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Friday, February 16, 2018

Before Killers of the Flower Moon

On March 1, the Stillwater Public Library kicks-off its ninth community-wide reading series. This go-round, we’re reading “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” by bestselling author David Grann.

The non-fiction book gives the story of mysterious deaths of Osages who were being murdered for their headrights to the rich reserves of oil under Osage land. It is the first time the story has received coast-to-coast recognition and the first time many Oklahomans have heard of it.

Grann, an investigative reporter, writes for the New Yorker and was formerly a senior editor at The New Republic and executive editor of the newspaper The Hill. He’s also becoming Hollywood’s go-to for memorable movie material, with a recent movie based on his 2009 book, “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon;” three stories in development from 2011’s true crime book, “The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: tales of murder, madness, and obsession;” and, of course, the recent bidding war for the movie rights to “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

Grann originally learned about the Osage murders in a conversation with a historian. He was shocked he had never learned about it in school and felt compelled to research further. A moving visit to the Osage Nation convinced Grann that he needed to write the story that so few had heard.

But Grann isn’t the first to address this topic.

One of the first books to include the murders was published in 1934 by Osage author John Joseph Mathews. “Sundown” is a semi-autobiographical novel about a young Osage who returns to his Osage home after attending university and serving in the Great War. The main character, Challenge Windzer, struggles to navigate between his Osage and white identities, while the problem is compounded by the opportunists who have descended on the Osage’s new oil wealth.

Mathews, who served on the Osage tribal council and was instrumental in establishing the Osage Nation Museum, is named along with the museum in the list of Oklahoma Literary Landmarks.

Pulp-fiction western author Fred Grove, whose mother was part Osage, was just ten years old when he was close enough that he heard the bomb explosion which took the lives of Bill and Rita Smith and Nettie Brookshire, an incident you will read about in Grann’s book.

Grove co-wrote one non-fiction book about the Osage murders, but couldn’t find a publisher. The incident stayed with Grove though, and he included the murders in four of his novels “Flame of the Osage” (1958), “Warrior Road” (1974) and “Drums Without Warriors” (1976). Grove’s book “The Years of Fear” (2002) is a fictionalized version of his unpublished non-fiction book.  The prolific author wrote 30 books and won five “Spurs” from the Western Writers of America.

The murders were also covered on the big screen. In 1959, the movie “The FBI Story, starring Jimmy Stewart, recounted the birth of the FBI, including one its first cases—the Osage murders. Modern reviewers have criticized the movie for its length and sappy sentimentality, but in 1958, Variety called the movie as “a tense, exciting film story told in human terms.”

These are just a few of the titles that have included the Osage murders, and yet, again we puzzle over how so few people remember hearing about it. How does such a diabolical, years-long event become forgotten? Why is it just now that we are ready to hear and acknowledge this story?

These are some of the main questions we hope the series will answer. Through our programs with expert presenters and especially through our small group book discussions, we want people to talk about why these types of events are forgotten/ignored/brushed under the rug and how we can keep it from happening in the future.

Join us by sign-up for a book discussion at the kick-off event on March 1. Those who have already read the book are encouraged to sign-up for some of our early discussions.

For more stories focused on the Osage Murders, visit The library either owns each of the books on the list or has them on order.

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