Case Closed

How Dallas police detective Shari Degan solved the grisly murder that rocked Dallas--in 1913

All that remained was a grotesque amount of blood on the bathroom floor and a small gold ring belonging to Brown that had been stepped on and crushed during the struggle. In an adjacent office was a blood-soaked button, apparently torn from a man's shirt.

No murder weapon was found.

Most odd, however, was indication that someone had used a nearby sink to clean up following the murder. Speculation soon grew that the killer might even have taken time to change clothes before walking out into the busy morning foot traffic on Field Street. Or--and this seemed even more bizarre--the person responsible for the crime had stolen a page from the infamous Lizzie Borden case, committing the murder in the nude in a premeditated effort to keep blood from being transferred to any clothing.

DPD Detective Shari Degan believes she has solved the 1913 murder of Florence Brown. Here Degan, current president of the Dallas Genealogy Society, poses by the Brown grave site in Oakland Cemetery.
DPD Detective Shari Degan believes she has solved the 1913 murder of Florence Brown. Here Degan, current president of the Dallas Genealogy Society, poses by the Brown grave site in Oakland Cemetery.

Whatever the scenario, it was clear that the killer had somehow managed to walk unnoticed from the crime scene into the morning bustle of people hurrying to get to work.

A neighboring businessman did come forward to say that only minutes before Brown's body was discovered he had been walking along Field and saw a man he did not know inside the Robinson-Styron office. "He was standing by a little telephone table in the main office," the witness said. The man he described to police was clean-shaven, wearing light-colored trousers, a dark coat and a straw hat. Authorities later determined that the "sighting" he described had occurred some time after Brown's body had been discovered. It was later determined that the man he described was, in fact, Detective Tanner.

Even before Brown's body was taken away by a funeral home wagon, word of the ghastly crime had spread through the business district, and a large crowd gathered outside the Robinson-Styron office, chanting for vengeance. With great difficulty, police finally managed to disperse it and seal off the entire block.

"The whole affair," wrote The Daily Times Herald in the 2-cents-a-copy extra edition it quickly published, "is as deep a mystery as Poe's murders of the Rue Morgue."

During a later examination of the body at the funeral home, coroner J.T. Watson found deep bite wounds on Miss Brown's right wrist and elbow and made wax impressions of the teeth marks. "They can," he told reporters, "be used to make a comparison to the teeth of the killer once he is apprehended." It was significant, the doctor added, that the person leaving the mark on Brown's wrist was missing a tooth in the front of the upper jaw.

The wound to the neck, Dr. Watson ruled, was clearly the cause of death. "It must have been inflicted by a very powerful man," he added.

At first glance, Detective Degan would seem an unlikely candidate to explore Dallas' ancient history. Raised in Detroit, she aspired to join the police force there, but after learning they weren't hiring and that Dallas was, she headed south. In 1985, Degan was a nominee for rookie of the year. Two years later she moved into the department's evidence division and in '97 became the first female winner of the DPD's officer of the year award.

And, with three children finally grown and away from home, she found time for a new hobby. "A friend of mine introduced me to genealogy about five years ago," she says. Soon she joined the Dallas Genealogy Society, never dreaming that her vocation and avocation would dovetail into a murder investigation.

For weeks last summer, Detective Degan's free time--lunch hours, after work and weekends--was spent in the library, lost in the fascinating accounts she had discovered. Reading, re-reading, making notes, she searched for the most minute detail that might point to an overlooked suspect, sharing information from her quest only with her husband, John, a Dallas police sergeant.

"I had no idea where I was going with it," she confides, "but it was a great murder mystery. The more I read, the more hooked I became."

She found that in the days following Brown's death, a number of local vagrants and "suspicious-looking individuals" were arrested, questioned and quickly released. The alibi of Cuthbertson, the last man to see the victim alive, was checked, and several workers at the courthouse and City Hall assured authorities that he had been there at the time of the murder.

As the investigation proceeded, it was learned that Miss Brown dated occasionally but had no steady boyfriend who might be viewed as a suspect. Her most serious relationship, in fact, seemed to be with a young man who lived out of state. Searching her room, police found a dozen or more letters she'd received from him during a period of several months. It was quickly determined, however, that he had not been in Dallas in months, certainly not at the time of the crime. Old friends from her high school days in Garland were questioned, and none could think of an enemy she might have made.

Investigators, meanwhile, lacked the most essential indicator of why such a crime had occurred--motive. Nothing had been taken from the realty office, ruling out robbery. A check of Brown's bank account revealed a modest balance. A check of records to see if a disgruntled client might have scheduled an early-morning appointment that Monday was fruitless.

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I have new information about this case. I discovered this case while investigating a 1917 case in El Paso.  I have written a book about it all, Last Train to El Paso--the mysterious unsolved murder of a cattle baron, (OU Press, in process).