With its great black wings of spray, arcing above the rigging, it rose before them like an angel of death. The spray coated the fields and the flowers and smeared the faces of the workers and the spectators.

This passage from the book’s fourth chapter vividly describes the discovery of oil under Osage land. The oil’s “wings” initially seem to be like a bird taking flight, a natural association that links the discovery to Native American culture. Even before the end of the sentence, their association shifts to a Western construct—an angel of death. As the oil covers the land and the faces of the gathered people, it changes how things look, dirtying everything. Although the oil will bring the Osage prosperity, it also attracts unscrupulous and violent people, willing to kill countless members of the community to steal the wealth gleaned from this natural boon. At the same time, the oil also facilitates the Osage’s embrace of American customs and habits, accomplishing through wealth what the federal government had previously failed to provide through schools, laws, and other administrative mechanisms.

Under the headline OLD WILD WEST STILL LIVES IN LAND OF OSAGE MURDERS, a wire service sent out a nationwide bulletin that the story, "however depressing, is nevertheless blown through with a breath of the romantic devil-may-care frontier West that we thought was gone. And it is an amazing story, too. So amazing that at first you wonder if it can possibly have happened in modern, twentieth-century America."

This passage from the book’s fifth chapter juxtaposes the legend of the wild west to its history. The frontier myth played an important part in the creation of American ideals, supporting the development of American individualism and the associated idea of boundless opportunity. The 1890s announcement that the U.S. frontier had closed caused many to worry about what this would mean for white Americans. Few paused to consider what its closure meant for the Native Americans living in the west. The headline’s celebration of the nation’s legend similarly breezes past the trauma of the Osage population as it lauds the romantic thrills white Americans might experience from the story of the murders.

Further, although the Osage murders are historical facts, they are presented like fictions from bygone days, inconsistent with twentieth-century culture. In stressing how incredible it is that these murders took place in “modern” America, the passage reflects a regular feature of how white Americans described the lives and cultures of Native Americans as non-modern or primitive. Across much of American history, and to the individuals in the book, this way of talking about Native American culture justified appropriation and exploitation of Native peoples and their land.

History is a merciless judge. It lays bare our tragic blunders and foolish missteps and exposes our most intimate secrets, wielding the power of hindsight like an arrogant detective who seems to know the end of the mystery from the outset.

This passage from the book’s final section personifies history. As a judge, history can render judgment to the criminal and the foolish without mercy, revealing events or decisions that a person might hope would forever remain hidden. The guilty are as liable to be exposed as the innocent, the passage suggests. While readers are surely happy that the people behind the conspiracy can no longer hide their criminal deeds, it is nonetheless true that the innocent might also be revealed. Anna Brown’s secrets are, for example, as exposed as are William Hale’s, but she did nothing wrong. There is a cautionary reminder in the passage as well. Hindsight makes decisions appear simple, but its luxuries are not available to any of us in those moments when important decisions are made. In the reference to the “arrogant detective,” Grann encourages readers to approach the history and its implications with some humility, remembering to differentiate the guilty perpetrators from the innocent victims when interpreting their actions.