"The murderer of Miss Florence Brown may be caught within the next five minutes, he may be arrested during the next six months; he may never be deprived of his liberty..."
--The Daily Times Herald, 1913
The cemetery caretaker was at first reluctant, concerned about the disturbance he feared the curious intruders might bring. Members of the Dallas Genealogy Society had decided to make his longtime workplace a project, recording each of its 30,000 burial sites. Only after considerable urging did Harold Williams begrudgingly resign himself to their presence and agree to serve as guide through the second oldest graveyard in Dallas.
Here, he pointed out, is where the brother of John Wilkes Booth is buried. Over there are relatives of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Impatiently, he directed them to the final resting places of former Dallas mayors and the socially prominent, Confederate officers, vaudeville luminaries and even a few high-ranking members of the Ku Klux Klan. He pointed out that just beyond the eastern fence line, in an area now known as Opportunity Park, was the final resting place of slaves. Back in a far corner is the pet cemetery where once-beloved dogs and cats, even a horse and a chimpanzee, are buried.
Oakland Cemetery, established in 1891 and hidden away off Malcolm X Boulevard in East Dallas, is fertile ground for those in search of the city's history. Yet it was only when Williams learned that among the women visitors was a Dallas police officer that his own interest bloomed. He bided his time, waiting until she had distanced herself from the others, then approached her. "There is a grave site I think you might find of interest," he finally whispered. And then, without another word, he led the way to an overgrown spot in the center of the historic cemetery.
Stopping in the shade of an ancient oak, he pointed to a small, blue granite headstone and remained silent while the officer read its inscription:
Daughter of J.R. & R.A. Brown
Born July 5, 1881
Died July 28, 1913
"Faithful to Her Truth Even Unto Death"
"She was murdered," the caretaker said. "From what I've heard, it was an awful crime. Her throat was slashed. It happened in downtown Dallas in broad daylight." Then, as though pausing for effect, he waited a few beats before delivering a tantalizing punch lline: "The case has never been solved."
Now, a year after being led to the modest grave of Florence Brown, once a 32-year-old stenographer and daughter of a Dallas police officer, Detective Shari Degan, 38, is convinced that she knows who killed her.
Williams' six simple words would send Degan, a 17-year DPD veteran detective and current president of the Dallas Genealogy Society, on a yearlong journey. When not tending her responsibilities as a latent-print examiner, Degan researched the long-forgotten homicide. It was, she found, a case so horrific that local newspapers published "extras" on the day of the crime--"DALLAS WOMAN IS MURDERED," screamed The Daily Times Herald headline. As well, lynch mobs gathered in hopes the killer was quickly found, and, eventually, then-Texas Governor O.B. Colquitt even offered a reward.
Detective Degan's first order of business was to learn as much as she could about the victim and what occurred on that late July Monday in 1913. But where does one go to launch an investigation into a crime that occurred when Woodrow Wilson was president, the just-opened viaduct connecting Dallas and Oak Cliff was being hailed as the longest concrete structure in the world, and World War I was still a year away?
The "cold case" files of the police department provided only the first of numerous dead ends. Whatever records that might have been filed away by either the police or the Dallas County Sheriff's office had long ago been lost or discarded. The funeral home where the victim's body was taken no longer existed. For that matter, the scene of the crime was gone, swallowed up by the restaurants and parking lots of the city's West End. Those involved in the original investigation had died years ago.
Only when Degan made a trip to the Dallas Public Library and began viewing microfilm of the three newspapers of the day--The Dallas Morning News, The Daily Times Herald and the Dallas Dispatch--did she begin to make headway. "One of the things I learned," she says, "is that there was apparently a great willingness on the part of law enforcement to share information with the press back then." Witness statements, details from the crime scene and daily updates on the case were printed.
It was there, in the oft-colorful reporting of the time--"The throat of the victim was cut from ear to ear by the fiend," wrote one newsman; "Rumors of the wildest nature circulate about the city," reported another--where Degan finally found her starting place.
Thus began the mythlike story of two women, separated by more than three quarters of a century, a story of a bizarre and brutal crime that occurred 88 years ago. It is a tale of a cop's fascination that quickly evolved into a determined obsession.
It's now a year after Detective Degan was led to the grave of Florence Brown. And now Degan is convinced that she knows who killed her.
"Everything of the (Florence) Brown murder points to insane cunning. Many things point to the cold-blooded, merciless and supernatural strength and madness of a morphal lunatic..."
--The Daily Times Herald, 1913
On Sunday, the last full day of her life, Florence Brown had, as usual, sung in the choir of the McKinney Avenue Baptist Church. Then, in the afternoon, she joined her brother and his wife on a drive to nearby Cleburne. Arriving home before dark, she spent the evening talking with her parents with whom she still lived in the 2700 block of Cedar Springs. Then, with the promise of a busy day ahead in the real estate office of her uncle, she went to bed early.
Normally, Jeff Robinson, senior partner of the Robinson-Styron Realty Company, stopped by the Brown home each morning to give his niece a ride to his downtown office. But since he was vacationing with his family at a northern Colorado resort, he had left instructions for S.B. Cuthbertson, a member of his sales staff for the past seven months, to take his niece to work during his absence.
On Monday morning, Cuthbertson arrived to find Brown's father, already in uniform, sitting on the front porch, smoking his pipe and reading the paper. Florence's mother stepped outside to say that Florence would be ready shortly. As he waited, Cuthbertson offered patrolman J. Randolph Brown a ride, but he declined, saying he wanted to finish reading his paper, then would take the trolley into town.
He would remember that his daughter and Cuthbertson drove away from his house at 8:05 a.m.
En route to work, Brown seemed in good spirits, talking of the trip to Cleburne and plans for a vacation she was scheduled to begin in just a few days. Arriving at the Field Street office, in what was then the heart of Dallas' business district, the salesman unlocked the front door. Inside, he said, Miss Brown removed the hat she was wearing and began turning on lights and ceiling fans while he gathered papers from his desk for a quick trip to the nearby courthouse and City Hall. He would later tell police that it was approximately 8:20 a.m. when he left the office. Minutes afterward, three employees in an adjacent office saw Brown standing in the doorway as her uncle's salesman left.
Cuthbertson recalled to investigators that he returned at approximately 9 a.m. and was seated at his desk when Robinson's partner, W.R. Styron, and G.W. Swor, the company's tax manager, arrived. It would be Swor who made the grisly discovery. Walking into the rear of the storefront office, he found Brown lying in a pool of blood on the floor of the rest room, her face covered with blood, her hair disheveled, her clothing torn. "We heard him scream," Cuthbertson told police. "Mr. Styron and I rushed back to where he was and found him supporting her head on his arm, wiping blood from her face with a towel. He was yelling for us to get a doctor."
It was the salesman who ran to the nearby Southland Hotel Drug Store where he located Dr. Wilford Hardin.
There was, in retrospect, no need for the men to rush. Dr. Hardin estimated that Brown had been dead for at least 15 minutes before their arrival. Her throat had been cut so deeply that she was almost decapitated, her jugular vein severed. There were trauma marks to her head, indicating that she had been struck several times above her right eye and temple by a blunt object, and deep scratches on her face, neck and upper portions of her chest. And there were defensive wounds that suggested Miss Brown had struggled with her assailant. On her right hand, two fingers were cut to the bone, indicating she had attempted to grab the blade of the weapon used to kill her.
As the doctor examined the body, it fell to Cuthbertson to locate Brown's father and alert him to what had occurred. Aware of the officer's assigned beat, the salesman quickly located him directing traffic at the corner of Main and Lamar. "I hesitated, thinking how I would break the news to him," Cuthbertson recalled to the police. "He was talking to a man at the time, and I called him aside. I thought it best to tell him right away, so I just said, 'Florence is dead. She has been killed.' I remember him looking at me as if he didn't believe it, then grabbing my arm for support."
By the time Cuthbertson and the woman's father arrived at the office, Miss Brown's body already had been taken to the Weiland Funeral Home. In a time before securing a crime scene was standard procedure, police Chief John Ryan and Chief of Detectives Henry Tanner were summoned to the realty office only after the victim had been removed. By the time they arrived it was obvious that a number of employees and curious passers-by had made their way into the office. There were even bloody footprints, which investigators assumed were left by one of the firm's two other women employees. "There is no way," Chief Ryan assured the press, "that the footprints can be established as those of Miss Brown's slayer."
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.
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.
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.
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."
For several days, Williams reviewed Degan's findings. Ultimately, he came to the same conclusion she had secretly kept.
"This was one of those over-the-top kinds of homicides," Degan says. "It was a classic case of overkill. Obviously, one heck of a struggle took place in that bathroom. The biting, the scratches, the brutality suggested a highly emotional exchange."
Williams agreed. "The motive for this type of murder is usually very personal," he says. "The killer was obviously extremely angry at the victim." From the descriptions of Brown's wounds, he speculated that a left-handed person inflicted them. The blows to the head, he felt, might well have been from the handle of the knife that was used on the victim. It seemed likely, in fact, that Brown was already unconscious when her throat was cut.
"So," Degan finally asked, "who killed Florence Brown?"
"A woman," Williams replied. "A very angry, left-handed woman."
Degan nodded. "That's what I think, too."
But why? And who?
Detective Degan, the weekend genealogist, had one long-shot avenue of research left to pursue. Brown's obituary had listed surviving members of her family. It was time to put the hobby she'd been pursuing for five years to work. She began tracing the victim's family history on the off chance that someone with information about the crime still might be alive. In time, her research led her to the name of a distant cousin for which she found no death record.
One day last fall, she placed a long-distance call and heard the frail voice of a woman named Lucille Samcaster. In her 90s and in bad health, she agreed to talk about the crime that had haunted her family for generations. What she had to say in a conversation that lasted no more than 15 minutes caused the detective's heart to pound.
"She told me that Florence Brown had been going out occasionally with a young man in the weeks before her death," the detective recalls. "Previously, he had been seeing another woman but had broken off the relationship. She didn't know the ex-girlfriend's name but had been led to believe that she was from a wealthy Dallas family. She said that the story she'd been told years ago was that this woman had hired someone to kill Florence."
Jealousy, then, was the elusive motive. And, in a socially fragile time when such matters as romantic involvement were carefully guarded, the family had never spoken publicly of the matter. The issue, Samcaster told the detective, was soon resolved when the woman moved to Denver and committed suicide. Her memory failing, Samcaster could not recall the woman's name.
Soon after their brief conversation, Samcaster, the last surviving member of the Brown-Robinson family, died.
"Some day," Degan says, "I'd like to go to Denver and research the old newspaper files there to see if there are reports of any suicides at the time. If I could find a name, then trace it back to Dallas, I'd be satisfied."
And would it finally show that it was not a "large, very strong" male killer--not a hired hit man--but, rather, an enraged, jealous woman who committed the crime?
"We'll never know for sure," Degan admits, "but I think this is what happened: The woman, knowing when Florence Brown went to work, was probably watching the realty office from some nearby location. When Cuthbertson left, she saw her opportunity and went inside. Since she obviously had a weapon with her, the crime had to be premeditated.
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"In all likelihood, the struggle began in the room where the button was found, then continued into the bathroom where the murder took place. I think it is very likely that Miss Brown had already been knocked unconscious when her throat was cut.
"And, I believe, the ring probably had some significance. The killer could have assumed that it had been a gift from the boyfriend. She removed it from the dead woman's finger, then stomped on it.
"That done, she took time to wash up and even change clothes. Then she placed her bloody clothing and the murder weapon into some kind of bag she was carrying, walked out the front door, down to Commerce and caught a trolley."
Those women's footprints, found 88 years ago on the bathroom floor of the realty office, were not those of some curious onlooker, Degan suggests. They were, in fact, left by the person who killed Florence Brown.