Chronicle 3: The Reporter, Part 22: Ghostlands—23: A Case Not Closed

22. Ghostlands 

The book’s third section opens onto deserted streets, as Grann explains that many things from the 1920s are now gone. As part of his research into the Osage murders in 2012, Grann stops at the Osage Nation Museum to meet with Kathryn Red Corn, its director. She shows him the exhibitions, which include photographs of the Osage tribe during the 1920s. One picture has a hole in the center where the “devil,” William Hale, had been standing. She shares information about the killings, admitting that the pain is still very real for many. On a next visit to the area, Grann attends the Osage’s ceremonial dances, or I’n-Lon-Schka. Grann plans to meet Margie Burkhart, Mollie and Ernest’s granddaughter, at one. The daughter of James “Cowboy” Burkhart, Margie shares her father’s fond memories of his mother. 

Cowboy’s memories of Ernest are less happy. Margie explains that after his release from prison in 1937, Ernest returned to Osage County. When he is jailed again for robbing an Osage home, he is barred from returning to Oklahoma. In 1947, after serving only 20 years, Hale is released. He was paroled because of his age (72) and because he had been a well-behaved prisoner. When Ernest is again let out, he requests a pardon from Oklahoma. Despite public outcry, his request is granted, and Ernest returns to Osage County. His presence upsets his children, making them outcasts from the tribe. After Ernest dies in 1986, Cowboy ignores his father’s wish to spread his ashes around the county, instead throwing them off a bridge. 

During Margie’s childhood, the oil money dried up and times were tight. But new sources of revenue emerged, including casinos and monies the federal government has been forced to pay back to the tribe. As Margie drives Grann across the prairie, she points out where Anna was shot. She also shares that Mollie and her children were supposed to be at Rita and Bill’s house the night of the explosion. They stayed home because Cowboy had an earache. Her father had grown up with the knowledge that his own father tried to kill him. 

23. A Case Not Closed 

Grann’s research reveals gaps in the bureau’s investigation, and he wonders if Hale was responsible for all the deaths during the Reign of Terror. He sees no evidence that Hale’s henchmen killed either McBride or Vaughan, for example. Pursuing the Vaughan case, Grann meets with Martha Vaughan and Melville Vaughan, who has binders of information on Vaughan’s death. Hale was already behind bars at the time Vaughan was killed; though, Martha and Melville believe he wanted Vaughan dead. They suggest Grann look into H. G. Burt, the bank president, who had embezzled money from Rosa.  

Grann visits the U.S. National Archives in Texas to research Burt. He already has uncovered Rosa’s 1923 suit against Burt for $10,000, which is initially dismissed (Rosa eventually wins $5,000). He now finds connections between Vaughan, Burt, and George Bigheart. At the National Archives and other places, Grann discovered Burt made loans to the Osage at extortionate rates, and that he engaged in insurance fraud and other illegal financial transactions. Burt used a legal method—guardianship—to defraud tribal members. Grann learns that Burt was the guardian for Bigheart’s daughter, thus gaining access to her father’s fortune. Before he leaves the Archives, Grann finds one final piece of evidence. A secret informant told a member of the Bureau of Investigation that Burt was responsible for Vaughan’s murder. With this and other evidence, he calls Martha to share the news that he has probably solved her grandfather’s murder. She cries but is grateful for the closure. 


The third section, or chronicle, of the book shifts to the twenty-first century. Where the previous sections unfold a historical narrative, here David Grann foregrounds his skills as a journalist as he continues to investigate the unsolved crimes. The structure of the prose changes, too, as Grann shifts to first-person narration to share his conversations with members of the Osage nation and his work in the National Archives, searching for clues. This formal choice makes sense—unlike White, Grann is not a member of a team—but also suggests different temperaments and priorities. When White tried (unsuccessfully) to write a history of the Osage case, he had wanted to keep himself out of the spotlight, to limit “the big ‘I’” he says, in order to stress that he was not the center of the tale. The third chronicle places Grann at the center, heroically and laboriously sorting through historical records to provide answers to grieving descendants of victims, a narrative choice that calls into question whether he presents himself as a “big ‘I’” or not. 

Unlike the previous sections, this one highlights traditional Osage culture. Grann visits the tribe’s museum, where its history is on display, and attends a traditional dance, which attracts tribal members who live far away. Although some crucial changes have been introduced to the I’n-Lon-Schka, or ceremonial dances—women are now included, for example—the dances rely on established steps, costumes, and drumming and thus provide an important connection between past and present. Grann notes that most in attendance watch them with reverence and honor. By sharing this experience as a tribal community, the Osage weave enduring bonds with one another, even as their lives take new directions. Many of the places where they lived, and suffered, during the Reign of Terror are now abandoned, and efforts much be made to protect their heritage from similarly disappearing. 

If Tom White’s chief antagonist was William Hale, David Grann finds his in H. G. Burt. The bank president had not figured prominently in the Bureau’s investigation in the 1920s, despite evidence that he was likely involved in the conspiracy, and Grann determines that he must have been actively working against the Osage unimpeded across the decade, given that there were unsolved crimes which occurred after Hale was imprisoned. Like Hale, Burt was a man who believed himself to be untouchable but, unlike Hale, this illusion seems never to have been shattered. Guardianship is consistently related to the crimes against the Osage but, when the investigative focus shifts to Burt, it becomes an ever more important concern. As a bank president, he used financial institutions against the Native Americans, even if his practices were more like a loan shark than a staid bank official. Where the first two sections center Mollie Burkhart’s family, the shift to Burt’s crimes draws attention to other victims, including George Bigheart and W. W. Vaughan. This expanded interest helps to make clear for readers how many people were affected by the crimes. 

Nor did those affected only live in the first half of the twentieth century. As Grann talks to the grandchildren and great-grandchild of the victims, he learns that they too suffer from what happened. Historical trauma has been passed down to them as an inability to trust or a feeling of fundamental insecurity. Grann also gains access to personal memories of important figures, especially Mollie and Ernest Burkhart. Their granddaughter, Margie, shares her father Cowboy’s fond recollections of his mother, especially how she lovingly soothed him when he had an earache. His feelings for his father were less warm, however. After his release from prison, Ernest fought to return to Osage County, causing pain to his family yet again. Like Hale, he seemed unable to realize the damage he had done and approached the community as one on which he had a claim. In this way, then, Ernest shows that the white entitlement which was part of the motivation for the crimes persisted even after decades in prison. In a fitting repudiation of his father’s wishes that his ashes be spread around Osage County, Cowboy drops them, still in an urn, off a bridge to be swept away and out of memory.