Largely Forgotten Osage Murders Reveal A Conspiracy Against Wealthy Native Americans
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest David Grann's new book tells the story of one of the biggest serial murder cases in American history and one of the most forgotten. The setting was the Osage Indian Nation in the 1920s when oil deposits had brought enormous wealth to the members of the tribe. Soon, Grann writes, the world's richest people per capita were becoming the most murdered. The Osage were being shot and poisoned in staggering numbers. And the murderers, it turned out, were local whites who had befriended and in many cases married their victims.
Grann's new book is both an absorbing murder mystery as J. Edgar Hoover's FBI takes on its first murder investigation and also a dark journey into the hard-edged racism that allowed whites to view Native Americans as subhumans who ought to be relieved of their newly acquired wealth. David Grann is a staff writer for The New Yorker, who's won a George Polk Award. His earlier book, "The Lost City Of Z," was adapted into a new feature film.
Grann spoke to FRESH AIR's Dave Davies about his new book, "Killers Of The Flower Moon: The Osage Murders And The Birth Of The FBI."
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, David Grann, welcome to FRESH AIR. This story begins with a woman who is really at the heart of this tale, Mollie Burkhart. Tell us a bit about her.
DAVID GRANN: Mollie is a fascinating person. She was born in the 1880s, growing up in a lodge, practicing Osage tradition, speaking Osage. And then within about 30 years because of oil deposits under her land becomes one of the wealthier people in the United States and is living in a mansion and married to a white husband, has a couple children. And she's really somebody who is straddling not only two centuries, but in many ways two civilizations.
DAVIES: Right. And then something happens to her sister, Anna. Tell us about that.
GRANN: So her family becomes a prime target of a conspiracy. And one day in 1921, her sister, Anna Brown, disappears, and Mollie looks everywhere for her, searching along the prairie. A week later, Anna Brown's body is found in a ravine. She's been shot in the back of the head. And it is the first hint that Mollie's family has become a target of this conspiracy and that her tribe has also become a target of this conspiracy.
DAVIES: Mollie is married to a guy named Ernest Burkhart. One of the last people to be seen with her sister Anna is her husband Ernest's brother, Bryan Burkhart. Anna was known to be a heavy drinker. And questions arise about him.
GRANN: Yes. He - because he was last seen with Anna Brown, he is initially questioned. But at least early on, there is no evidence or witnesses connecting him to the crime other than the fact that he had dropped her off at her house earlier in that evening. But this is a case where there's a great deal of intrigue and mystery early on. And nobody at first knows who was responsible for the murder.
DAVIES: Right - a terrible, dramatic crime and a mystery around it. But let's back up a bit here and talk about the Osage Nation. I mean, like many Native American tribes, they were uprooted and pushed around from one reservation to another. But they ended up with a distinct advantage in their negotiations with the U.S. government. What happened there? How'd that happen?
GRANN: So, yes, the Osage were typical of many American-Indian nations. They were driven off their lands. They once controlled much of the Midwest of the country. In the 1800s, President Thomas Jefferson referred to them as that great nation and promised to treat them as their friends. But within a few years, they began to be forced off their territory. Over two decades, they would have to cede more than 100 million acres of their land.
They were eventually bunched onto a reservation in Kansas and then once more were under siege. And in 1870, they needed to find a new homeland. And an Osage chief had stood up, and he said we should go to this territory. It was then Indian Territory. It would later become Oklahoma. We should go there because the earth is rocky and infertile. And the white man won't be able to farm there, and they'll finally leave us alone.
So the Osage purchased this land. It's about the size of Delaware. They resettled there. By that time, there were only a few thousand left. The forced migrations had depleted their numbers. Many of them were starving. And then it turned out that lo and behold, this land was sitting upon some of the largest deposits of oil then in the United States.
DAVIES: Right. And a fascinating little moment is that they send a lawyer, John Palmer, to Washington as they're negotiating this arrangement with the U.S., and he gets something.
GRANN: Yeah. So the Osage Tribe was allotted. And what allotted meant - this happened to many American tribes in that period - where the federal government was forcing them to break up the reservations, break up their communal way of life, turn them into, quote, unquote, "private property owners." Of course, this was an easier way for settlers - white settlers - to get their land. But the Osage because they owned their land, they had more leverage with the U.S. government. And they had very....
DAVIES: Because they'd bought it. It wasn't simply a reservation given to them, right? Yeah.
GRANN: Exactly. They bought it. They had a deed to it. And they had very shrewd negotiators, including this man Palmer who was described by one U.S. senator as the most eloquent Indian alive at that period. And they were able to slip into their treaty for allotment a very curious provision at the time which essentially said that they will maintain the subsurface mineral rights to their land.
And at that time, the Osage had some hint that there was some oil, but nobody thought they were sitting upon a fortune. And they were able to hold on to this last bit of their territory which they could not even see.
DAVIES: So each of the Osage families that owned a plot of land had what was called a headright, which means what?
GRANN: So - yeah. So there were only about 2,000 Osage who were registered on the tribal roll. And each one of them received a headright. And what a headright was essentially a share in the mineral trust. The Osage wanted to make sure that they maintained all the subsurface territory together.
And so what they did is they gave each person a headright. And you could not sell or buy a headright. It was collectively controlled by the Osage. And each one had a headright or a share. And what that meant is they would receive a check for any royalties or any leases that derived from the oil money.
DAVIES: And so how helpful, how beneficial was this to the Osage?
GRANN: Well, early on when - in the early 20th century, there was just a little bit of oil. And the Osage would receive a check every four months. Initially it was for maybe $100, and then it grew to 1,000. But then it continually grew. And by the 1920s, the Osage collectively had accumulated millions and millions of dollars. In 1923 alone, the Osage received what today would be worth more than $400 million. They had become the wealthiest people per capita in the world.
DAVIES: Wow. How did whites in Oklahoma react to seeing Native Americans with all that money?
GRANN: The public, the whites, not just in Oklahoma, but across the United States, were transfixed by the Osage wealth which belied images of Native Americans that could be traced back to the first brutal contact with whites. And reporters would go out and describe how they lived in these terra-cotta mansions, how they had chauffeured cars, how they had servants, some of whom were white.
It was said at the time whereas as one American might own a car, each Osage owned 11 cars. The press referred to them as, quote, unquote, "the red millionaires and the plutocratic Osage." There was a great deal of both envy and prejudice and eventually outrage. And eventually, the whites tried to find ways to get their own hands upon this money.
DAVIES: And it's worth noting that I guess particularly Osage women - their control of these assets were restricted in some ways. Weren't they?
GRANN: Yes, not just Osage women, all Osage - or all full-blooded Osage. So the government in - really looking back, just an outrageous system - decided somehow that the Osage were not capable of handling their money. Now, you have to remember this in the 1920s, and the period of Great Gatsby. White oil men are blowing fortunes and going bankrupt.
And yet members of the United States Congress would sit in these mahogany-paneled committee rooms and literally debate as if the nation's security was at stake, scapegoating the Osage about their wealth. And they imposed restrictions. They literally imposed a system where guardians - white guardians - were placed in charge of overseeing how the Osage spent their money. This was a deeply racist system, and it literally was based on the quantum of Osage blood. If you were a full-blooded Osage, you were deemed, quote, unquote, "incompetent" and given a guardian who oversaw your wealth.
DAVIES: OK. That said, there was a lot of wealth controlled by the Osage. Did intermarriage among the Osage tribe and whites increase as this happened?
GRANN: Certainly. By the early 20th century, because of this kind of clash of cultural forces, so many whites were coming into the area because of the well, so many oil workers and oil men. Many of the old traditions of the Osage were disappearing at this period, and there was a great deal of intermarriage. Mollie Burkhart married Ernest Burkhart, a white man who was very typical of the kind of people who was kind of drawn to this area because there were these kind of wild boom towns at the time.
DAVIES: We're speaking with David Grann. His new book is "Killers Of The Flower Moon: The Osage Murders And The Birth Of The FBI." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with David Grann. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker, and he has a new book about a series of crimes in the 1920s against members of the Osage Native American Nation in Oklahoma. It's called "Killers Of The Flower Moon." So we have a situation where Mollie Burkhart, this woman who is a wealthy member of the Osage Nation married to a white man, Ernest Burkhart, discovers her sister, Anna Brown, has been shot to death and found in a ravine some distance away - a horrible crime. Who would investigate this kind of murder at the time?
GRANN: There was a great deal of lawlessness then in the United States, and particularly in this region, which was really the last remnant of the Wild West or the frontier. So you had a local lawman. You'd have a sheriff. But the typical sheriff back then had no training in scientific detection, and there was also a great deal of corruption back then. It was very easy for the powerful to buy the law, to tilt the scales of justice.
Mollie Burkhart obviously pleaded for justice, crusaded for justice, but the white authorities really did nothing early on - or very little. Partly that was because the victims were Native Americans. There was an enormous amount of prejudice. They didn't treat these crimes with seriousness. But there was also a great deal of corruption. So it was very hard to know who to turn to, who you could trust, who would stop these crimes, who would truly investigate them.
DAVIES: Now, you used the word victims - plural. Anna Brown was not the only Osage who died under suspicious circumstances. Give us a sense of what else was going on.
GRANN: So not only was Anna Brown murdered, not long after Anna died, Mollie Burkhart's mother, who was kind of one of the last of the Osage elders who still practiced many of the old traditions, became mysteriously sick. Her body seemed to wither and become more insubstantial each day. Nobody could pinpoint what was happening. And within two months, she was dead. And evidence later surfaced that she had been poisoned. So within just two months, Mollie Burkhart had lost her sister to a gunshot, her mother to poisoning.
And not long after that, Mollie had another sister, a woman named Rita Smith who lived in a house not far away from Mollie. One night, there was a loud explosion in the community. It's about 3 in the morning. Mollie Burkhart heard it. She got up, and she went to her window. And she looked down in the direction of where her sister's house had stood, and she could see a large, orange fire rising into the sky. It literally looked as if the sun had burst into the night. And where her sister's house had been, there had been an explosion. Somebody had planted a bomb under the house, killing everyone in it, including Mollie's sister Rita, including her - Rita's husband and a white servant who lived in the house.
These are just the murders we're talking about now in Mollie Burkhart's family. There were other murders happening throughout the community, other Osage being targeted.
DAVIES: Many shot, others died of mysterious illnesses, right? Henry Roan was another guy who was murdered.
GRANN: Yeah. Yeah, so there were many shootings. Henry Roan was another Osage who was found in his car shot in the back of his head. One of the most prevalent means of murder and of killing the Osage was poison because of the lack of training. Even though scientists understood toxicologies for poison, the local police forces didn't. And so it was very easy to slip someone a poison.
There was one champion steer-roper Osage who got a call one night. He went out of his house. He came back and suddenly collapsed, frothing, his whole body shaking. Somebody had slipped him what was believed to be strychnine, which is just a horrible poison. It makes your whole body convulse as if with electricity. You slowly can't breathe, but you're conscious throughout until finally you mercifully suffocate. So this was just one of the many means of targeting the Osage in these very systematic and brutal ways.
DAVIES: Was this reported in the local press?
GRANN: There was certainly locally some coverage. It had not yet gotten much national coverage. But there was still a great indifference because the victims were Osage, were Native Americans. Here was a population being systematically murdered one by one.
DAVIES: Mollie Burkhart and relatives of the other victims would turn to private investigators. There are some real characters among them. You tell some fascinating stories about that.
GRANN: Yeah. So one of the things that happened back then because - you know, we think of ourself as a country of laws, but these institutions back in the '20s in the United States were very fragile. There was a great deal of lawlessness. And because of that, justice was often privatized, that if you had money and resources, you had to turn to private investigators.
So Mollie - who had an enormous amount of courage because, by crusading for justice, she was putting a bull's eye right upon herself, but she did. And she issued rewards, and she hired a team of private investigators. These private investigators were often, though, sordid characters. Often they had criminal backgrounds. They were also often susceptible to corruption. And you often didn't quite know who they were working for, who they were leaking to.
Just to give an example, the governor of Oklahoma eventually sent in his top state investigator, a guy named - his middle name was Fox, which always seemed appropriate. He had been a longtime private eye, had a criminal history. He shows up to look into the killings. He quickly takes a bribe, you know, from a bootlegger. He's then arrested. The governor quickly pardons him, and then he goes and commits an unrelated murder. So you get a sense just of the quality of the legal establishment who is supposed to be solving these crimes.
DAVIES: So the Osage looked to the federal government - let's get a federal investigation of this. And they enlist the help of a guy named Barney McBride. Tell us that story.
GRANN: So yeah - so Barney McBride was an oilman in the area, a white man. The Osage - he was a friend of the Osage. The Osage trusted him. And so they asked him to go to Washington, D.C., to try to plead for help. And Barney McBride went. He showed up in Washington, D.C., and he brought with him a Bible and a pistol.
That night, when he arrived at his boarding house, he received a telegram, and it said be careful. Then, that evening, he walked out of the boarding house. He was abducted. Somebody put a bag over his head.
The next morning, he was found in a covert in Maryland. His head had been beaten in. He had been stabbed, I think, at least 20 times. His body had been stripped naked. It was clearly a warning. And The Washington Post later reported what had become increasingly evident, which was that - there was a conspiracy to kill rich Indians - was the title of their article.
DAVIES: So this was now a national story.
GRANN: This had now become a national story. And what it showed, though, and what is so important, is the reach and the power of the people who are carrying out these murders. Here they were able to track and follow a man all the way to Washington, D.C., had enough information to know he was going and had the power to follow him and to kill him, you know, hundreds and hundreds of miles away from Oklahoma. And it terrified people.
DAVIES: There was an attorney, local attorney named W. W. Vaughn, a man with 10 kids, looks into things, thinks he has some evidence that might be helpful...
DAVIES: ...And then what happens to him?
GRANN: Yeah, so W. W. Vaughn was a local white attorney. He had 10 children, as you said. And he was considered honorable and not corrupt. He had rushed - he had been - began to try to kind of fill in this void, this kind of corrupt void, to see if he could try to catch the killers and stop them. He went to Oklahoma City to meet with an Osage who was dying of suspected poisoning. Before he went, he told his wife that he had put money in a safe for her in case anything happened to him. And he had also stored away the evidence he had been gathering because he was afraid for his life.
He went to Oklahoma City to meet with this Osage Indian who was dying of suspected poisoning. And he spoke to them. He got documents from him. He then called the local sheriff and said, I've got enough evidence against one of the killers. I'm coming back. I'll be on the train. But then, he never arrived.
He never arrived in Osage County - disappeared. People began to look for him. Boy Scouts - local Boy Scouts took up the search. Bloodhounds ran through the prairie. His body was eventually found 24 hours later lying along the tracks. He, too, had been stripped naked. He had been thrown off the speeding train, and his neck was broken. And when his wife, the next day, went to the safe where he had stored his materials everything had been cleaned out.
DAVIES: So word of this spread. We're now over 20 victims at this point. What was the impact on the daily lives of members of the Osage?
GRANN: Well, by now, this was known as the Osage reign of terror. There were at least 24 Osage who had been murdered. Several people who had tried to catch the killers themselves had been killed. And there was a genuine sense of terror. The Osage would hang lights around their houses so that at night they would be illuminated. Doors were locked. Children were not allowed to wander the streets. Many Osage moved to California. Osage would later refer to this as a diaspora. It was a real time of terror.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with David Grann about his new book "The Flower Moon: The Osage Murders And The Birth Of The FBI" (ph). We'll talk about how J. Edgar Hoover's FBI handled the murders after we take a short break. And Ken Tucker will review a new album by the Philadelphia-based band, The Menzingers, which features songs about getting older. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with David Grann, author of a new book about one of the biggest serial murder cases in American history. This was in the 1920s after oil was discovered on the reservation of the Osage Indian Nation and members of the tribe became wealthy. Local whites befriended them, in some cases, married them and targeted them for their money. The Osage were shot and poisoned in staggering numbers. It was the FBI's first murder investigation under Director J. Edgar Hoover.
DAVIES: So this becomes a federal investigation. What was the state of federal law enforcement in the day?
GRANN: So the Osage issue a tribal resolution where they plead for federal investigators to come in, those who will not be tainted or connected to the local power structure. And eventually a very obscure branch of the Justice Department which was then known as the Bureau of Investigations, which would later be renamed the FBI, take up the case.
It was a very fledgling period with federal law enforcement. The bureau - the Bureau Investigation, the FBI had been formed in 1906 under Theodore Roosevelt. But it had only a few investigators. Many of them were not very well-trained. The same problems that infected local enforcement were still plaguing the bureau where you had criminals who were often investigators. The bureau had had in the early 1920s - one of the worst con men in the history of the United States was working for the FBI. And they also had very limited jurisdictions over crimes, the FBI back then.
They could deal with escaped federal prisoners, smutty books crossing state lines. But they also had jurisdiction over American-Indian reservations which is why they got jurisdiction over this case and why it became one of their first major homicide investigations.
DAVIES: So the guy running who had just taken over the bureau at the time was none other than J. Edgar Hoover. This is in the 1920s. He was a young man. He wanted to remake the FBI. He had a particular profile of the kind of man he wanted to be an agent for the Bureau of Investigation. What was he looking for?
GRANN: Well, in some ways, he was looking for someone like himself who - he had never been an investigator himself, had never been a criminal detective. He was a master bureaucrat. He was looking for agents who were college-educated. They would refer to him as kind of Boy Scouts, who looked - had very clean-cut images and were very presentable.
Needless to say were generally white. He didn't like agents who were too tall because he didn't want them to overshadow him. But what they often lacked at least back then was real experience investigating real criminals. And so that was one of the problems the bureau had.
DAVIES: There's a part of the story that's not so well-known of an initial effort. Tell us about that.
GRANN: At one point, they released an outlaw, a man named Blackie - very appropriately - who they hoped to use as an informant. And they took him out of jail, and he was supposed to work for them. Instead, he slipped away, robbed a bank and murdered a police officer.
DAVIES: And you describe there was another kind of lawman who he would employ at times loosely described as cowboys. What are we talking about?
GRANN: Yeah. So in this case, there was a bunch of kind of wild or frontier lawmen who were very experienced including a man named Tom White. These were men who were kind of struggling to adapt to the new bureau to adapt to new scientific forms of detection which were slowly emerging such as fingerprinting, handwriting analysis. They have to suddenly file paperwork and wear suits, things that none of them were accustomed to, but they were very experienced lawmen including a man like Tom White.
DAVIES: Yeah. He's an interesting guy. Tell us about his history.
GRANN: You know, Tom White is in many ways like Mollie Burkhart in that he is a transitional figure in this country. He is somebody who is born around the same time on the frontier in a log cabin in Texas. He was part of a tribe of lawmen. His father had been a frontier lawman, a local sheriff. He watched his father when he was just a little kid hang a man, a convict. He grew up at a time and became a lawman at a time when justice was often meted out by the barrel of a gun.
And then by the 1920s when he has this case when he becomes an agent, he is trying to learn all these new modern methods of detection such as fingerprinting, such as ballistic analysis, learning how to file reports which he can't stand. He has to wear a suit and a fedora where he had once ridden on a horse back with a 10-gallon hat.
DAVIES: So Hoover personally selects this former Texas Ranger Tom White to lead the investigation into the Osage murders, and White assembles an interesting team to help him. What kinds of men does he pick? What are their methods?
GRANN: Yeah. So he puts together an undercover team of these cowboys. They were all frontier lawmen. He realizes given the danger, given the fear in the area, given the corruption the team will have to go in undercover. And he recruits one frontier lawman who will pose as a cattleman. He recruits a man who once sold insurance and now will sell insurance as his fake identity when he's in Osage County. And perhaps most interestingly, he recruits an American-Indian agent.
There are no statistics about how many American-Indian agents were in the bureau at the time, but I suspect he was the only one. And this team then is sent in undercover, and, of course, they do not represent the team the kind of agents that Hoover was touting as college boys. None of these people had college educations or whatnot.
DAVIES: In this period in which whites in Osage had a lot of social contact, a lot of intermarriage, many whites that were trusted by members of the Osage Nation - this FBI agent Tom White and his team begin to discover some pretty sinister stuff going on. Generally speaking, what are they finding?
GRANN: What they begin to discover is that there is a enormous criminal enterprise to swindle Osage money and that the system of guardians, for example, these white men - they were always men, usually men, often prominent members of society, they were lawmen, prosecutors, businessmen, bankers - were systematically stealing and skimming from the Osage money. And they begin to also realize that there is a complicity of silence.
And it becomes apparent that they are now moving into a realm in which it is very hard for them to know who they can trust and that the very power structure within the community is more than likely complicit within these crimes.
DAVIES: Two white men were arrested and brought to trial, people with access to resources and money. And a big question arose was regardless of the evidence, would a jury convict a white man for murdering an American-Indian? Just explore that with us for a moment.
GRANN: Yeah. I mean, what is amazing is that - and this was an open question. I mean, it was literally asked, and there was a belief that white men would not be convicted for these crimes and that white jurors would not find them guilty. And the challenges that Tom White and his men faced were just enormous, almost Herculean in that, one - there was enormous corruption. And the people who were being charged had enough power to buy jurors, to buy witnesses, to murder witnesses, to make witnesses disappear.
The case shifted from a question of who did it to can you actually convict them? And because of racial prejudice, it was a enormous challenge, and many people believe that the locals would never convict fellow white men for killing an Osage Indian.
DAVIES: What happened in the first trial?
GRANN: And the tragedy and shocking to Tom White was that it ended in a hung jury, and evidence later revealed that there had been a elaborate conspiracy to obstruct justice including buying a juror.
DAVIES: So plenty of jury tampering and all.
GRANN: Jury tampering.
DAVIES: Yeah. And maybe most heartbreaking is that this involved a man who had become very close to even married Osage women and had betrayed those relationships.
GRANN: These were deeply intimate crimes. And it's what makes this so barbaric. These were crimes committed by people who the victims trusted, many cases thought they loved, and it involved a level of betrayal, an almost Shakespearean level of dishonesty of hiding your face, hiding the conspiracy. And for someone like Mollie Burkhart to have to reckon when she begins to discover that the very people she knew enough and trusted were the very people who were targeting her family. I could never fully fathom what that must have been like for her.
DAVIES: It was in fact Mollie Burkhart's own husband Ernest Burkhart who was found to be a part of the conspiracy.
GRANN: He was found to be a part of the conspiracy. It was somebody who Mollie thought loved her. She had two children with him, and she learned that he was one of the many willing executioners. And she had to sit through the trials and listen to the evidence presented and learn the secrets of her husband, that the secrets of this murder were right inside her house. And it was utterly devastating to her as anyone would imagine.
DAVIES: David Grann's book is "Killers Of The Flower Moon." We'll continue our conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: We're speaking with David Grann. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new book about the murders on the Osage American-Indian reservation in Oklahoma in the 1920s is called "Killers Of The Flower Moon." You know, it's fascinating because you spoke with grandchildren of this era, and they would bring you documents and in some cases stories that they had heard of crimes that we didn't know about. You want to pick one, tell us about it?
GRANN: Yeah. That's exactly right. So Mary Jo Webb was somebody who I met. She's in her 80s now. She's one of the Osage elders, and I got to her house. And she had pulled out a box of documents, and she told me about the death of her grandfather who had been run over, who had been poisoned. And she had spent years doing her own investigation, gathering evidence trying to pinpoint the killers.
This went on in so many families I met with, and they would give me the documents, they would give me the trails of evidence to pursue. What you begin to realize, the deeper you dig, is that this was not a crime about who did it as much as who didn't do it - that there was a culture of killing taking place during this period and that there were scores if not hundreds of murders.
DAVIES: And one of the questions that occurred to me as I read this was it was so remarkable that so many of these men would target Osage women, that so many of these Osage women were open to these relationships and trusted these men. Do you have any insight into that?
GRANN: No, I mean, they lived in the community, and they presented a certain face and concealed often what they were about. This was a...
DAVIES: The white man you mean. Yeah.
GRANN: Yeah, the white man. And this was a time of great instability within the Osage Nation because of so much wealth, and it was a period where many of the traditions were disappearing. And there was a certain kind of unmooredness to the society. And it probably made this more possible. What is so hard to fathom is that the crimes involved a calculating quality where you had to befriend these people, you had to pretend to love them, you had to sleep in their house, in some cases you had children with them and then you systematically targeted them.
I've never encountered crimes like that before. And there was a complicity to these killings because they involved not only the perpetrators. They involve morticians who would then cover up the crimes. They involve lawmen who then would not investigate them. They involve neighbors who would never speak out, reporters who would not dig into the crimes. There were so many willing executioners. There were so many people who were either directly profiting from these crimes or were silently complicit in them. And that's why there were so many of them. That's why they went on for so many years. And that's why so many killers ultimately escaped justice.
DAVIES: And, you know, when you speak to these surviving members of the Osage Nation and you see the pain that they still feel generations later from this - the series of crimes, and when you think about how many white people were complicit in it, it makes me think there's another book to be done about descendants of white people and what stories their grandparents might have told them because surely some told stories and surely some felt some guilt about it.
GRANN: You know, it's - what's interesting and is, in many ways, the story of America, there are descendants of both the murderers and descendants of the victims who still live in the same community. And Mary Jo Webb, who's an Osage elder who I spoke to, you know, said, we try not to hold those descendants responsible. She said, in many cases, they don't fully know even what their ancestors did, but we live side by side. Thought that involved a certain level of forgiveness and understanding.
One descendant of a murderer I spoke with sent me a note at one point. And he said I'm very ashamed - this was a descendant of Ernest Burkhart - and said I'm very ashamed of what my ancestors did. And he said, if you speak to the Osage, will you please tell them that for me? But what is part of America is that you have these descendants living side by side in the same communities.
And one of the most powerful things in all of the research was meeting with the descendants. I met with a descendant of Mollie Burkhart. Margie Burkhart, who is the granddaughter, is a wonderful woman and told me about the crimes, told me about what it was like growing up without any cousins and aunts and uncles because so many members had been murdered, told me about what it was like for her father who had grown up in this house as a little kid where his mother was a victim and his father was the killer.
Her father literally referred to Ernest Burkhart as Old Dynamite - that's what he called his father - because he was participating in the blowing up of one of the houses. And you realize when you speak to someone like Margie Burkhart how much these crimes still reverberate in the present, how much this history is still living in the present.
DAVIES: And what became of the wealth of the Osage? Obviously, a lot was stolen in these crimes. What happened to the well-being of the nation?
GRANN: So so much of the Osage wealth was stolen. It's hard to even put a number on it. But hundreds of millions of dollars was swindled. And then the Great Depression came and a good deal of the money was lost. And gradually, a lot of the oil was depleted. And so while some of the Osage still receive royalties from oil money, it's nothing like the fortune that they had once had during the 1920s and the beginning of the 20th century.
DAVIES: And is the population of the Osage Nation about what it was or more or less?
GRANN: There are about 4,000 who still live in the area. And there are about 20,000 members who now belong to the nation. And it's a very vibrant nation. It has its own government. It's extremely resilient. As one person told me, yes, we were victims of this murder, but we don't live as victims. And I think that's certainly true when you visit Osage Nation, you meet with the Osage and you see what a remarkable place it is and the strength of its government institutions. And they've taken enormous efforts to protect themselves from this kind of criminal conspiracy again.
DAVIES: David Grann, thank you so much for speaking with us.
GRANN: Thank you.
GROSS: David Grann spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. Grann is a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the new book "The Flower Moon: The Osage Murders And The Birth Of The FBI" (ph). After a break, Ken Tucker will review the new album by the Philadelphia band The Menzingers. It features songs about getting older, a love letter to their 20s. This is FRESH AIR.
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