History, Grann writes, is a “merciless judge” which “lays bare […] tragic blunders and foolish missteps and exposes our most intimate secrets.” As he combs through the FBI files, he begins to see many holes in the bureau’s investigation.
Grann comes to see how profoundly history has failed the Osage—and how even the passage of time has not hastened the healing of many unresolved wounds.
The authorities insisted that once Hale and his conspirators were convicted, the guilty parties had been found. The cases were closed “with great triumph,” even though Hale had not been connected to all twenty-four Osage murders, and many were left unsolved. Grann now wonders who was responsible for the grisly deaths of the oilman McBride and the lawyer W.W. Vaughan.
Hoover and the FBI, desperate to declare a successful investigation, left many murders unsolved—and many families without hope of justice for their lost loved ones. Grann now wants to work to right that wrong.
Grann has trouble turning up any leads on McBride but is able to get in touch with a granddaughter of Vaughan’s who lives in Oklahoma. He arranges to meet with her at a historic hotel in Oklahoma City, and when he arrives he sees that she has brought her cousin along—he has two huge binders filled with research related to the murder that their family has been collected “obsessively” over the decades.
Vaughan’s family has been “obsessively” trying to find answers to his death for decades. This shows that not only the Osage have been affected by the FBI’s failure—there are many people whose lives and legacies have been forever changed by the Reign of Terror.
Though many members of Vaughan’s family assume Hale wanted him silenced, they also suspect there is more to the murder. First, the inquest made into his death was clearly a sham, with the cause of death listed as “unknown” and no investigative follow-through completed. Secondly, because Vaughan was a large, strong man, he must have been killed by someone working with an accomplice. Third, after Hale went to jail, a relative tried to continue investigating the case, but soon received an anonymous threat stating that if the family pressed the matter any further they’d all end up dead.
Vaughan’s descendants know that his death was remained unsolved due to layers upon layers of corruption and mismanagement, but because so many years have passed, history has largely obscured the truth—and made them fear that they will never be able to learn what really happened.
Vaughan’s granddaughter recalls that there was a man who had embezzled money from Vaughan’s estate after he died, and tells Grann that his name was H.G. Burt. Grann takes the name down in his notebook and promises to see what he can find out but is afraid of giving Vaughan’s family any false hope.
For many people—not just the Osage—someone as impassioned as Grann represents the first measure of hope they’ve had for truth and justice in a long time.
Grann visits the southwest branch of the U.S. National Archives in Fort Worth, Texas, and looks into files detailing the lawsuit that Vaughan’s widow Rosa filed against H.G. Burt. The 1923 dispute seems, at first glance, mundane, but as Grann delves deeper, he finds that the $10,000 Burt allegedly owed Vaughan is connected to another victim of the Reign of Terror—George Bigheart. Vaughan had been Bigheart’s attorney and had helped Bigheart file a certificate of competency before his death. Bigheart had planned to pay Vaughan $10,000—the equivalent of $140,000 today—for his legal services, but somehow Burt collected the money, and, days later, Bigheart and Vaughan were both dead.
As Grann delves into the annals of history, he is disturbed by what he finds. Vaughan’s death—just like the deaths of the Osage—was motivated by entitlement, greed, and corruption. Grann sees once again just how low people will stoop for money.
Grann digs deeper into information about Burt, who moved to Pawhuska around 1910 and later became president of a bank. Much of the man’s wealth flowed from the swindling of millionaire Osage—he ran a loan business targeting the tribe, and would charge them “astronomical” interests rates, between 10 and 50 percent. Grann also learns from one report that Burt and Hale were associates, and that the two had “split on the boodle,” or divided evenly, the money obtained from Bigheart. In another report, Grann sees Burt referred to as a “murderer” by agents of the bureau.
As Grann delves deeper and seeks out more information about Burt, he learns that the man was just as evil, corrupt, and conniving as Hale—but was never, it seems, brought to justice for any of his flagrant and egregious crimes against the Osage.
For days, Grann returns to the archives again and again to try to find a financial motive for the killing of Bigheart. There is no evidence that Burt or Hale inherited Bigheart’s fortune, which was passed down to his wife and daughter. Grann finds, though, that Bigheart’s daughter had a guardian—H.G. Burt. He continues piecing circumstantial evidence together until he finds another huge piece of information: Burt was on the train journey with his “friend” Vaughan when Vaughan disappeared, and was the first person to report Vaughan’s disappearance.
Grann realizes that Burt’s crimes went beyond the killing of the Osage—he was so determined to keep his operation under wraps that he even killed a man who was, supposedly, one of his friends.
Grann calls Vaughan’s granddaughter with his findings but is sure to remind her that there are limitations, due to how much time has passed, as to what anyone can know for sure. Still, she begins crying, and expresses relief at having solved a mystery that has been in her family for so long. Not long after their phone conversation, Grann learns that Vaughan’s granddaughter has died from her heartbroken cousin who laments their family having lost yet another “link to the past.”
This passage shows that “link[s] to the past” are constantly being lost, and that history often obscures the things it should judge and lay bare. With each member of an older generation who dies, or forgets, it becomes harder and harder to access the truth.