From New Yorker staff writer David Grann, #1 New York Times best-selling author of The Lost City of Z, a twisting, haunting true-life murder mystery about one of the most monstrous crimes in American history
2018 Edgar Award Winner for Best Fact Crime
2018 Anthony Award Winner for Best Non-Fiction/Critical Work
2017 National Book Award Nonfiction Finalist
In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.
Then, one by one, they began to be killed off. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, watched as her family was murdered. Her older sister was shot. Her mother was then slowly poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances.
In this last remnant of the Wild West—where oilmen like J. P. Getty made their fortunes and where desperadoes such as Al Spencer, “the Phantom Terror,” roamed – virtually anyone who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll surpassed more than twenty-four Osage, the newly created F.B.I. took up the case, in what became one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations. But the bureau was then notoriously corrupt and initially bungled the case. Eventually the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including one of the only Native American agents in the bureau. They infiltrated the region, struggling to adopt the latest modern techniques of detection. Together with the Osage they began to expose one of the most sinister conspiracies in American history.
In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann revisits a shocking series of crimes in which dozens of people were murdered in cold blood. The book is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction, as each step in the investigation reveals a series of sinister secrets and reversals. But more than that, it is a searing indictment of the callousness and prejudice toward Native Americans that allowed the murderers to operate with impunity for so long. Killers of the Flower Moon is utterly riveting, but also emotionally devastating.
DAVID GRANN is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the bestselling author of The Devil and Sherlock Holmes and The Lost City of Z, which has been translated into more than twenty languages. His stories have appeared in many anthologies of the best American writing, and he has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.
Chronicle 1 The Marked Woman
1 The Vanishing 5
2 An Act of God or Man? 17
3 King of the Osage Hills 25
4 Underground Reservation 37
5 The Devil's Disciples 56
6 Million Dollar Elm 70
7 This Thing of Darkness 81
Chronicle 2 The Evidence Man
8 Department of Easy Virtue 103
9 The Undercover Cowboys 113
10 Eliminating the Impossible 119
11 The Third Man 126
12 A Wilderness of Mirrors 133
13 A Hangman's Son 137
14 Dying Words 151
15 The Hidden Face 157
16 For the Betterment of the Bureau 164
17 The Quick-Draw Artist, the Yegg, and the Soup Man 171
18 The State of the Game 179
19 A Traitor to His Blood 196
20 So Help You God! 213
21 The Hot House 225
Chronicle 3 The Reporter
22 Ghostlands 241
23 A Case Not Closed 256
24 Standing in Two Worlds 265
25 The Lost Manuscript 275
26 Blood Cries Out 280
A Note on the Sources 297
Archival and Unpublished Sources 299
Selected Bibliography 325
1. What do the contemporary media reports on the wealth and lifestyle of the Osage reflect about white perceptions of Native Americans (pp. 6–7; pp. 76–77)? In what way do they lay a foundation for the way the murders and mysterious deaths were treated by law enforcement?
2. What was your first impression of William Hale (p. 17)? How does Grann bring to life his strengths and appeal, as well as the darker side of his nature? What qualities does he share with people who achieve power and influence today?
3. How did you respond to the description of law enforcement in America during the 1920s (p. 19)? What elements most shocked or surprised you? What made the situation in Osage County particularly chaotic? What effect did this have on the investigations into the deaths of Anna Brown and Charles Whitehorn?
4. What does Grann’s account of the relationship between the United States government and Native Americans contribute to your understanding of the country’s history (pp. 37–44)? How did government policies affect individuals like Mollie and her family? What does Grann capture in his description of Lizzie’s death: “Lizzie’s spirit had been claimed by Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior, and by Wah’Kon-Tah, the Great Mystery” (p. 36)?
5. Discuss the circumstances that distinguished the Osage from other Native American tribes, including the actions taken by tribal leaders early in the century; the influx of white settlers and oil prospectors; the granting of headrights; and the guardianship system (pp. 78–80).
6. What is the significance of the murder of Barney McBride, the oilman who went to Washington to seek help for the Osage (p. 68) and of W.W. Vaughan, the attorney who worked with private detectives investigating the murders (p. 93–4)?
7. What does Grann’s portrait convey about J. Edgar Hoover (p. 107)? What traits stand out and what do they foretell about Hoover’s future as director of the FBI?
8. In what ways does Tom White combine the qualities of the Old West and of the modern bureaucratic system Hoover is trying to create? How does this influence the steps he takes in investigating the murders? How do the various views of White, including the stories of his childhood and his work as a Texas Ranger (pp. 137–153), shape your impressions of him? Would you define him as the hero of the book?
9. How were manufactured evidence, suborned testimony, and false confessions used to divert the FBI investigation? What role did independently hired private eyes and informants play in the search for the truth?
10. The crimes in Osage County involved many levels of deception and betrayal. In addition to the actual conspirators, who else either directly profited from the crimes or was silently complicit in them? In what ways did accepted mores encourage the corruption that plagued the investigation?
11. What role did new methods of criminal investigation play in uncovering the guilty parties? In addition to introducing up-to-date forensic science, how did Hoover use the case to transform the Bureau of Investigation and simultaneously enhance his own image?
12. During Hale’s trial, a member of the Osage tribe said, “It is a question in my mind whether this jury is considering a murder case or not. The question for them to decide is whether a white man killing an Osage is murder—or merely cruelty to animals” (p. 215). Why does this observation resonate beyond the immediate circumstances?
13. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of Killers of the Flower Moon is the marital and familial connections between murderers and their victims. What explains Ernest Burkhart’s actions even as he remained married to and had children with Mollie? How does Grann bring to life the particular horror of crimes committed within a family and a close-knit community?
14. What does the evidence Grann uncovered when he visited Osage County in 2012 reveal about the lasting legacy of the “Reign of Terror”?
15. Killers of the Flower Moon combines the fast pace of a true-life murder mystery with the scope and detail of a narrative history. How does Grann integrate these different aspects of the book?
16. We are familiar with many American crimes and criminals during the early twentieth century from movies, books, and television shows. Why do you think the story of the Osage murders hasn’t received similar attention?
17. Are there recent examples of racial prejudice and injustice that parallel those described in Killers of the Flower Moon? What has changed about the approach taken by law enforcement? About the attitudes expressed by the white community in the face of racial or religious discrimination? In what ways have things remained the same?