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In 2012, in a small town in Oklahoma, David Grann met the devil. The magazine journalist was on the hunt for his next story and he stumbled into the Osage Nation Museum, which commemorated the history of the local Native American tribe. There he saw a giant black-and-white photo of Osage Indians and white settlers peering into the camera; at first, he was simply impressed by its panoramic size, cramming dozens of faces together.
Then, he noticed an oddity: one face in the corner of the image had disappeared. The figure seemed to be a well-dressed white man, poised in a commanding, patrician stance. But his head was gone. Instead, his face was a cross-hatch of furious lines. It was as though the picture had been attacked.
He asked the museum curator, an Osage woman called Kathryn Red Corn, about the defaced photo. “That was where the devil stood,” she said.
The “devil” was William Hale. At the time the picture was taken, in the early 1920s, Hale was at the centre of the Osage community. He’d risen from his hardscrabble, cattle-wrangling youth to become a prominent rancher, businessman and politician; his influence fell across every aspect of local affairs. He styled himself “King of the Osage hills” and considered himself a pivot between the indigenous Osage Indians and more recent white arrivals. He was also – unbeknownst to everyone else in that photograph – a mass murderer, engaged in a systematic campaign to kill and rob his family, neighbours and colleagues.
“The members of the Osage tribe removed that image not because they didn’t want to remember – but because they couldn’t forget,” Grann tells me now. “They suffered one of the most monstrous crimes in American history, yet many people, myself included, weren’t taught about it. We’ve effectively exorcised it from our consciousness.”
In the 1890s, oil was discovered on Osage land. As the tribe retained the “head rights” to the fields – effectively holding the licences to drill – they became fabulously wealthy almost overnight. By the 1920s, they were among the richest per capita citizens in the world.
Hale took advantage of this sudden good fortune, orchestrating a slow-burning campaign to steal their wealth. He inveigled himself into the community, marrying off his nephew, Ernest Burkhart, to a full-blood Osage woman called Mollie, stitching his bloodline to the tribe’s. Yet all the while, he was leading a conspiracy to kill off the Osage and inherit their head rights. Mollie’s mother and two sisters were murdered; numerous other Osage were shot, poisoned and bludgeoned. Local police and doctors were complicit, working to cover up the crimes. Many of the deaths were listed as accidents and suicides – or simply went uninvestigated. After all, as Grann notes, a common saying at the time held that it was “easier to kill an Indian than a dog”.
Grann spent five years investigating these crimes. The resulting 2017 bestseller, Killers of the Flower Moon, brought the “Osage reign of terror” sickeningly to life. Now, his book has been turned into an extraordinary three-and-a-half-hour epic by Martin Scorsese, with Robert De Niro as William Hale. Leonardo DiCaprio plays his nephew, Ernest, and Lily Gladstone his wife, Mollie. While Grann’s book is an expansive, thrilling true-crime read, Scorsese’s film is a more intimate watch. Anchored by Gladstone’s remarkable performance, it’s a clammy, claustrophobic study in how love and family loyalty tangle and collide.
Eventually, Hale’s spree was brought to an end. J Edgar Hoover dispatched detectives from the Bureau of Investigation, a forerunner to the FBI, to investigate. Led by special agent Tom White, a no-nonsense Texan marshal, they gradually threw a ring around Hale and his accomplices. In 1923, they were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, though they were later released on parole. (Against the protests of the Osage nation.) The case became an early calling-card of the FBI and Hoover publicised his triumph to bolster his young institution. Plays, radio broadcasts and newspaper articles were written about the story. The “reign of terror” was filed away as a brief, violent episode in a nation whose short history is soaked in them.
Grann, however, discovered there was more to the case. Midway through researching the book, he came across a cache of documents in the Fort Worth archives. “It’s this massive warehouse, like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I found what looked like a little ledger. It listed Osage guardians and the Osage [tribespeople] whose fortunes they managed. And on the first line, next to one of the Osage it said: ‘Dead’. I turned to the one below: ‘Dead’. And so on… ‘Dead, dead, dead.’
“It was crazy. It defied any natural death rates. And I looked into some of the cases, and I found evidence of poisoning, fraud and stealing of the head rights. I realised this antiseptic little book contained the evidence of a systematic murder campaign against the Osage.”
Grann was forced to scrap two years of work, flipping the book from a story about the birth of a FBI to a far darker, submerged tale: that of the wholesale slaughter of the Osage. One estimate suggests that more than 600 Osage were killed; Grann quotes an historian who tells him: “I don’t know of a single Osage family which didn’t lose at least one family member because of the head rights.” To this day, its infamy shadows the tribe.
Scorsese’s film feels like a partial atonement for these crimes – and for Hollywood’s long history of racist presentations of indigenous peoples. More than any other mainstream film I’ve seen, it privileges a Native American perspective. From first to last shot, it’s steeped in Osage ritual and lore. Notably, it was filmed on location in Osage land, using Osage actors, technicians and consultants. (A decision which must have been partially responsible for its rumoured $200m budget.) Principal chief Geoffrey Standing Bear, a friend of Grann’s, liaised with Scorsese and his team throughout production; he and many other members of the tribe even star in a crucial council scene, effectively playing their immediate ancestors.
“I was involved in making some initial introductions,” says Grann of his role in production. “But the real credit goes to Scorsese and his team – and to the Osage for ensuring that their culture, history and rituals were fairly represented.”
Throughout our time together, Grann is charmingly self-deprecatory, with an infectious, squirrelly energy. “I’m far more comfortable in an archive than on a movie set,” he tells me at one point.
Yet this self-described “nerdy book author” has increasingly found himself hanging around them. After a career writing for the New Yorker – in which he published stories on, among other topics, the murder of the world’s foremost Sherlock Holmes expert and the hunt for the giant squid – he turned to books. His first, 2009’s The Lost City of Z, an account of the British explorer Colonel Percival Fawcett’s doomed quest for a mysterious civilisation in the Amazon was turned into a film by James Gray, with Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett. His latest, The Wager, published earlier this year and shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize, has also been optioned by Scorsese, with DiCaprio again set to star.
His books, while backed by years of patient research, have a compulsive, cinematic pull. Yet he denies writing with the screen in mind. “You’d be nuts to write thinking: ‘This could be a future movie.’ It would be foolhardy. I just find these stories which get their hooks into me. I try to find stories which create an emotional connection to history.”
He contrasts the glamour of Hollywood – hobnobbing with “Marty”, being flown to screenings at Cannes – with the grind of writing. “You have to believe in your stories, otherwise by year three, what are you doing? Your house is a shipwreck of archives, you’ve stopped shaving and everyone is wondering when you’ll take a bath... So my hope with [my books] is that they’ll become avenues for other stories to be shared.”
Yet it’s clear he found working on the Osage murders to be a rattling experience. “I never see my mission as trying to exculpate or burnish people – I want to reveal them as they are. But [Killers] was as close to a story of good and evil as I’ve ever told. How else do you describe a system in which people marry into families and pretend to love them, while scheming to kill off their own children?”
While Scorsese’s film is queasily focused on Ernest and Mollie’s marriage, it also draws parallels between the fate of the Osage and other instances of racial violence, such as the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. Taking place in a town barely an hour’s drive from Osage territory, this outrage saw mobs of white citizens and city authorities rampage through “Black Wall Street”, a prosperous African-American neighbourhood, killing, torching homes and looting. Up to 300 black residents were killed and more than 35 square blocks were razed. Before the full extent of the Osage murders came to light, it was one of the bloodiest instances of racialised killing in American history.
“Though the specifics were different, they were both driven by greed, envy – and a complete dehumanisation of their victims,” notes Grann. “Whether it’s the Osage, or Nazi Germany, or Ukraine today, you don’t get these cultures of killing and complicity without that dehumanisation. You have to not see these people as fully human, with souls and dignity.”
Grann argues his books never condemn or condone. Rather, he says he prefers to leave space for the reader’s own judgement: “You try to resolve stories as best you can. But you always have to live with a bit of doubt, because that’s what it is to be human.”
That said, he is worried that America’s tortuous culture wars are in danger of shutting down nuance. “We have a battle over history going on in our country right now,” he says. “A teacher in Oklahoma was afraid to teach Killers for fear it would run afoul of the new education laws there. But my hope with telling stories like this is that we’ll begin to reckon with our past and begin to restore it, because history never stops.”
He recalls meeting an Osage lawyer who told him: “We were victims of these crimes – but we do not live as victims today.”
One of the last shots of the film is of an Osage drum ritual. The soundtrack fills with their shouts and, as the camera pans upwards, what seems like the whole tribe is revealed, a whirl of spinning, triumphant movement.
It’s an affirmation – and a message. “We’re still here,” it seems to say.
Killers of the Flower Moon is in cinemas now