In 2012, David Grann travels to Pawhuska. Gone are many of the hallmarks of the old west: the “forests” of oil derricks, the railroads, the outlaws, and the boomtowns. Pawhuska now has a population of 3,600 people and serves as the capital of the Osage Nation. It has been nearly a century since the Osage murders—like most Americans, Grann never learned about the crimes in school, but has recently begun looking into them after stumbling upon some information about the Reign of Terror by chance. Grann has since become “consumed” by the desire to resolve lingering questions and fill in gaps in the FBI’s investigation.
As the narrative jumps forward in time, Grann shows just how startled he himself has been to learn about the crimes against the Osage—and how outraged he is that not only do so few Americans know their story, but also that the full truth of what happened during the Reign of Terror is, too, largely unknown.
In Pawhuska, at the Osage Nation Museum, Grann meets with its longtime director, Kathryn Red Corn. She shows him some old photographs of the tribe, one of which was taken at a ceremony in 1924. It is a panoramic view of members of the tribe alongside prominent local white businessmen and leaders. Grann notices that a section of the picture is missing. When he asks Red Corn why, she says that the “devil” was cut out, because it was “too painful” to look at him. She leaves for a moment and then returns with a print of the missing panel: it shows William K. Hale “staring coldly at the camera.” Grann notes that the Osage removed Hale from the photograph not to forget, like most Americans have, but rather because they cannot forget the pain, loss, and sorrow he caused.
As Grann meets with the director of the Osage Nation Museum and looks through documents, photographs, and ephemera from the past, he realizes that while most of America has forgotten the story of the Osage people, the Osage themselves are so profoundly pained by the terror that befell their tribe that they have resorted to desperate measures in order to quell the constant pain.
Before Grann leaves the museum, Red Corn gives him the name of several Osage who might have information about the murders but warns him that it is still extremely difficult for many members of the tribe to talk about what happened during the Reign of Terror—the pain of the ordeal has never gone away.
Red Corn wants to help Grann learn more and educate Americans about the truth—but also knows that even though his research is done in the name of justice and honor for the tribe, the wounds of the past have created an atmosphere of suspicion and jadedness in the Osage community.
During a later visit to Oklahoma one June, Grann attends a festival of ceremonial Osage dance—I’n-Lon-Schka. The dances take place over the month of June in the towns of Hominy, Pawhuska, and Gray Horse, and bring Osage from all over the area together to preserve fading traditions and see old family and friends.
Grann doesn’t just want to learn about the Osage tribe’s past—he wants to bear witness to its present, as well, and learn how its members’ painful pasts have influenced tribal culture and tradition today.
Grann arrives on a Saturday to find a pavilion constructed for the dances crowded with Osage people dressed in bright traditional clothing singing, dancing, and drumming. Before long, a stylishly-dressed Osage woman in her fifties approaches Grann and introduces herself as Margie Burkhart—she is Mollie’s granddaughter, and her father was James “Cowboy” Burkhart, Mollie and Ernest’s son.
Meeting Margie Burkhart makes both David Grann—and his readers—acutely aware of how fresh the wounds caused by the Reign of Terror are for the Osage people—it was barely two generations ago that extreme, systemic violence was still being enacted upon their tribe.
Grann, Margie, and her husband sit together and talk about Margie’s family, who have been haunted for generations by the knowledge of what Ernest Burkhart did. Ernest was paroled in 1937, the year of Mollie’s death. Shortly after Ernest got out, he robbed an Osage home and was sent back to prison. In 1947, while Ernest was still incarcerated, Hale was released for good behavior after twenty years at Leavenworth. Though he was forbidden from returning to Oklahoma, he came back to visit relatives anyway, and according to them once said that “If that damn Ernest had kept his mouth shut we’d be rich today.”
This quote from Hale reveals that he never cared about being a “friend” to the Osage tribe—he hated them, and only ever wanted their money. Even after serving two decades for his crimes against the Osage, Hale was—according to his own family—as ruthless, cruel, and calculating as ever. Prison had dropped his mask, and his true desires—being “rich” above all else—were revealed.
Margie has never met Hale, who died in 1962 in an Arizona nursing home. She saw Ernest once after he got out of prison again. In 1966, Ernest, hoping to return to Oklahoma, applied for a pardon, and was granted one. He returned to Osage County, where he stayed with his brother Bryan. Margie, who had just become a teenager, met Ernest then and was surprised by how kind and grandfatherly he appeared. She was unable to fathom how the stooped man before her had committed such horrible deeds.
Margie’s reminiscences of her meeting Ernest Burkhart—the man who betrayed her family and caused them so much pain and suffering—reveal how hard it has been for her and her family to accept the truth of the violence that was enacted upon them.
Margie tells Grann that her father and her aunt, Liz, were ostracized by the tribe throughout their lives, when what they needed was family and support. She states that her aunt was a paranoid woman, always changing her address and phone number as she moved from place to place, while her father “longed” for Ernest’s affections even after all the evil he’d perpetrated, and visited him frequently at his mouse-infested trailer just outside Osage County. When Ernest died, he was cremated, but rather than spread the ashes, Cowboy “took the box and just chucked it over a bridge.”
From Margie’s memories of her father and her aunt, Grann learns that the two of them were profoundly affected every day of their lives by the enormous, almost indigestible truth of their father’s cruelty. Though Cowboy clearly longed for a relationship with the man, he appears to have reached something of a breaking point after his death, and at last was able to divorce himself from his father and his legacy of deception and cruelty.
Margie offers to show Grann around the town of Gray Horse. He gets into her car with her and her husband and the three begin driving around. Margie points out the house where she grew up—a small, spare wooden home. Maggie explains that the Great Depression wiped out many Osage fortunes, and Mollie’s was no exception. The price of a barrel of oil plummeted in 1931, and annual headright payments fell to less than $800. The boomtowns began to die off over the next several decades, and when an auction for Osage oil leases was held in Tulsa in 2012, three leases sold for less than $15,000 total. Margie receives a check each year for a few thousand dollars—a nice cushion, but certainly not enough to live on, and nowhere near the fortune of days gone by.
The Osage tribe’s wealth—which was such a liability to them for so long—has at last all but dried up. The day the tribal elders of Lizzie’s generation once longed for has arrived—but with it has come an atmosphere of pain, trauma, and resentment.
The Osage have found new sources of revenue, building casinos and generating millions of dollars for the tribe. The Osage were also able to receive a portion of the oil funds that were mismanaged for decades by the U.S. government, and after an eleven-year-long legal battle, were awarded a government settlement of $380 million in 2011.
The Osage have continued to fight for the wealth that is rightfully theirs, unwilling to withstand any more mistreatment from the governmental bodies which were charged with protecting them—and failed to do so.
After stopping at a cemetery to visit the graves of Mollie, Anna, Rita, Minnie, Lizzie, Bill Smith, and other victims of the Reign of Terror, Margie takes Grann over to the ravine where Anna was shot. As the sun sets on the prairie, Margie continues driving and talking about her childhood, growing up in the shadow of Ernest’s horrible deeds. As she speaks, Grann realizes that the Reign of Terror continues to ravage the lives of the Osage people generations later.
Though many Americans don’t even know what befell the Osage during the Reign of Terror, for those who still live on and around the reservation, there are persistent, inescapable daily reminders of the cruelty their tribe was made to suffer.
Margie takes Grann to one last stop—the place where Bill and Rita’s house once stood. Another house has since been built on the lot, and as Grann and Margie look at it, Margie tells him something that no FBI record held. Her father once told her that on the night of the explosion, he, his sister, and Mollie had been planning to spend the night at Bill and Rita’s. They only stayed home because Cowboy had an earache—Ernest had not tried to persuade them to stay or warned them in any way. Margie states that her father had to live his whole life knowing that his own father had tried to kill him. Margie sits quietly in the dark car for a moment before shifting it into gear and brightly suggesting they all return to the dance.
Margie’s devastating revelation that Ernest tried to kill his own wife and children to hasten the process of securing Mollie’s fortune shows just how corrupt, depraved, and desperately greedy Burkhart truly was. Margie’s chipper suggestion that they all return to the festival just moments after such a revelation shows that she—and her people more largely—have had to learn how to compartmentalize their grief just in order to survive.