Case Closed

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

In time, the kooks came out. Several letters arrived at the police department, their authors claiming responsibility for the crime. "I am still in Dallas," one wrote. "Yesterday, I rubbed elbows with your chief. You had better be careful." Others wrote to offer wild theories and suggest suspects.

One of the most puzzling reports came from a doctor working in the emergency room of a Dallas hospital on the morning of the murder. He told police that he had received a telephone call at approximately 8:30 a.m. on the day of the crime from someone wanting to know if "you've got a woman there whose throat has been cut." The call had come before Brown's body was discovered.

Soon calls began arriving from law enforcement agencies throughout the state--San Antonio, Waco, Brownwood, Mt. Pleasant, McKinney--advising that they had suspects in custody and expressing their willingness to join the investigation. In Montague County, the sheriff had arrested a young man who had done nothing more sinister than purchase a new suit of clothing, assuming he was doing so to replace blood-stained pants and shirt. An East Dallas barber called to say a man had entered his shop wearing blood-stained clothes and had used his rest room to change. A woman phoned police from Oak Lawn to say that a black man had appeared at her door offering to mow her yard. What she reported as blood on his pants turned out to be red paint. A farmer called in to say a "suspicious-looking" man was seen walking along a country road. He was arrested, and the buttons on the tattered shirt he was wearing were compared to the one found at the crime scene. They didn't match. Nothing did, as every new tip proved worthless.

Dallas in 1913, looking west from Field Street. It was on this street where Florence Brown was murdered as she began her workday as a realty company stenographer.
Dallas in 1913, looking west from Field Street. It was on this street where Florence Brown was murdered as she began her workday as a realty company stenographer.
Dallas in 1913, looking west from Field Street. It was on this street where Florence Brown was murdered as she began her workday as a realty company stenographer.
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Dallas in 1913, looking west from Field Street. It was on this street where Florence Brown was murdered as she began her workday as a realty company stenographer.

Predictably came the unfounded rumors: The bloody knife had been found. Police had made an arrest and had a man in custody who had provided a full confession before being taken to a jail in another county for protection against vigilantes.

The hysteria was overwhelming even before a block letter headline asked, "IS A MANIAC AT LARGE?"

Among the few calm voices was that of Miss Brown's mother, who was asked by a reporter if she hoped to see her daughter's murderer put to death once apprehended. Demonstrating that the death penalty was a volatile issue even then, she surprised many when she said no. "I don't want more killing. I just want him put away in the penitentiary where he will not bother anyone else."


By the time Brown's funeral was conducted--McKinney Avenue Baptist was filled to its 600-person capacity, and an estimated 200 stood outside--the reward fund had grown to more than $1,100, or nearly $20,000 in today's dollars. Private detectives from all over the state were arriving in hopes of claiming it. Investigators from the legendary Burns Detective Agency were hired to assist the Dallas police and sheriff's department on the case.

"We are absolutely up in the air as to who committed the murder of Miss Brown," Dallas County Sheriff B.F. Brandenburg finally admitted to the press. "All clues we have been working have played out." At a similar news conference, police Chief Ryan echoed the sheriff's frustration: "We have done everything that could be done. We've run down the most absurd rumors and supposed clues. We have established no motive, found no weapon, suspect nobody and are utterly at sea. We are trying hard not to be discouraged, and we will not give up."

In time, however, they apparently did. Abruptly, Detective Degan found, the news reports ended. It was as if the tragedy of Florence Brown had been played for all it might be worth, then abandoned.

Appropriate, as she, too, had come to a dead end. But she had a theory, a suspicion she could not shake. Finally, she went to a co-worker, Detective Dennis Williams, a veteran crime-scene analyst, for help.

"I'd never heard of the case," he says, "but as she outlined it to me, I found it fascinating." Degan asked if he might review the material she had collected and suggest a profile of the murderer.

"Back when this crime occurred," Williams says, "there was very little forensic expertise. As far as I know, fingerprinting hadn't even made its way to Texas. From the reports, the crime scene was an investigator's nightmare. I found it hard to believe that the body had been removed even before the police arrived. It was pretty clear that aside from the button they found, there was no real evidence."

Certainly, there was no such technique as "profiling" at the time.

Detective Williams points to one of the brief news reports as an example of the archaic nature of crime investigation in the early teens:

"Chief of Detectives Henry Tanner," it read, "in company with a Dallas photographer, visited the Weiland Undertaking establishment shortly before noon Wednesday. According to reports, he was planning to secure a picture of the eyes of Florence Brown.

"In some instance, it is said, a likeness of the slayer has been found reflected in the eyes of murdered people. The officer and the photographer examined the eyes of the corpse but determined the experiment was impractical."

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1 comments
lobdillj
lobdillj

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).

 
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