Though the Osage Reign of Terror spanned over ten years and claimed the lives of hundreds, the murders at the core of Grann’s text largely befall one family: that of Mollie Burkhart, an Osage Indian who is forced to reckon with her husband Ernest’s betrayal—and her county’s racism, greed, and corruption—after her mother and three sisters perish over the course of just a couple years. Later in the book, as Grann follows Mollie’s family through to the present day, he uses her descendants’ stories to argue that legacies of pain and trauma are passed down through families, leaving younger generations vulnerable to the feelings of ostracism, anger, and distress visited upon their ancestors.
During the first two-thirds of the book, Grann focuses on Mollie Burkhart and her family in order to demonstrate how Mollie’s generation—and that of her parents—were already under siege at the start of the Reign of Terror, still wrestling with the fallout of the racism, extermination, and forced relocation of earlier Osage generations. Throughout her childhood, Mollie was forced to assimilate into white American culture only to find that as an adult, despite all she had given up in the name of being accepted by white society, she was still shunned, subject to racism, and barred from exercising any agency over her own life or finances. The anxiety Mollie feels about her identity as a member of the Osage tribe reflects the changing times and priorities of many Osage men and women.
As children, people of Mollie’s generation had been forced to adopt white names, practice Catholicism, abandon their native tongue, and dress in Americanized garb rather than their traditional tribal garments—all, Grann suggests, in name of an unspoken promise that assimilation would make life easier and less rife with persecution. Mollie and her sisters grew up to find, though, that their inherited wealth rendered them outcasts in their community anyway due to their white neighbors’ jealousy. Ultimately, in the face of all they’d compromised, they were still treated as pariahs in their own land and would have to make further compromises—including entering into marriages with white men in hopes of gaining some measure of control over their own estates—just to survive.
Grann examines Mollie’s parents’ stories, too, as he explores the role of trauma in family legacy. Over the course of her own lifetime, Mollie’s mother Lizzie’s generation became “dramatically unmoored” from their traditions, and with “nothing familiar to clutch and stay afloat in the world of white man’s wealth.” Whereas Mollie and her sisters Rita, Anna, and Minnie barely knew life before the oil boom, Lizzie, her husband, and their contemporaries saw the oil as a “cursed blessing,” and looked forward to the day when it dried up. Lizzie grew up helping her family with their harvest on their old reservation in Kansas, dressing in traditional clothing each day, and hunting buffalo twice a year—she was subjected to the forced migration of the early 1870s, and witnessed the dwindling of her tribe as disease, famine, and lack of resources (namely bison) winnowed their numbers. Through Lizzie’s story, Grann shows that the backwards trail of trauma is often without end—the traumas Lizzie faced in her lifetime were severe and alienating but were also a continuation of her own parents’ and ancestors’ sufferings. Though she tried to hold onto her tribal culture and traditions, Lizzie could not prepare her own daughters for the unique challenges their generation would face, as they bore the burden of Lizzie’s generation’s suffering in addition to the unpredictable, horrific crimes yet to be perpetrated against their people.
In the book’s final section, set between 2012 and 2015, Grann visits Oklahoma several times to complete additional research for his book, and winds up connecting with the descendants of many of the people whose lives and traumas he spent its earlier pages writing about. As he grows to know these individuals, he comes to recognize the toll their ancestors’ suffering has taken on their present lives, and paints a startling portrait of the dark side of family legacy. When Grann visits the Osage Nation and connects with several members of the tribe, he is shocked to make the acquaintance of Margie Burkhart—Mollie’s granddaughter. As Margie shows Grann around town, pointing out spots important not just to her family’s history but to the history of the region, each place seems marked by pain, sorrow, and death. Grann comes to see that Margie must live each day under the compounded injustices enacted not only against her father, but her grandparents, her great-grandparents, and ancestors stretching back countless generations.
Grann meets with others who are descended from victims of the Reign of Terror. A great-grandson of Henry Roan attests that, for present-day members of the tribe, the violence their parents’ generations (and so many generations that came before) suffered is always “in the back of [their] minds,” and prevents many of them from being able to “trust anybody.” Mary Jo Webb, a retired teacher whose grandfather’s murder didn’t even show up in FBI files—and whose perpetrators were never identified or apprehended—begs Grann to do some more research about her grandfather’s death, and Grann realizes that the wounds of the past have still not healed for Mary Jo and her contemporaries.
As Grann investigates the history the Osage murders, he finds that the suffering of the victims of the Reign of Terror cannot be confined to that small window of time. Grann’s research takes him deeper and deeper through the history of the tribe, while also connecting him to its present—a present in which the descendants of victims and survivors of the period are still forced to reckon with the physical and psychological wounds that are their families’ unhappy legacies.
Family, Legacy, and Trauma ThemeTracker
Family, Legacy, and Trauma Quotes in Killers of the Flower Moon
Lizzie relied on Mollie to deal with the authorities. During Lizzie's lifetime, the Osage had become dramatically unmoored from their traditions. Louis F. Burns, an Osage historian, wrote that after oil was discovered, the tribe had been “set adrift in a strange world,” adding, “There was nothing familiar to clutch and stay afloat in the world of white man's wealth.” In the old days, an Osage clan, which included a group known as the Travelers in the Mist, would take the lead whenever the tribe was undergoing sudden changes or venturing into unfamiliar realms. Mollie, though she often felt bewildered by the upheaval around her took the lead for her family—a modern traveler in the mist. She spoke English and was married to a white man, and she had not succumbed to the temptations that had hurt many young members of the tribe, including Anna. To some Osage, especially elders like Lizzie, oil was a cursed blessing. “Some day this oil will go and there will be no more fat checks every few months from the Great White Father,” a chief of the Osage said in 1928. “There'll be no fine motorcars and new clothes. Then I know my people will be happier.”
White was feeling pressure not just from Hoover. In the short time that White had been on the case, he had seen the lights burning each night around the homes of the Osage, and seen that members of the community wouldn't let their children go into town alone, and seen more and more residents selling their homes and moving to distant states or even other countries like Mexico and Canada. (Later one Osage called it a “diaspora.”) The desperation of the Osage was unmistakable, as was their skepticism toward the investigation. What had the U.S. government done for them? Why did they, unlike other Americans, have to use their own money to fund a Justice Department investigation? Why had nobody been arrested? An Osage chief said, “I made peace with the white man and lay down my arms never to take them up again and now I and my fellow tribesmen must suffer.”
Many people in the gallery gossiped about an Osage woman who was sitting on one of the benches, quiet and alone. It was Mollie Burkhart, cast out from the two worlds that she'd always straddled: whites, loyal to Hale, shunned her, while many Osage ostracized her for bringing the killers among them and for remaining loyal to Ernest. Reporters portrayed her as an “ignorant squaw.” The press hounded her for a statement, but she refused to give one. Later, a reporter snapped her picture, her face defiantly composed, and a “new and exclusive picture of Mollie Burkhart” was transmitted around the world.
There was another dramatic change in Mollie's life. She and the Osage had fought to end the corrupt system of guardianships, and on April 21, 1931, a court ruled that Mollie was no longer a ward of the state: “IT IS FURTHER ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED BY THE COURT, that the said Mollie Burkhart, Osage Allottee No. 285, ... is hereby restored to competency, and the order heretofore made adjudging her to be an incompetent person is hereby vacated.” At forty-four, Mollie could finally spend her money as she pleased, and was recognized as a full-fledged American citizen.
Hoover ensured that the identity of the bureau was indistinguishable from his own. And while presidents came and went, this bureaucrat, now thick around the waist and with jowls like a bulldog, remained. “I looked up and there was J. Edgar Hoover on his balcony, high and distant and quiet, watching with his misty kingdom behind him, going on from President to President and decade to decade,” a reporter for Life magazine wrote. The many details of Hoover's abuses of power would not be made public until after his death, in 1972, and despite White's perceptiveness, he was blind to the boss man's megalomania, his politicization of the bureau, and his paranoid plots against an ever-growing list of perceived enemies, among them American Indian activists.
The most dramatic photograph in the museum spanned an entire side of the room. Taken at a ceremony in 1924, it was a panoramic view of members of the tribe alongside prominent local white businessmen and leaders. As I scanned the picture, I noticed that a section was missing, as if someone had taken a scissors to it. I asked Red Corn what happened to that part of the photograph. “It's too painful to show,” she said.
When I asked why, she pointed to the blank space and said, “The devil was standing right there.”
She disappeared for a moment, then returned with a small, slightly blurred print of the missing panel: it showed William K. Hale, staring coldly at the camera. The Osage had removed his image, not to forget the murders, as most Americans had, but because they cannot forget.
By the time Margie drove on, the prairie was shrouded in the dark of night. Only the beams from the headlights illuminated the dusty road. Margie said that her parents first told her what Ernest and Hale had done when she was a child. “l used to worry whenever I did something naughty, ‘What if I'm the bad seed?’” Margie recalled. She said that occasionally The FBI Story would air on local television, and she and her family would watch it and cry.
As she spoke, I realized that the Reign of Terror had ravaged—still ravaged—
generations. A great-grandson of Henry Roan's once spoke of the legacy of the murders: “I think somewhere it is in the back of our minds. We may not realize it, but it is there, especially if it was a family member that was killed. You just have it in the back of your head that you don't trust anybody.”
Though the bureau estimated that there were twenty-four Osage murders, the real number was undoubtedly higher. The bureau closed its investigation after catching Hale and his henchmen. But at least some at the bureau knew that there were many more homicides that had been systematically covered up, evading their efforts of detection. An agent described, in a report, just one of the ways the killers did this: “ln connection with the mysterious deaths of a large number of Indians, the perpetrators of the crime would get an Indian intoxicated, have a doctor examine him and pronounce him intoxicated, following which a morphine hypodermic would be injected into the Indian, and after the doctor's departure the [killers] would inject an enormous amount of morphine under the armpit of the drunken Indian, which would result in his death. The doctor's certificate would subsequently read ‘death from alcoholic poison.’” Other observers in Osage County noted that suspicious deaths were routinely, and falsely, attributed to “consumption,” “wasting illness,” or “causes unknown.” Scholars and investigators who have since looked into the murders believe that the Osage death toll was in the scores, if not the hundreds.
In cases where perpetrators of crimes against humanity elude justice in their time, history can often provide at least some final accounting, forensically documenting the murders and exposing the transgressors. Yet so many of the murders of the Osage were so well concealed that such an outcome is no longer possible. In most cases, the families of the victims have no sense of resolution. Many descendants carry out their own private investigations, which have no end. They live with doubts, suspecting dead relatives or old family friends or guardians—some of whom might be guilty and some of whom might be innocent.