David Grann speaks about his book ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

David Grann, an American journalist and author of the book 'Killers of the Flower Moon,' is pictured at the 2018 Texas Book Festival. Courtesy Larry D. Moore via Wikimedia Commons

Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy graduate David Grann (F’92) visited  Tufts University on Monday to speak about his renowned book “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” (2017). The nonfiction work details the systematic murders of the members of the Osage Nation for their money in the 1920s and the corruption that enabled these murders to occur. Grann’s book is shocking, and it covers a story that is overlooked or unheard of by many Americans today.

The moderator of the talk was Dyan Mazurana, a research professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. She first discovered Grann’s book when her 14 year-old son brought it home from a local library in a small Colorado town. She added that “even in small towns in the mountains of Colorado, this book is being read and appreciated.” Once her son began reading it, and subsequently narrating the story to the family, they all became hooked.

Grann discussed that this novel did in fact have a direct origin story, unlike some of his other works. He did not know much about the Osage murders, if anything at all, but when he went to the Osage Nation Museum in Pawhuska, Okla., he saw something that startled him. Grann noticed that one of the panoramic photos in the museum looked like a portion had been cut off with scissors. He asked the museum clerk what had happened to the photograph, and she told him that the devil was standing there in the photo, so they had to cut him out. The “devil” she was speaking of was one of the murderers of the Osage people, and everyone in that tribe knew who he was and what he had done. But why was the truth unknown to so many Americans? And what was the truth behind these murders? These were questions that Grann sought to answer in his writing.

The story of these murders was incredibly complex and contained countless complicit people. Grann explained that it was “one of the most sinister crimes in American history,” where the Osage people received royalties of up to $400 million from their land being drilled for oil and were then serially murdered for these fortunes.

Perhaps the most sinister part of the crimes is the way in which these people were murdered. Many of the murderers married into the families of the Osage to gain access to the fortunes. They would then systematically kill different members of the family, sometimes their own wives and children, to change the direct line of inheritance. It shocked the entire audience when Grann said that some of the descendants of these murderers are still receiving small royalties today. But it was not only that, Grann explained, it was all of those who were complicit that allowed these gruesome acts to be committed. “It is much easier to contemplate evil as singular, but what happens when evil can breed in the hearts of ordinary people?” Grann asked the crowd.

This was exactly the case in these murders. Doctors prescribed poisons, reporters did not publish the truth (or anything at all), sheriffs looked the other way, and many more remained complicit in their silence. It was a systematic murder campaign, and Grann noted that one of the reasons it happened with the worst kind of efficacy was because they were Osage people. He explained that some people from the time of the murders had gone on record saying they did not see Native Americans any differently than they had been seen and treated in the 1700s. From this stemmed all kinds of prejudice, allowing a true “culture of evil” to form.

These horrific stories, along with all of the research Grann did for this book, continue to stay with him. His methods were so immersive, living in the same town as the Osage for weeks at a time, really getting to know the population, searching through their archives by hand, box-by-box, that ultimately there is no way these stories could not stay with him. It is a constant and welcome reminder of how not to forget this kind of evil and prejudice, but also how to re-remember it as a society.

The Osage people who Grann came to know have stayed in contact with him as well. They hosted a book-signing of his work and held an event in his honor. Grann spoke of how this event took place at the local dance hall, and at the end he was gifted a blanket and given many honors and thanks from people with whom he considers himself incredibly lucky to have cultivated friendships.

His immersive research methods are more than simply commendable; they are admirable to the highest degree. Grann credits much of his learning in conducting research to his education from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He remembers his education to this day, although he said he did not quite remember the specifics of it. But what he does remember, and what he uses in his daily life as a reporter, is “how to think, how to ask questions and how to find corroboration.” All skills which proved immensely helpful in his research to uncover the truth of the evil committed against the Osage people.

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