David Grann is an investigative journalist, a hands-on truth-seeker, and a historian who cares about humanity. In some regard, he inhabits a modern-day “Indiana Jones'” lifestyle by searching the world for mysterious adventures that will enlighten readers as he “sets the record straight” with his discoveries. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, and The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder are based on research and his fervent digging for information. For example, in his physical trek into the Amazon jungle, searching for the lost city of Z, which he refers to as “a green hell,” he consulted with archeologists and brought forth new information. For Killers of the Flower Moon, he spent five years uncovering the systematic murders of wealthy Osage Nation people in the 1920s, traveling to various cities across the United States. However, Pawhuska, Oklahoma, is where his search began.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Who told you about the mysterious deaths of the Osage Nation, and what did they say that intrigued you to travel so far?
The historian is named John Fox [FBI historian in Washington DC], who had mentioned the case to me. With further research, I couldn’t find much about the Osage case, so I decided to take a trip to the Osage Museum in Oklahoma. I thought I might write an article as I was certainly interested.
I saw this great panoramic photograph on the wall of the Osage Museum, taken in 1924, and it shows members of the Osage Nation along with whites they are standing side by side, and it looked pretty innocent. I noticed that a portion of the photograph was missing. I asked the museum director, Kathryn Red Corn, why a portion of the photograph was missing. She said it was removed because it contained a figure that was so frightening. Then she pointed to the missing piece and said, “The devil was standing right there.” Next, we went into the museum’s basement, and she showed me an image of the missing panel. He’s peering out, very creepily from the corner; he was one of the main killers of many members of the Osage nation. He was the devil. I was always very haunted by that moment.
Most books don’t have a clear origin story. Killers of the Flower Moon is one of those rare cases in which there really was an origin story that was a very kind of “in that moment,” because I just kept thinking about that missing photograph. The Osage had removed it not to forget what had happened but because they couldn’t forget. So many people, including me, have never learned this history. We had not been taught it, and it has been effectively excised from our consciences.
Your research, both archival and tracking down the descendants of the murderers and the victims, seems like a daunting task. Is there a time when you had an “a-ha moment,” especially one that rang, “I’m on the right track”? I read about a guardianship ledger you found in Fort Worth, Texas. Can you talk about that?