"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.