- Matt Richman
- David Grann spoke at the Egyptian Theatre about his book, Killers of the Flower Moon, on March 13.
"I noticed this photograph on the wall. It shows members of the Osage nation ... but I noticed a portion was missing," he said.
A woman who would later become his friend told him of the cropped part of the photo, "The devil was standing right there."
That photo—the full panorama—now graces the inside cover of Grann's nonfiction bestseller, Killers of the Flower Moon, and "the devil" was William Hale, a white cattle rancher who orchestrated the murders of many Osage in an attempt to usurp their oil rights. At his talk on Wednesday evening, Grann outlined the extent and the methods of Hale and his compatriots, how sniffing out their scheme helped give birth to the modern FBI, and how he hopes his book will help bring what happened to the Osage, once the richest people per capita in the world, further into the fold of American history and offer some measure of justice to Hale's victims.
"These crimes took place almost a century ago, but they still reverberate through the lives of so many Osage," he said.
The story of the Osage is one of displacement and racist victimization. Beginning in the early American era, the tribe was pushed and prodded, and was finally settled on a rocky patch of Oklahoma that happened to have massive oil reserves just beneath the surface of the barren ground. Almost overnight, the Osage became incredibly wealthy, making them the targets of the government, which sought to limit their access to their money, and people like William Hale.
"Then, the Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances," Grann said.
Some were poisoned, others were shot. In one case, a bomb went off in the home of the sister of Mollie Burkhart, one of Grann's point-of-view characters. The killings attracted the attention of what was then called the Bureau of Investigation, which had jurisdiction over Native American affairs, and then-Director J. Edgar Hoover sent a young lawman named Tom White to the scene.
White's investigation brought some criminals to justice, but the legacy of the killings had largely faded from the memories of most people by the time Grann wrote his book, which features textbook examples of racism, privilege and a checkerboard justice system. Grann said Killers of the Flower Moon is also a story about people who stood by and watched as people like Hale went about their murderous business.
"This isn't a story about who did it, but a story about who didn't do it," Grann said.