.

Killers of the Flower Moon reads like a crime novel, told in three parts. The first part is told from Mollie Burkhart’s viewpoint, followed by White’s involvement. The third part is told from Grann’s experience and investigation, which uncovered a possible unknown suspect in the Osage killings.

“The case reflected more like an espionage case than a criminal investigation,” Grann said. “There were moles and double agents and it was very difficult to know who to trust or not to trust. They were able to capture one of the masterminds, and it turned out to be a very prominent white settler, and it was someone Mollie and many of the Osage trusted.”

After Grann visited the museum and saw the panoramic photograph that day, the museum director went into the basement to retrieve a copy of the missing panel.

“There, peering out at me very creepily in the left corner, was that mastermind that the Bureau charged with the crime. That was the so-called devil that she was referring to,” Grann said.

“I think it’s important to understand that the Osage removed that panel not to forget as so many Americans have, but because they can’t forget.”

As Grann investigated the Osage murder mystery, he told the crowd that the book wasn’t a “whodunit,” but a “who-didn’t-do-it.” He said the whole community – from the doctors to the undertaker – were complicit.

Today, in Osage Nation towns like Pawhuska, relatives of the victims and the killers live side by side. Although the Osage never forget, others have. Some never knew their ancestors were part of the conspiracy. Some want to forget they were.

“It is a story of America and the formation of the country,” Grann said. “When I heard about this randomly from a historian, I was shocked I had never read about this. I had never heard of this ‘reign of terror.’ This history is still living. One of the tragedies of this case is that in many of the suspicious deaths, the perpetrators escaped justice, and they also escaped the judgment of history. They deny their victims their history and proper account.”

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann is published by Simon & Schuster.

Photos by Red Dirt Report's Heide Brandes.

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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