With the wealth of the Osage, there was a systematic exploitation of them, both by whites grossly overcharging for goods and services and the government denying many Osage of the ability to control their money. The Office of Indian Affairs could determine whether a particular member of the tribe capable of handling their funds, and if not, guardians, usually prominent whites, would do it. Full blooded Osage Indians were almost always declared unfit to handle their money and had guardians appointed over them, which led to the murders of tribe members as guardians would consolidate power over the headright funds and get at the money.
The book begins with the murder by gunshot of Anna Burkhart in May 1921, notes how her sister Minnie had died from an unexplained illness three years prior, and not long after Anna’s death, mother Lizzie, and other sister Rita died, with Rita’s death coming from her house being blown up along with husband Bill Smith and their servant Nettie Brookshire. There were other murders as well around this time, with the methods including additional fatal gunshots, poisonings, and someone found dead after being thrown from a train. Following the house bombing, the Osage saw that local law enforcement seemed uninterested, if not complicit, in the crimes and urged the Federal Government to investigate what would become known as the Osage Reign of Terror.
The second section of the book details FBI involvement in the case, coinciding with the rise of J. Edgar Hoover, who was newly in charge of the Bureau of Investigation in 1925 and dispatched agent Tom White to investigate the murders. White and his team built a case for the house bombing against Mollie Burkhart’s husband, a white man named Ernest Burkhart, and his uncle, the prominent cattleman William K. Hale, seen as a friend of the Osage and well connected politically. Headrights got passed along by inheritance and Mollie's family being targeted meant everything was getting passed to her, with the money then controlled by Ernest and Hale.
While the first parts of the book interesting, the third takes it to a different level with how it reveals the government stating the murders solved, declaring victory, and moving on, when killers very much remained free. The section switches to first person writing by Grann, with him finding the murder of W.W. Vaughn likely committed by H.G. Burt, a businessman and confidant of Hale's. Additionally, government accounts of the Reign of Terror have it from 1921 to 1926 and all about Hale, but Grann found cases of Osage being killed for their headrights as early as 1918 and late as 1931, while Hale in jail. The Bureau estimated 24 murders, but the number likely much higher and the death rates were particular high for Osage who had guardians in control of the wealth of more than one in the tribe. It was a much bigger story than Hoover wanted told and the book's ending includes a quote from an elderly current Osage with "this land is saturated with blood."