Chronicle 2: The Evidence Man, Part 8: Department of Easy Virtue—9: Undercover Cowboys

8. Department of Easy Virtue 

In the summer of 1925, special agent Tom White receives a summons from J. Edgar Hoover to come to Washington, D.C. Before joining the Bureau of Investigation, White had been a railroad detective and a Texas Ranger, so he differed from many of the agents in the Bureau, who Hoover insisted were to carry themselves like lawyers or professionals. Even though Bureau agents were not permitted to carry weapons—they were only empowered to gather facts—White sometimes disregarded this rule.  

At the time, the Bureau’s reputation was mired with accusations of cronyism, scandal, and deception. The private investigator, William Burns, was named director in 1921, and his loose practices created a department known for corruption. A congressional committee exposed its lax principles, as well as rot in the Department of Justice, through an inquiry into the Teapot Dome Scandal. In the summer of 1924, a new attorney general, Harlan Fiske Stone, was selected, who in turn hired Hoover to serve as acting director. Hoover hid his own wrongdoings as he reformed the Bureau and in December 1924 he was promoted to director. He would hold this post for nearly five decades. 

Hoover had already trusted White with an important assignment—undercover work in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta—and he puts him in charge of the Osage case. This was not the first time the Bureau had been involved. In 1923, Burns sent agents to Oklahoma, an investigation the Osage had to finance in part. They bungled everything, even losing an informant, Blackie Thompson, who was released from prison to help them. The failure threatened to become yet another stain on the Bureau. Hoover makes clear to White that he must succeed. 

9. The Undercover Cowboys 

White takes charge of the Oklahoma City field office in July 1925 and reviews the massive files on the killings. He is horrified and is surprised that Mollie has not been interviewed by agents. One important detail emerges: the killings do not follow a single pattern. White concludes that the plot’s mastermind relied on henchmen to carry out his orders. Previous investigations failed because of an excess of information, rather than its absence. His most important principle going forward is to separate hearsay from provable facts. Next White assembles his team of agents. He decides that all of them must be from the Cowboys, men with experience in the West. The team includes a former sheriff and ranger, a deep-cover operative, John Burger, Frank Smith, and John Wren. Some agents work undercover, but others, like Burger and Smith, form part of White’s own retinue. They all set to work. 


Tom White, the book’s most heroic figure, is the central protagonist of the middle section. His abilities as a detective and his rigorous moral sense together forward the Osage investigation and organize an examination of how the Department of Justice had become known as the “Department of Easy Virtue,” a phrase that serves as a chapter title as well. According to White, a culture of corruption makes it easy for a good person to become a bad one, just by slipping over an imperceptible line. Admirable personal qualities, pushed too far, can transform into faults, a process that a culture of corruption accelerates. The selection of William Burns, a private eye known for ignoring the law, as the Bureau’s chief in 1921 associated the Department of Justice with injustice and with an ethos that prioritized ends over means. 

The narrative arc of the middle section, and of detective narratives in general, falls on the protagonist’s search for his antagonist. White and his team of skilled agents know what the antagonist (or, in the Osage case, antagonists) have done but must figure out that person’s (or persons’) identity. Because there is no discernable pattern to the crimes, but for the fact that they target members of the Osage nation or white people who seek to help them, the task facing the Bureau agents is complex. White’s insistence that the only way forward is by identifying verifiable facts not only responds to the conspiratorial web that has made it hard to trust anything, including one’s own perception, but also the public perception that the Department of Easy Virtue prioritizes quick results over truth or justice. Even if White is willing to bend one Bureau regulation, the prohibition on agents carrying weapons, he instills in his team the importance of maintaining the highest possible standards when investigating these crimes. Given the widespread perception that Osage County had become lawless, White’s hesitation to use violence, even if he wants his agents to be able to protect themselves, is also an important part of his strategy for creating the conditions to solve the case.  

The team White assembles does not reflect the personnel preferences that Hoover established as part of his effort to modernize the Bureau of Investigation and improve its reputation. While Hoover prefers college-educated, professional investigators, White’s team is comprised mainly of people with experience on the former frontier. He chooses agents who will be able to work undercover in both the white and the Native American communities, as well as a small team who will publicly assist him in his own efforts. He thus creates a kind of conspiracy to expose the murderous conspiracy. In so doing, though, he runs the risk of creating the conditions for the good men on his team to become bad ones. Indeed, it turns out that one of the informants they recruit is providing information to the criminal conspiracy. None of White’s agents become corrupted in Osage County but throughout the section, there is a persistent and potent possibility an agent will be swayed in their pursuit of justice.