One day in the summer of 1925, Tom White—the special agent in charge of the Bureau of Investigation’s field office in Houston—receives an urgent summons from headquarters in Washington, D.C. J. Edgar Hoover, the new man in charge of the bureau, orders White to come to Washington to meet in person. Hoover demands a certain level of hegemony and professionalism from the agents who work under him, and White, bidding farewell to his wife and children, packs his things and heads out on his way quickly.
The narrative switches focus to tell the story of how Tom White is assigned to take charge of the Osage “Reign of Terror.” Grann will use this section of the book to show how the Osage murders were directly connected to the formation of the FBI as we know it today—and responsible for the way the American public sees, or rather doesn’t see, the incident presently.
White, an “old-style” lawman and a former Texas Ranger, stands six-foot-four and is often dressed like a cowboy. He joined the Bureau of Investigation in 1917, after being barred from fighting in World War I due to a recent surgery. Now, not yet forty, White is part of a “tribe of old frontier lawmen”—a tribe which is vanishing, leaving White in danger of “becoming a relic in a Wild West traveling show.”
Though wild-West lawlessness still reigns in Oklahoma, out East, things are changing—and the way policework and federal investigations happen is making men like Tom White into “relic[s]” of a bygone era of grit and gunslinging.
White, primarily a fact-gatherer, has no formal training as a law-enforcement officer, and little experience with cutting-edge scientific methods such as fingerprinting. Nonetheless, White has made a good lawman due to his measured temper and morals—he believes there is a thin line between a good man and a bad one.
White is a complicated character. Though part of the old guard of the West, he has a strict moral code and a past which has made him predisposed to chasing justice at any cost.
In 1924, the attorney general of the United States selected J. Edgar Hoover, the twenty-nine-year-old deputy director of the bureau, to serve as acting director amidst a climate of scandal and disgrace. Hoover had no experience as a detective—he had never been in a shoot-out or made an arrest—and was more a “creature of the bureaucracy” who dealt in gossip, “unspoken deals,” and “bloodless but vicious territorial wars.” Hoover set to work making the bureau into a modern force, booting out incompetent or crooked agents and requiring new agents to have legal and accounting training. By the end of the year, Hoover was given the position permanently—during his five-year tenure, he would go on to form the bureau into a “monolithic force” that would both combat crime and “commit egregious abuses of power” as it attempted to cover up the scandals of its past, present, and future.
The bureau’s fledgling years have been spent mired in scandal—and Hoover is determined to quell and quiet things by any means necessary. This passage makes it clear that Hoover is looking for someone who can do a job and do it well—so that Hoover can sit back, relax, and take credit as the agents he has hired rehabilitate the bureau’s image from the ground up.
As White arrives at headquarters, he takes note of the new “breed” of agents—college boys who “type faster than they [shoot]” and are mocked, by old-timers, as “Boy Scouts.” Upon entering Hoover’s office, White looms over the director—a man of “modest stature,” so insecure about his height that he rarely promoted any tall agents to headquarters—and listens as Hoover describes the “sensational case” of the Osage murders.
White seems like a fish out of water in Hoover’s bureau—the place is changing, and is starting to reflect a different kind of masculinity (and a different kind of protocol) than White is used to.
In the spring of 1923, the bureau’s former director dispatched an agent to Osage County to investigate—after being there a few weeks, the agent concluded in his report that “any continued investigation [would be] useless.” The bureau sent more agents, but none were able to make any headway. After a disastrous snafu in which the notorious outlaw Blackie Thompson was released to work undercover for the bureau’s investigation—and subsequently escaped into the Osage Hills, robbed a bank, and killed a police officer—Hoover is now desperate to quell rumors of the bureau’s role in the Thompson affair, and exonerate the bureau from being blamed for the failure of the larger investigation, or for internal corruption.
There is even more at stake in the Osage case than there seemed to be—Hoover has already had to contain several small fires, and now needs someone solid and measured like White to take control, restore order, and swiftly, quietly bring the case to a close. This pattern of the bureau seeking to cover up its mistakes will have devastating implications as Grann’s book, and his own investigations of the fledgling FBI’s practices, continue to unfold.
Hoover asks White—a veritable “cowboy” familiar with the wild ways of the west—to direct the investigation of the Osage murders. White agrees. Hoover orders White to set out for Oklahoma City and take command of the field office there. White knows the stakes—if he fails, he will certainly be banished to a distant outpost or edged out of the bureau entirely, and, what’s more, several men who have tried to catch the killers have themselves been killed—but nonetheless agrees to undertake the job.
There is a lot on the line as White considers whether he should take the job—and yet he agrees to it, knowing that there is more to gain than there is to lose.