Looking back at ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

Staff Writer
Pawhuska Journal-Capital
“Killers of the Flower Moon” by David Grann. Roseanne McKee/Journal-Capital

On a rainy Saturday afternoon in May 2017, in Fairfax, I attended a book signing by David Grann, author of the bestseller “Killers of the Flower Moon,” about the Osage murders in the 1920s following the oil boom. At that time Osage headright owners became the rich from their shares in the subsurface mineral rights in the oil in Osage County — and some were willing to kill them for their wealth.

While two men, William Hale and an accomplice John Ramsey were eventually put on trial and convicted for killing one Osage headright owner, Henry Roan, many more Osage headright owners died mysteriously. Digital copies of the Hale and Roan cases are available on the National Archive’s online catalog.

Osage member, Joe Conner, gave a slide presentation at the book signing held at the Tallchief Theatre on Main Street.

“The story of the Osage murders was made into a partially fictionalized movie “The FBI Story” about how the Federal Bureau of Investigation came into being,” Conner explained.

“Osage Chief Fred Lookout understood that the oil was both a blessing and a curse,” Dr. Joe Conner said.

“A generation later, we have descendants of both the perpetrators and the victims. To further complicate this, some of them have married. What do we do with this? … There has to be a way forward. We shouldn’t deny it. So, we have to recognize this and co-exist. Many young people have never heard the story. Osages have all heard about it,” Conner said.

After the book signing the Osage hosted a dinner for Grann at the Grayhorse Village Community Center, one of the three Osage villages located on trust land, this one near Fairfax.

I was there to learn more about what took place and to take a video on behalf of the Osage County Tourism Board which employed me at the time as tourism coordinator. Two videos of Grann speaking are available on the Osage County Tourism YouTube channel. What follows are some details of that evening, including excerpts from Grann’s speech. Other than Grann and his publicist, there were very few non-Osages in the room. I was one of them. Because I had worked for the Osage Nation from 2011 to 2014, I was familiar to many of those present.

The day had been stormy and the rain continued that evening — matching the solemn atmosphere. After a prayer, everyone filled their plates with traditional Osage food, meat gravy, fry bread and corn soup, served buffet style by a group of Osage ladies who did not eat themselves until everyone else had — an Osage tradition among the cooks they told me.

After the meal, Osage Assistant Principal Chief Raymond Red Corn spoke and gave the author a traditional Indian blanket, a symbol of thanks.

“We’re proud of what David has accomplished in terms of telling the story and doing so with respect,” Red Corn said of Grann’s book documenting the murder of Osages for their headrights. “On behalf of the Osage Nation, welcome, and we’re happy to have you here.”

Grann said in researching the Osage murders, he spent weeks, starting in 2011, going through the guardianship records at the National Archives in Fort Worth, Texas. Grann started his research on this book as a David S. Ferriero Fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Libraries according to a blog published Nov. 20, 2017, available online at https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2017/11/20/researching-the-osage-murders/ by Jessie Kratz.

“It was like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where they tuck the covenant in the back. … You get there about 7:30 a.m. or 8 a.m. and you do what’s called a pull. You fill out your little piece of paper and request some documents and some machine goes and takes your box down and they roll it out. … Occasionally, you’ll find something very revealing — something very helpful,” Grann said.

“When I pulled records on the guardians, the guardianships, and I was at that point just trying to identify the name of the guardian and what Osage person’s finances this person had overseen. When I pulled this book, it was just a little ledger, it had a fabric cover. It covered a few years, and I was looking through it.

“I started to notice that it would have the name of the guardian and then several Osage underneath them. And, I looked at one person, who had five Osages that this person had been in charge of, and someone had written next to the Osage’s name simply one word often just in pencil; they had scribbled the word ‘dead.’ … Then I noticed another guardian and another Osage, and it said ‘dead.’

“One person had five Osages whose finances they had been in charge of and the word ‘dead’ was written next to all five. … I had this unsettled feeling trying to figure out what I was looking at. I began then to look at some of the other guardians. I started to notice that somebody might have 11 Osage individuals whose finances they had overseen and half of them had the word ‘dead’ written next to them.

“And, we’re talking [about] a span of a few years. You’re looking at a 50 percent or 100 percent death rate. And what you start to realize when you’re looking is that some of these deaths could be from natural causes, but you know that this death rate is defying any natural death rate. The Osage have lots of money. They have great doctors. There’s no way that they have a death rate that much higher than the regular populous,” Grann said.

“And then what I tried to do was to look into some of these individual cases and you start to find little trails of evidence in many of them, not all of them, but many of them — because you have a complaint of a witness saying ‘suspicion of poisoning,’ or you trail the money and you find out that the headright or the wealth ended up in the guardian’s hands. And what you realize in this ledger, this old fabric-covered booklet, [is that] you’re looking at hints of systematic murder happening. And it was a bureaucratic document — nothing else in it — just the names where some bureaucrat had written the word ‘dead.’ You have to wonder about that person who just kept writing the word ‘dead’ next to so many Osage names.”

Grann thanked the descendants of the Osages murdered who had shared their stories, which became part of the book.

“Maryjoe Webb and Marvin Stepson and Raymond [Red Corn] and Joe and Carol [Conner] welcomed me into their homes. This book is everybody’s book in this room. The story has been told as if it’s a singular evil figure. The FBI portrays this often, but when you look into the Osage history, you begin to realize another truth. There were a lot of seemingly ordinary people that perpetrated this crime. There was a culture of complicity and a culture of silence. Lawmen were paid off. That’s one of the things that contributed to the reign of terror. My own hope is that this book will make this history known.”

Grann spoke about Molly Burkhart from Grayhorse Village: “I wanted to, hopefully, tell her story. She crusaded for justice even though it put a bullseye on her back.”

“Mary Jo Webb, a retired teacher, her grandfather, Paul Pierce, didn’t show up in the files, and the FBI didn’t list him as part of the Osage murders,” Grann said.

“He went to see Attorney Comstock about getting a divorce because he thought his white wife was poisoning him. There were two doctors who gave the dope to poison people,” Grann said. “In 1927 [Pierce] was hit in a hit-and-run and left to bleed out.”

After Grann spoke, he allowed members of the audience to share.

Margo Gray, who was in the audience, through tears, shared that her life’s work in law enforcement had come from her learning about the Osage murders.

“My parents told me the story of my great-grandfather. So, I’ve spent 18 years in law enforcement, and I’ve dedicated my life to this.” She also shared that in her opinion, “the amount of headrights that were lost is unquantifiable.”

She went on to say, “this is how this county was formed. This is a microcosm of that. At Fairfax Library there’s a CD that has many or all of the FBI files.”

Grann also answered a question about how he came up with the title for the book. “The months are named from the names for the moon. May is known as the flower killing moon when taller plants come and steal the light from the shorter plants.”

Copies of “Killers of the Flower Moon” are available at area shops such as The Water Bird Gallery, 134 E. Sixth Street, Pawhuska.