NO DOUBT, people itched for more. Nearly two weeks had slipped by since the last installment had been posted, and questions as to why were beginning to populate the threads of previous entries. “More please …” read one comment. “We are anxiously awaiting,” read another, surely vocalizing the sentiments of those who’d followed the multipart series that for a month had probed one overarching question:
Who was behind the murder of Julia Browning, 57-year-old widow of Dr. Harry Browning?
Now it was a curious thing for many reasons, this post. First, it had been posted on History of the Heights, a popular Facebook page normally focused on architecture and the history of local homes, many of which run the risk of demolition. Second, it was a serialized account, staggered in such a way that’s almost unheard of in these days of information overload. But of course, there was the third reason it was surprising to see the post faring so well: Had any person been desperate to know what had happened, they could have found out for themselves.
After all, it had been 75 years since Mrs. Browning’s murder.
ON OCT. 1, 1943, the front page of the Arkansas Gazette was filled with dispatches from the Western Front: “Germans Flee as U.S. Army Nears Naples,” “Allied Forces Gaining Steadily in Corsica,” “Eisenhower, Badoglio Talk of War Plans.” In the top left corner, spanning two of the newspaper’s eight columns, was the headline “Doctor’s Widow Brutally Slain While at Home/Son Discovers Body of Julia K. Browning.”
“It was almost eerie,” says Jim Pfeifer, author of the now nine-part series posted on the History of the Heights, which he’s run since mid-2015, “because here it is out-headlining Hitler’s atrocities and the United States’ bombing of Berlin and the polio epidemic and so forth. And the Browning murder—every single detail is front-page headlines for several months.”
But while any of those other headlines received exhaustive coverage, the macabre saga that so engrossed local residents was largely forgotten, committed to the annals of local lore—which is how Jim learned about them nearly 20 years ago. He’d been driving a longtime Little Rock resident through the neighborhood, when she’d motioned to the house and said that a murder had taken place there.
He admits that he had been surprised by what she’d said but hadn’t given it much thought until, earlier this year, he was researching a house across the street and started looking at the old Browning house over his shoulder. In the days that followed, after some preliminary research at the Butler Center, where he dug up some 26 pages of headlines, he lost himself in the process. In the course of researching the story, he spent untold hours at the library, regularly closing it down, and spoke with a number of people who’d been alive at the time—including the girlfriend of Mrs. Browning’s son Billy.
If the installments, which bear titles such as “A Huge Funeral, a Stalled Investigation, a Shocking Revelation” and “A Startling Judicial Decision,” often feel breathless in tone, a feeling that is, without a doubt, contagious, it’s not without good reason: When researching the project, as Jim has explained to multiple commenters on the Facebook page, he would only research about half an episode past what the readers would know.
“I was in such suspense myself that I didn’t want to let go of it,” he says. “I felt like I could pass on the feelings that I was having to the reader by these episodic things where I really didn’t know—like a reporter in a sense—reporting something from 75 years ago.”
As of this writing, the series is still ongoing, with a podcast tentatively in the works. For those interested in the series, we’d recommend starting at the beginning and making your way through. Because while Jim might offer the first-episode disclaimer that he’s “no skilled detective writer,” we assure you: He is.
Follow along at facebook.com/historyoftheheights, and stay tuned for Jim’s forthcoming podcast on the Browning murder.