In the wake of the Civil War the U.S. government relocated the Osage Indians from Kansas to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), where they bought little-valued reservation land once occupied by the Cherokees. By the turn of the 20th century, however, Osage tribal leaders had learned of the existence of lucrative natural resources beneath their lands, and in 1906 they negotiated a federal mining statute that included this key provision: “That the oil, gas, coal or other minerals covered by the lands…are hereby reserved to the Osage tribe.” When production of the oil reserves on reservation lands exploded, the headright owners became very wealthy. Among the fortunate Osages were Mollie Burkhart, her mother and sisters. But their good fortune took a dark turn when family members began to die—either violently murdered or under suspicious circumstances. The Osage Tribal Council sought help from J. Edgar Hoover, who was then developing the Bureau of Investigation (renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935). Hoover in turn assigned former Texas Ranger Tom White, special agent in charge of the bureau’s Houston field office, to go to Oklahoma to investigate. David Grann, a staff writer at The New Yorker, spent years researching the story and wrote Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (2017), a suspenseful tale of money, murder and intrigue with surprising twists and turns.
What led you to the story of the Osage murders?
I had first heard about the killings from a historian and then went to visit the Osage Nation Museum in Oklahoma. When I was there, I saw on the wall a panoramic photograph, taken in 1924, which showed a seemingly innocent pageant of members of the tribe and white settlers. I noticed a section had been cut out. When I asked the museum director why, she told me it showed a figure so frightening she’d decided to remove it. She pointed to the missing panel and said, “The devil was standing right there.” She then went down into the basement and brought up an image of the missing panel, which showed one of ringleaders behind the conspiracy to murder the Osage for their oil money. The book grew out of trying to understand who that figure was, and the search led me to one of the most mysterious and sinister crime stories in American history.
How long did it take to complete the book?
The research took many years, to find archival material as well as descendants of both the murderers and the victims. Altogether, from beginning to end, the process took nearly half a decade.
Where did you begin?
At the outset I wanted to know if there was enough underlying source material to tell the story. And so I obtained FBI records and filed document requests with government agencies through the Freedom of Information Act. Gradually, envelopes and boxes of materials began to arrive. They provided only a fraction of the materials I would need for the book, but they gave me the confidence to commit to the project, which took me nearly another four years to complete.
Did Ernest Burkhart marry Mollie to gain control of her headright? Or did he plot the family murders after their wedding?
From the available records we don’t know for sure. But Mollie Burkhart’s descendants believe the marriage had been conceived as part of the scheme.
How did the murderers poison, shoot and otherwise kill dozens of victims without getting caught?
Several forces were at work. One was racism. Because the victims were Native Americans, white authorities often neglected to investigate these crimes. Modern policing techniques were also still just emerging and corruption was widespread. The killers could buy off the authorities, and in many instances the authorities themselves were complicit in the murders.
What was the biggest break for Tom White?
It’s a modern cliché, but following the money.
What clues or leads did the investigators miss?
They tried to connect the killing to one evil figure and in so doing ignored clues that pointed to other killers.
Why did the FBI drop the investigation after obtaining just two convictions?
I think some members of the bureau believed they had solved the case. In some ways it was easier to contemplate there was a singular evil mastermind, as opposed to a culture of killers. Hoover was also eager to exploit the convictions to mythologize the bureau rather than digging deeper.
Were the convictions real successes or a premature end to what should have been a broader investigation?
Both. There is no question that convicting William Hale and John Ramsey represented some success. Given Hale’s power and the prejudice and corruption that prevailed, it was not easy to bring them to justice. Yet the convictions also fostered an illusion the crimes had been completely resolved, and as a result many conspirators and murderers were never brought to justice.
The “Reign of Terror” lasted how long?
According to the FBI, the Reign of Terror went from 1921 to the end of 1925. But records show that, in fact, murders occurred well before that period and well after it. I researched one case of an Osage woman who was abducted and murdered in 1918 and another case of an Osage man suspected of being poisoned in 1931.
Was it just luck that Ernest and Mollie Burkhart’s children, Elizabeth and Cowboy, were not in the Smith home the night it was destroyed?
The family certainly believed it was luck—or as Margie put it, “just fate.”
Was Ernest Burkhart cold-blooded enough to have allowed his own children to be killed?
Ernest is one of the most complicated figures in the conspiracy. He seems to have had affection for Mollie and his children, but he was also dominated by his uncle and went along with his murderous schemes. In that sense he was a willing executioner.
What led you to dig beyond the story of Mollie Burkhart and the murders of her family?
So many Osages shared with me accounts of other murder victims whose cases had never been closed. It became clear there was a much deeper conspiracy to expose.
Is there any justice for the other victims?
In too many cases there was no justice through the legal system. The killers were never caught or punished. Hopefully, in some instances, history can at least give some voice to these other victims. It was only after I began to track down descendants and comb through archives that I found the kind of evidence that could illuminate these age-old questions, including identifying a likely killer who was previously unknown. WW