Chronicle 2, Part 13: A Hangman's Son—14: Dying Words

13. A Hangman’s Son 

This chapter looks back at Tom White’s life. Tom’s father, Robert Emmett White, moved to Texas from Tennessee in 1870. He married Maggie, Tom’s mother, four years later. Together they had five children (Tom was the third). Maggie died in childbirth when Tom was six. Known for his integrity, Robert was elected sheriff of Travis County. The family moved inside the County’s fortress-like jail, and the children were exposed to the rituals of law, crime, and punishment. Tom remembered that his father’s manner never changed, regardless of whether a prisoner was white or Black. Robert was adamantly opposed to lynching, an ugly part of late nineteenth-century culture that Tom witnessed because of his father’s job. When Tom was 12, he saw his father inflict the death penalty on a man convicted of rape. From this and other experiences, Tom developed an opposition to “judicial homicide.” Exposure to the inmates raised questions for Tom about morality that he would spend his life trying to answer.  

As a young man, Tom joined the Texas Rangers, as did his brothers, Dudley and Doc. The fourth brother, Coley, became the sheriff of Travis County, like Robert. While a Ranger, Tom met his future wife, Bessie Patterson. The life of a Ranger was ill-suited to marriage and, after his close friend died on the job, Tom quit so he could marry Bessie. They settled in San Antonio, and Tom became a railroad detective. The couple had two sons. In 1917, Tom joined the Bureau of Investigation, drawn to a more active life, but the death of his brother Dudley in 1918 shook him deeply.  

14. Dying Words 

In September 1925, White investigated what knowledge Bill Smith may have possessed that could have led to his murder. Agents questioned the hospital’s duty nurse when Bill was admitted, and she said that he often muttered names in his sleep but that she couldn’t understand him. Before Bill’s death, she remembered that he met with the Shoun brothers, both doctors, and his lawyer. The nurse was asked to leave. The missing bullet from Anna’s case had already raised White’s suspicions about the Shouns, so he interviews them. They swear that Bill never identified his killer. Bill’s lawyer concurs, but he adds that Bill admits he has only two enemies: Ernest, his brother, and Hale, his uncle. The Shouns corroborate this information. Not long after, the nurse is called to Byran’s house where Hale asks her if Bill Smith ever named his killer. 

White learns that during the hospital meeting with Bill, James Shoun was named executor of Rita’s valuable estate. Prosecutors question the Shouns about Bill’s lucidity at the time that he signed these legal papers. White realizes that corruption is a feature of these inter-related cases at every level. Guardianship, sometimes called the “Indian business,” provided ample opportunities for theft and embezzlement. Many of the schemes were as lethal as they were brazen. The Osage were fully aware of them but had little power to stop them. They knew that their wealth lured unscrupulous white men (and women) with better access to government bureaucracies and the levers of power. 


Grann introduces a pause into this section, after White identifies his main antagonist, by turning back to his youth and detailing how he became the man he did. Choosing this moment to provide this important contextual information introduces, but more importantly, extends the suspense that has been carefully established as White identifies his target. Tom’s organizing moral principles, most especially his understanding of the law’s role in controlling the passions, sets up a potent contrast with Hale, a man who allows his greed to overwhelm all his better impulses. Readers can thus better compare White, a man who spends his life committed to justice and protecting a community, to Hale, a man dedicated to his own success and flourishing. While the book never questions the value of hard work—White’s father moved west to make a better life for himself and his family—it does underscore the ease with which determination can yield to corruption, both in Hale and Hoover. 

This concern is examined further in the discussion of the “Indian business.” Although Hale may be White’s antagonist, the criminal conspiracy, White learns, includes all the prominent members of the community. They prey systematically on the Osage, and using various bureaucracies—legal, financial, governmental—as weapons against the Native Americans. Fueled by racism and greed and supported by their easy access to the levers of power, theirs is also a class war, in which they prevent people with new access to money from being able to use this wealth to better their station or achieve more social or political prominence. The Osage are expected to pay more for what they buy or borrow. In the book’s most searing example, an Osage funeral is said to cost many thousands of dollars more than the comparable funeral for a white person. If headrights are the basis of the Osage wealth, guardianship arrangements are the way that white elites siphon this wealth away from the Native Americans.  

When the narrative jumps back to 1925, it centers White’s increasing focus on Bill Smith—what he might have known and how his lingering death after the explosion complicated plans—and reveals the criminal complicity of the region’s doctors, James and David Shoun. Even though doctors vow to do no harm when they take the Hippocratic Oath, the Shouns work for their own selfish reasons, not the health or well-being of their patients. In Smith’s case, they manipulate his dying moments in order to swindle his family of Rita’s headrights. Smith is a complicated figure—he sometimes hits Rita and was previously married to her sister, Minnie—but is nonetheless not involved in the crimes. Indeed, he is the first to suspect that Lizzie might have been murdered, too. Being a white man does not protect Smith from harm, but it does mean the Shouns must proceed differently. The doctors do provide an important piece of information to the investigation, though, when they admit that Smith named his two main enemies: William Hale and Ernest Burkhart, his brother-in-law. In terms of the narrative, the shift to the Shouns’ role in the Smith case, as with the material about White’s childhood, prolongs the reader’s suspense and delays the key confrontation with Hale.