Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Black sheep sheds light on family history

 By Jane Wilkerson, archival assistant

Many of us who do genealogical research like to believe our ancestors were God-fearing and law-abiding citizens. However, what if they … weren’t?

Most families are likely to have at least one “black sheep” in the flock, but refrain from discussing the person in polite company, usually out of embarrassment.[1] Often, the status of these “sheep” has something to do with misdeeds of one sort or another which have led to involvement with law enforcement, the courts and the penal system — in short, criminal activity. This may be a source of embarrassment for the contemporary family but a boon for family historians: Police, court and penal records preserve much information about both the accused and the convicted, not limited to name, age and prisoner number. Therefore, while the term “criminal record” can be a stigma, the documents themselves are extremely valuable to genealogists. They not only can tell us about the criminal, but also his or her family dynamics. The hardest part may consist of figuring out where to start, when your family is not forthcoming with the details surrounding such sooty lambs.

Indictment for Frank Browning
I know this to be the case because my family tree boasts of at least one such sheep. Within my family circle I had long heard rumblings that my great grandfather’s brother, Frank Browning by name, had killed someone; the when and the where of his rumored dastardly deed were never mentioned. What I did know was Robert Franklin Browning died at the age of 67 on Jan. 23, 1944, at McFadden in Jackson County, Arkansas. He was survived by his wife Lilly and two daughters and had pretty much divorced himself from his family in Sulphur Rock in Independence County. The towns were only 45 miles apart, yet they might as well have been continents away from each other. Yes, Frank might have killed someone, but were the facts in his case so bad as to separate him from his entire family?

I set out to narrow my search a little in hopes of finding traces of Frank. I knew, from family documents, that Frank Browning was born Dec. 31, 1876, in Sulphur Rock. His father, George Washington Browning, died in 1885 and his mother in 1893. He, along with his five siblings, were left without their parents and had to raise themselves. By Aug. 19, 1922, at the mature age of 45, Frank married one Lilly Owens in Jackson County. What was he up to in the intervening years, though? I decided to narrow my search to the period between his mother’s death and his marriage. A search of Jackson County Circuit court records proved fruitless, and I was afraid that Independence County would turn out the same.

My next thought was, if Frank Browning had killed someone and was convicted, he would be in the Arkansas Department of Corrections records. The Arkansas State Archives, fortunately, has the penitentiary’s inmate ledger books covering the years 1900 to 1955 on microfilm. I located a Frank Browning, prisoner number 8293, from Sulphur Rock. I had struck pay dirt: It was indeed my great grandfather’s brother, doing time?

According to the records, Frank was received at the State Penitentiary on Nov. 5, 1907, sentenced for five and a half years for manslaughter. The register went on to report that his trial took place on Dec. 10, 1906. The record included a physical description which made me realize that my great uncle Frank had led a rough life. He was described as having several scars on his head and face. The description also mentioned vaccine scars and one long scar on this left arm. So, Uncle Frank looked like a rough character; what other things would I uncover?

Daily Arkansas Gazette,
Dec. 29, 1905

From the prison record I turned to the newspapers of the day and court records to find out what I could about the incident which led to his incarceration. In newspapers from Hoxie to Fort Smith, I uncovered lurid headlines: “Frank Browning kills Telegraph Operator at Hoxie” and “Killing at Hoxie, Frisco Agent and Operator Shot to Death Yesterday by Frank Browning.”[2] So, I had a notorious desperado in my family tree! The infamous incident happened on Dec. 28, 1905. Browning had gone into the Frisco and Iron Mountain railroad office at the Hoxie crossing to send a telegraph to Dexter, Missouri, at 11:30 a.m. The operator, T.W. Midkiff, told Browning the answer would probably arrive by 4 or 5 in the afternoon. Browning then returned at 1:30 p.m. smelling of whiskey, asking if he had received an answer. Midkiff informed him that none had come, and the conversation became heated. Bystanders outside the office reported they could hear the two men yelling. Midkiff ordered Browning out, and as they walked towards the door, Browning pulled out a revolver and shot Midkiff. Browning was quickly taken into custody. A lynching party consisting of townsmen from both Walnut Ridge and Hoxie soon formed, bent on teaching the prisoner the “hemp fandango.” Officers hastily took Browning to Jonesboro to await trial.

At some point during January 1906, Browning was transferred to the jail at Powhatan, the county seat. Visitors to our Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives or the Powhatan Court House State Park may have noticed the solid stone structure that still stands adjacent to the courthouse. A reporter in 1906 described it as the “darkest dungeon in the county … The place is over-run with rats, the only companion(s) to the man in the jail."

Continuing my search through newspapers and county records, I learned Browning remained under these conditions until March when he was indicted on a charge of first degree murder by a Lawrence County grand jury. On Aug. 17, 1906, Browning was arraigned in front of Judge Humphreys of Walnut Ridge, and the trial date was set for Oct. 19. There were concerns about whether or Browning could receive a fair trial in Lawrence County. Tensions were still high; it had not been a year since the townsmen of Hoxie and Walnut Ridge wanted to lynch him. Defense attorneys from the firm Wright and Reeder successfully argued for and won a change of venue to Independence County. The trial was heard in Judge F. D. Fulkerson’s court room in November 1906. Browning was found guilty of manslaughter, after the jury deliberated for 20 hours. A motion was then made for a new trial and Browning was released on $1,500 bond, put up by his uncle, Dr. Clinton P. Meriwether, and Dr. R.C. Dorr and Capt. John A. Hinkle.

So, here was the story that had sundered this side of my family. On its face, it was bad enough so that I could understand the family being a little embarrassed by Uncle Frank. As I would learn through some more searching and sifting, there was more a lot more — to his story.  Next month we will discuss more of his past, the outcome of his trial and why Frank was indeed the black sheep of our family.

[1] Some may, however, refrain out of a sense of modesty, particularly if the ancestral malefactor is believed to have done a Really Big Oops, one that would be worth boasting about in the right company.

[2] I located these articles from across the state using This is a subscription-based service, but visitors can access it at no cost in the ASA research room.