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David Grann Still Believes in the Truth

Talking to the ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ author about his new book, the current state of journalism, and ‘The Lost City of Z’

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Long before true-crime phenomena like Serial or Making a Murderer, David Grann staked a career on the artful investigation of real-life mysteries. A New Yorker staff writer since 2003 and the author of The Devil and Sherlock Holmes and recent book-to-film The Lost City of Z, he has a specific skill: the ability to turn what might otherwise be a footnote in a history book into a captivating, necessary exploration of truth.

His latest work, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, is no different. It follows the Osage Indian Nation, pushed out of their original territory and into the oil-rich hills of Oklahoma. By the 1920s, its members were the richest people per capita in the world, and were wealthy enough to afford mansions, private drivers, and white servants. But their good fortune was soon interrupted by a slow and deliberate streak of killings. Faced with incredible prejudice and the Wild West’s lingering lawlessness, the tribe lived in fear for years, until the Federal Bureau of Investigation finally began searching for the perpetrators. Grann offers a vivid account of the investigation into the slain family members of Mollie Burkhart, a wealthy Osage woman whose two sisters and mother were killed between 1921 and 1923. What initially appears to be the work of a small criminal operation soon unfolds into a full-blown town conspiracy, involving everyone from law enforcement, to local politicians, to the Osage’s own family members. Grann details how far normal people were willing to go for a chance at grifting the Osage’s money.

I called Grann when he was in Bowling Green, Kentucky, to dig into the book’s grisly revelations, discuss the slippery slope of the “fake news” movement, and ask his thoughts on the debut of the feature-film adaptation of The Lost City of Z.

As I was reading, I kept thinking about a passage from my high school U.S. history textbook. It was something like, “While early settlers gave Native Americans blankets infected with smallpox, many tribes were responsible for spreading syphilis.” It struck me as a bizarre false dichotomy. I’m curious if you encountered similar types of historical records in the research for this book.

David Grann (Getty Images)
David Grann (Getty Images)

One of the things, especially in a story like this, is that if it’s been told at all, it’s been told from the point of view of [founding FBI director J. Edgar] Hoover. In the investigative documents and records, because these are often coming from the white authorities, the prejudice could just be overwhelming and disconcerting. And the challenge was trying the best I could to convey the Osage perspective.

One of the reasons I wanted to begin the book about Mollie Burkhart was because when I read accounts, here was the person at the very center of the story, and so often she would merit no more than a sentence in the official accountings. The moment when she gives testimony before one of the inquests, you can just tell from looking at the record they don’t ask her the kind of questions to get the kind of information she could relay, because she was Osage and she was a woman. So they discounted that point of view.

I had not done research in this realm before, and it’s stunning the degree of prejudice that you see. We’re not talking that long ago. You’re not talking about the colonial era. You’re not talking about the first contact between settlers and Native Americans. We’re really talking about the modern era. Members of U.S. Congress would hold hearings about the Osage and decide that they needed white guardians to manage their wealth. The system was deeply racist. It was literally predicated on the quantity of Osage blood. So if you were a full-blooded Osage you would be “incompetent” and given a guardian.

Was there a moment in your research when you lost all faith in humanity?

This is a story that’s as close to good and evil that I’ve ever reported. And I spent a lot of time with the evil, the people who are perpetrating these crimes, who are insinuating themselves into the victims’ families and betraying them, and spying against them while pretending to love them …

The part that is most shocking was when you begin to realize this was a crime that was much less about who did it, and really a story about who didn’t do it. This was less about the story of one singular figure — as the story was often portrayed — who led a conspiracy and committed these crimes. It was a much deeper, darker conspiracy. When you’re looking at the documents and you speak to so many of the Osage, you begin to see this culture of complicity, and there was this culture of killing.

We like to think of crime stories as this one bad thing or person. Maybe they have accomplices, and the law removes that and society returns to normal. That’s kind of the standard narrative of detective fiction and true crime stories. There’s a certain comfort to that. That’s why we construct that narrative. But this is a story where you begin to realize that that same evil lurked in the heart of so many ordinary people, and that so many people were either committing murders within their own family or they were willing executioners who went along, or they were morticians who covered up the crimes, or they were press or reporters who didn’t cover them, or they were politicians who were profiting from the crimes and ignoring them, or they were lawmen who were getting kickbacks. So many people were getting rich and there were so many people complicit. That is what was so disturbing.

In the book you describe how you’re surrounded by papers in a room, and I was imagining a conspiracy theory hive on Homeland or something.

Early on when I was trying to outline the story I didn’t have a whiteboard, so I got a piece of cardboard and I had this kind of crazy outline. There were just so many cases and conspirators and victims. Everyone has to have a Homeland board, and this was my Homeland board.

I’ve spent my life disproving conspiracies. People often see inherent design, and I’m often very suspect. But this is a case where you’re collecting documents that are revealing connections of a conspiratorial nature. And the office became this kind of grim repository of all this information. The best part of finishing the book was being able to pack up all those materials and put them into boxes. I still have them all, but I just don’t have that weight, that moral burden of all the material surrounding me.

I noticed a lot of hat tips to past work in this book. You were quoting Sherlock Holmes and detailing the history of fingerprinting technology. Is the culture of detective work just as important to you as the detective work you do yourself?

I see a certain kinship with reporting and writing and the art of detection. The thing that kind of unites all of these forces — the people I write about, my own interests, and the art of trying to write about them — is trying to make sense of the world. I find the world a fairly bewildering place. I always say that we quote Sherlock Holmes but we’re basically Dr. Watson. We’re all trying to make it through life and make sense of the world.

In the case of this book they’re quite literally living in the midst of a conspiracy. There are people who are trying to obscure the truth, distort the truth, cover up evidence, create fake narratives, tissues of lies. I suppose as a writer or historian, you’re in a similar position where you’re doing your best to make sense of the people you’re writing about, make sense of the kind of chaotic facts that you’ve accumulated, and somehow arrange them in an order. I have just a certain fascination with that process, because I suppose I’m trying to do it as well.

When I was younger I was much more arrogant. I had a much grander sense that you can learn everything and know it all. You could investigate a story and know everything and render it perfectly. But when I got older I realized how hard that is. It’s not that the truth doesn’t exist. It does. But it’s often that trails of evidence disappear, or are hidden. People misremember or have given false stories. And it becomes a real challenge to try to render that. You realize that you can get close. Sometimes you get as close as you can and then you have to live with the doubts. That’s a kind of destabilizing thought. So I’ve always spent my life consumed with trying to make the world more stable by making sure there aren’t those gaps in the narrative. But even with a project like this, years went on. One year went on, then two years, then three years, then four years [laughing], and at a point you just have to say, “OK, there’s got to be certain things that we can’t know.”

If you had to choose between parsing through distortions in truth in the 1920s or the distortions of truth that are playing out today, which do you think might be more overwhelming?

I don’t know. Oh my god. I do see a parallel with today. Back then the legal institutions and the political institutions were quite weak in many ways. Legal institutions were often corrupted. The boundaries between a good man and a bad man were very porous, and you could tilt the scales of justice. In these towns where these murders were taking place, it was very easy to create fake narratives and cover up the truth.

Our institutions have since gotten much stronger: our legal institutions, the professionalization of law enforcement, there’s more civic codes, the press is stronger. The sad irony is that we now have efforts to undermine these institutions that bring us back to impartial truth. We haven’t come full circle, but it’s a slight inversion of what was happening back then. When you realize how lawless this country was, it was so easy to corrupt justice when you didn’t have the organs of truth. Now we’re in a society where forces are actively trying to destroy them. That’s such a tragedy. If you read what life was like back then, you’re like: “Oh my god, please don’t do that.”

You also wrote The Lost City of Z, the movie version of which is out in theaters now. As someone who obsessively researches every detail of a story, was it hard to see it transformed into a film?

The first time I watched the film, I was with my wife. We were in a little production room, and it was just the two of us. The whole time we just kept looking at each other like, “They did that! Oh, they didn’t do this! Oh, interesting! Oh, wow! Sienna [Miller is] so good!” And you’re in that stage where your brain is doing all the gymnastics. Then I saw it again at the New York Film Festival and I just watched it as a piece of art, and just admired it and could experience it as a film. Something that stands on its own. I thought [director] James [Gray] created a very beautiful work of art out of that material and I admire it, I really, genuinely do. The kind of eeriness, the straddling of civilizations, the fact that [Percy] Fawcett had one foot in the door in society and one foot in this other society. And the relationship between him and Nina was so effective.

There was a debate within our office over whether Percy Fawcett and his son died or not, and I said, “If you read the David Grann stuff, you know they died.”

They definitely died. But even with that, what you want in the film is to get at certain essential truths. Film is not the work of history; it’s a different process. Yes, they died in the book, but we can go back to that subject of living in doubt. We don’t know 100 percent. The evidence was very strong. I had that oral history in the book saying how they died and how they were likely killed, and I certainly believe that. But we didn’t have a camera filming it. So I actually liked that James left that little bit of ambiguity at the end. Which was actually true to the story, because Nina Fawcett clung to the belief that her husband and son had lived for years after they were obviously dead.

That also gets to the deeper idea of desperately wanting the world to have a certain order. Even though it was pretty obvious that Fawcett and his son died, there was some doubt. She’s trying to make sense of that world where there isn’t a resolution. And [that] very similarly is the case with many of the Osage. They have these kind of suspicious deaths and didn’t always have a resolution. It’s a very haunting process to look through that.