Chronicle 1, Part 6: Million Dollar Elm—7: This Thing of Darkness 

6. This Thing of Darkness

Starting in 1912, oil barons gathered in Osage County to bid on oil leases. Sometimes they met outdoors, under a tree called the Million Dollar Elm because of the sums of money involved. Reporters shared these events with readers around the country. Near and far, many expressed concerns about the Osage’s increasing wealth, particularly as journalists filled their stories with descriptions of lavish spending and waste.  

Although competence was the official measure for who needed a guardian, the actual determination was racial. Mixed-race people seldom had guardians, but Native Americans without white ancestors, or white spouses, usually did. In 1921, the government changed the rules again, insisting that Osage people with guardians be “restricted,” meaning they could only spend a few thousand dollars per year, no matter how much was being held in trust for them. Abuse of guardianships was rampant, as were other ways of preying on the Osage. White merchants inflated their prices, while fortune hunters, male and female alike, tried to lure members of the tribe into marriage. 

7. This Thing of Darkness 

In February 1923, the body of Henry Roan, an Osage man, is discovered in his Buick. He had been shot in the head. The community realizes that the killings have not stopped as many had hoped. Roan, who claimed Hale as a close friend, had contacted him a few weeks prior to his murder, upset that his wife was cheating. Hale lent him money, and Roan named him as the beneficiary of a life insurance policy. The community mourns Henry and Mollie worries that their youthful Osage marriage might become common knowledge.  

Terror grips the Osage community. Many add security to their homes, hanging lights or getting a dog. Anna’s family continues to search for her killer. Bill Smith insists he is making headway, but he and Rita decide to move into the center of town and get a dog, hoping for safety. But in March, dogs in their neighborhood begin to die, likely from poison. Bill tells a friend he expects to be killed. On March 9, 1923, after Bill, Rita, and Nettie Brookshire, a servant, have gone to bed, their home explodes violently. Rita and Nettie die in the blast, but Bill is found alive in the wreckage. He dies two weeks later. 

The governor of Oklahoma sends an investigator, Herman Fox Davis, to Osage County in April 1923, but in June of the same year he pleads guilty to accepting bribes. The death of W. W. Vaughan, a white attorney, underscores how corrupt and deadly the situation has become. Vaughan assists the private investigators and responds without hesitation when George Bigheart calls him to his deathbed. Bigheart shares crucial evidence with Vaughan about the murders but, before he can disseminate it, Vaughan disappears. His body is found, but the papers Bigheart gave him and the funds he left for his wife are gone. 

The Osage urge the federal government to get involved to end this Reign of Terror, which had already claimed at least twenty-four tribal members. Palmer contacts Charles Curtis, U.S. Senator from Kansas, who had Native American ancestry, asking him to intervene. As the chapter ends, Grann returns to Mollie, wondering how all these deaths might have made her feel. In 1925, she confides to a local priest that she believes her life is in danger.  


These chapters juxtapose white wealth, in the form of millionaires bidding on oil leases, with the terrorized members of the Osage nation. Both are related to the discovery of oil, which has truly become an angel of death for the tribe. Stories of “rich Indians” fill the period’s newspapers, presenting the Osage as profligate spendthrifts who do not deserve the wealth that has come their way. While racism is an obvious feature of these accounts, they also play with established American assumptions about the role of work in establishing moral worth. Because the Osage were merely lucky in moving to land with oil, they could be easily represented as undeserving of the riches. This interpretation obviously overlooks certain basics fact, including that the Osage were forced off their extensive territory by the arrival of white settlers. But cultural myths often prefer fictions to facts and the correlation of merit with labor is a basic component of the story of the self-made man, the narrative associated with William Hale, as well as a way to differentiate democratic excellence from aristocratic decadence. The Osage were thus, paradoxically, simultaneously lazy “savages” (who did not deserve their money) and profligate aristocrats (who did not belong in the United States). They simply could not win. 

The use of the phrase Reign of Terror to describe this period draws on a historical reference—the French Revolution—to convey the seemingly arbitrary nature of the violence the Osage endure. While this reference might seem too specific, it is important to recognize the extent to which the killings were intended to challenge an existing social order. That the Osage did not have the power of the French aristocracy is obvious, no matter how much wealth they commanded, but here too myth is more important than historical fact. Indeed, this is one of the key interventions that Grann makes across the book—making clear how often myth, whether it is the story of the Wild West or a belief in the self-made man, can be more powerful than historical fact. Yet, it is only by returning, as Tom White will do in the book’s middle section, to fact that myth or conjecture or conspiracy can be finally curtailed and contained. 

Even as violence spreads around through the community, Mollie’s family remains a key target and, when her last remaining sibling is murdered in a house explosion, she alone remains and, as Grann speculates, wonders how long she might expect to live. Although she is a comparatively vivid character, the series of murders paradoxically distances Mollie from readers, isolated by grief and prevented by loss from the engagements with other people that had enabled her initial characterization. The only close relationship that remains is her nuclear family, Ernest and their three children, although she sends the baby, Anna, away to protect her from both danger and sadness. Now enclosed in this family unit, it is difficult to access Mollie—and Grann protects her solitude and dignity by limiting the reader’s access to her.  

Henry Roan’s murder does, however, introduce one further dimension of Mollie’s character. As a young girl, she had been briefly married to Roan and she worries that Ernest might learn of this relationship, which she has concealed from him. The Roan murder is important, as well, for what the prominence it grants to William Hale, who is so close to Henry that he is a pallbearer at the funeral. The murders may seem strike anywhere, but the ties that bind these people together are a complex web that seems to have caught everyone in its grip.