In February of 1923, two men are out hunting just north of Fairfax when they spot a car at the bottom of a rocky hill. They return to Fairfax and inform the authorities. Later, when a deputy sheriff and the town marshal go out to investigate, they approach the car and see a man slumped behind the steering wheel—when they open the driver’s door, they find that the man inside is covered in blood and has been shot in the back of the head. Nearly six months have passed since the brutal slaying of Barney McBride, but the lawmen’s discovery informs them that the killing hasn’t stopped after all.
As the killing continues into the new year, locals—whites and Osage alike—realize that the killings aren’t over, and perhaps have only just begun.
The latest victim is Henry Roan, a forty-year-old Osage Indian who is married with two children. He is easily identified, as the cold temperatures preserved his body. The lawmen return to town, notify the justice of the peace, and inform Hale of the murder—Roan considered Hale his best friend, and, because Roan’s access to his finances had been curtailed under the unfair guardianship legislation, Hale often lent the man money. In fact, Hale lent Roan so much money so often that Roan had listed Hale as the beneficiary of his $25,000 life insurance policy after discovering that his own wife was having an affair with another man.
As the information that connects Roan and Hale comes to light, Hale comes under suspicion. Even if the two men were close friends and business partners, Roan’s death—which grants Hale an exorbitant sum of money—was certainly foul play seemingly aimed at securing his fortune.
The deputy and the marshal—along with Hale and the Shoun brothers—return to the scene of the crime (which is, incidentally, the same ravine where Anna was murdered) and begin a coroner’s inquest. They determine that Roan was murdered about ten days earlier and find tread marks in the frozen mud from another car. On Roan’s person are twenty dollars in cash and a gold watch.
Despite Hale’s suspicious connection to Roan’s fortune, he is allowed to visit the scene of the crime. Hale is so powerful in the community that he can flout protocol and evade suspicion even when he seems directly implicated.
As the news reaches town, Mollie is “jolted” by Roan’s death. In 1902—more than a decade before meeting Ernest—she and Roan were briefly (and secretly) married in what was likely a traditional Osage arranged marriage. After Roan’s funeral, as the authorities begin looking into his death, Mollie becomes uneasy, afraid that details of her first marriage will emerge—and anger Ernest, her “instinctively jealous” second husband.
Mollie has secrets, too, and as news of Henry Roan’s death reaches her, she feels herself torn between her two worlds and her two lives—the world of her family and her tribe, and the white world she has been conditioned to assimilate into.
After Roan’s death, members of the Osage tribe begin taking precautions, placing electric lightbulbs over the doors to their homes despite the fact that outsiders see doing so as “an ostentatious display of oil wealth.” The “perennial question in the Osage land” becomes “who will be next,” and a “climate of terror” descends over the community.
The Osage know that they are being targeted for their headrights—every moment is filled with fear, and restlessness and upset pervade the community.
Paranoia takes over Mollie’s family, too, and soon Rita and her husband Bill Smith, after hearing “jostling” outside their home in the middle of the night, move into an elegant two-story house at the center of Fairfax. Soon after the move, in early March, neighborhood dogs in Fairfax begin to die, and Bill believes that the watchdogs are being poisoned. Bill confides in a friend that he does not “expect to live very long.”
The atmosphere of terror on the Osage reservations deepens as death, cruelty, and paranoia continue to abound.
On March 9, Bill and a friend drive out to the bootlegger Henry Grammer’s ranch—Bill has told his friend that he is in need of a drink. Grammer is a “notorious character” who lives in and controls an unseen world. Roan himself got whisky from Grammer’s ranch shortly before his death—and Anna most often got her whisky there, too. Grammer’s rap sheet is long and varied, and his bootlegging empire now holds sway over an army of bandits, including Asa Kirby and John Ramsey.
Bill, seeking comfort, turns to contraband liquor. His journey to the bootlegger’s shows that the “underworld” of Osage County is easily accessible and commonly known.
When Bill and his friend arrive at the ranch, Grammer isn’t there. Bill purchases some whisky anyway, and then he and his friend return to Fairfax. Bill drops his friend off, heads home, and goes to bed with Rita. Around three in the morning, a blast beneath their house is heard, far and wide, by neighbors and other witnesses. Mollie and Ernest, home in bed, feel the explosion, too. Ernest, in his slippers and pajamas, runs out to see what the commotion is; realizing that Bill and Rita’s house has exploded, he runs towards the rubble.
Bill and Rita become the latest victims of the Osage murders—and their deaths are, quite literally, the most explosive so far. The violence befalling the Osage tribe is escalating in a show of force and dominance.
The house has been reduced to ash, and as dawn arrives, the justice of the peace, Mathis, and the Shoun brothers search alongside neighbors of the Smiths for bodies. Bill is found alive—but with his legs “seared beyond recognition,” and the rest of his body covered in terrible burns. Rita’s body is found, but the body of their white servant, Nettie, has been “blown to pieces,” and there are barely any remains of her body left. The doctors load Bill into an ambulance, where they begin giving him morphine—before he can be questioned, he loses consciousness. He awakes and submits to questioning, but his answers are mumbled and disjointed, and four days after the bombing he succumbs to his injuries and dies.
The scene at Bill and Rita’s is the most grisly yet. This is also the first murder to seek to claim multiple victims at once—additionally, the Smiths’ servant, Nettie, is the second white person to be murdered during this spate of horrific killings.
Sadness, pain, and outrage over the attack spread through Fairfax and beyond. In April of 1923, the governor of Oklahoma dispatches his top state investigator to Osage County. Many Osage are relieved—they have started to believe that local officials are in cahoots with the killer or killers, whoever they may be, and that only an outside force like the investigator will be able to cut through the corruption. Within days, though, the investigator is found taking bribes from notorious local crooks, and in June is taken off the case and sent to prison.
Even when help in the form of an outsider seems to arrive at last, it soon comes to light that he, too, is a victim of the seemingly inescapable corruption which has seized, evidently, not just Osage County, but the larger state of Oklahoma.
W.W. Vaughan, an attorney living in Pawhuska who has been working closely with the private investigators attempting to solve the murders, receives an urgent call from a friend of George Bigheart, the nephew of James Bigheart, on a June day in 1923. The call informs Vaughan that George has been a victim of a suspected poisoning and has been rushed to an Oklahoma City hospital. Before hurrying to the hospital, Vaughan tells his wife about a hiding spot where he has stashed information and evidence he’s been gathering and tells her to turn it over to the authorities should anything happen to him.
W.W. Vaughan is possibly the only person so far who has been seriously investigating the truth about the murders—and he knows just what is at stake if the wrong people decide to come for him.
Vaughan arrives at the hospital and talks privately with Bigheart—but within hours, Bigheart is pronounced dead. Vaughan telephones the new Osage County sheriff to inform him that he is on his way back with new information—Vaughan says he knows everything, including who killed Bigheart. On the train home, however, Vaughan “vanishes” from his cabin. After a thirty-six-hour search, his mangled body is found by the railroad tracks just north of Oklahoma City; like McBride, he has been stripped naked and left for dead.
Vaughan, in pursuit of justice and truth, has gotten too close to solving the murders—and he is made to pay for getting near to securing justice for the Osage people.
The death toll of the Osage tribe has climbed to twenty-four, and the period becomes known as “the Osage Reign of Terror.” Two more men who have tried to assist the investigation turn up dead, and the press alights on the “bloodiest chapter in American crime history” with sensationalized fervor. Even the justice of the peace, assailed by threats, refuses to convene inquests into the latest murders.
As the death toll rises and even an increasing number of white Americans are implicated in the “Reign of Terror,” it seems that whoever is behind the murders is unassailable and invincible, so profound is the atmosphere of corruption at every level of Oklahoma society.
By the end of 1923, the Osage tribe begin urging the federal government to send officials who have no ties to the state, and while the tribe waits for the federal government to respond, Mollie lives in fear and dread, knowing she is the “likely next target in the apparent plot to eliminate her family.” William Hale—having returned from Texas after the news of the bombing—assures Mollie that he will avenge her family, but after Hale helps authorities capture Asa Kirby in a jewel heist, Hale’s own pastures are set on fire, and his cattle are killed.
Even William Hale, the most prominent member of Osage County society, is threatened by the Reign of Terror—but whether the threat against him is real or manufactured to make him appear innocent remains to be seen.
Seeing that even Hale is vulnerable, Mollie retreats into her house—she no longer entertains neighbors and friends or attends church, and rumors spread that not only has her mind begun to unravel, but her diabetes is beginning to worsen; the Shoun brothers, who come and go from the house to inject her with insulin, are some of her only visitors. No historical records exist which provide a glimpse of Mollie’s life for several years. In late 1925, however, Mollie writes a letter to a local priest, claiming that her life is in danger: she isn’t dying of diabetes, she says, but is being poisoned.
Mollie is getting sicker—and the fact that the Shoun brothers are administering her “insulin” injections and the only people with access to her home spells suspicion for the pair.