Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Mysteries of Pearl Bryan

Someone with a knowledge of American murder ballads would likely notice a serious omission at Murder by Gaslight—the 1896 murder of Pearl Bryan that inspired three distinct ballads, each with several variations. The reason I haven’t yet posted on the death of Pearl Bryan is that I have written a book on that murder and was hoping to publish the book before the post.  But at the moment, I have no idea when that might happen.
In the meantime, an article I wrote some time ago on the death of Pearl Bryan was recently published by the magazine, Kentucky Explorer, and I have decided to reprint the article here. “Pearl Bryan: Headless Corpse Found on Northern Ky. Farm” –originally titled “The Mysteries of Pearl Bryan”—explores some of the unanswered questions in a case that today is usually presented as open-and-shut. It is longer than the average post, but it is a complicated story and still just the tip of the iceberg.
And here is a version of one of the ballads, “Pearl Bryan” recorded in 1926 by Burnett & Rutherford:

"Pearl Bryan" -
Burnett & Rutherford

 The Mysteries of Pearl Bryan

When the headless corpse of a young pregnant woman was found on John Locke’s farm in the Highlands near Ft. Thomas, on February 1, 1896, the shock was felt far beyond the Ohio Valley.  For the rest of that winter and most of the spring the Ft. Thomas Tragedy unfolded in daily newspapers across America and, for a time, rivaled the murder of Lizzie Borden’s parents, four years earlier, for the dubious distinction of “Crime of the Century.”  The woman was Pearl Bryan, from the little town of Greencastle, Indiana and the mystery of how she had come to Kentucky, and there met such a gruesome fate, seemed as unfathomable as it was incomprehensible.
Today, more than a hundred years later, Lizzie Borden still captures the public imagination.  Forensic experts, using the latest techniques, continue to investigate the Borden family home (now a Fall River bed and breakfast) and speculate what may have occurred that day.  By contrast, the story of Pearl Bryan is largely forgotten outside of Northern Kentucky. 
They began with equal sensation; why is one story now a part of the American narrative and the other all but lost?  The answer seems to be the not-guilty verdict in the Lizzie Borden case.  It made the mysteries permanent.  If she did not kill her parents, then who did?  If she was really guilty, how did she get away with murder?    Pearl Bryan’s killers were arrested less than a week after her body was found, by summer there were two convictions, and the following March two men were hanged.  There were no loose ends, no mysteries.
On the surface the Pearl Bryan case seems to be an example of efficient law enforcement and swift justice with nothing left to investigate.  But a closer look reveals unanswered questions from beginning to end and mysteries at every turn.
Who was she?
With no means of identification it became increasingly likely that the identity  of the headless body would never be known.  Because she was found so near the fort, the killer was first assumed to be a soldier and missing prostitutes and dancehall girls the most likely candidates for the corpse.  The first mystery of the Ft. Thomas Tragedy was solved astonishingly fast.  L. D. Poock, a Newport shoe store owner took an interest in the shoes the victim was wearing.  They were a petite, size three cloth topped boot, very stylish but unusual in a size so small.   Inside the boot was the imprint of a shoe store in Greencastle, Indiana, and numbers Poock knew to be the manufacturer’s lot number.  With a little investigation he was able to locate the manufacturer, who told him the date of the shipment and verified that they were sent to Greencastle.  There was only one pair of size three in the lot.
This news was enough to send Campbell County Sheriff Jule Plummer and two Cincinnati police detectives to the little town of Greencastle, Indiana.  A search of the books of Louis and Hayes shoe store revealed that the shoes had been purchased the previous September by Pearl Bryan.  Late that night her parents identified Pearl’s clothing and learned the awful truth of their daughter’s death.
Though it had been surprisingly easy to identify the headless body as Pearl Bryan, the question “who was Pearl Bryan” would never be fully answered.  In the newspapers, and for the most part in the trials, she was portrayed as a poor, innocent, farm girl, seduced and ruined by a blackguard, an older man from the east.  True, she was a farmer’s daughter, but that farmer was Alexander Bryan, a wealthy patriarch and one of the most prominent men in Putnam County, Indiana.  Pearl was a blond, twenty-two year old music student at DePauw University and she worked in her sister Mary’s dress shop in Greencastle, making sure the store carried the latest fashions.  She was by no means unsophisticated. Pearl told her parents she was going to Indianapolis to visit some family friends but went instead to Cincinnati.  There is no question that she went to have an abortion.
Whose child was she carrying?
Pearl was bright and vivacious, but she had her dark secrets as well.  It may have been true, as the prosecution claimed, that she was seduced and, in her one moment of weakness, became pregnant, but there was much speculation to the contrary in Greencastle.  Pearl’s family and many of her friends first assumed Will Wood, Pearl’s second cousin, was the father.  Will had known Pearl his whole life and the two had always been close confidants.  Though popular with the boys, Pearl had no regular suitor and Will was always present.  Others, though, believed that Pearl was having a secret romance with Scott Jackson, several years her senior, who had come to Greencastle from New Jersey a year earlier.  At the time of Pearl’s death, Jackson was studying dentistry in Cincinnati, just short trip across the Ohio River from the spot where the body was found.  Scott Jackson quickly became the prime suspect.
Will Wood was the son of Dr. Deloss M. Wood, the Indiana Presiding Elder of the Methodist Episcopal Church.  Scott Jackson lived next door with his mother.  She had come to Greencastle to be with her daughter, Scott’s half-sister, who was married to Professor Edwin Post, a classical scholar, soon to be the dean of DePauw University.  What had begun as an investigation of Kentucky whores and soldiers was fast becoming a rural Indiana society murder.
Jackson was arrested outside his rooming house in Cincinnati and Wood was detained in South Bend, Indiana and persuaded to come to Cincinnati for questioning.  After initially denying any knowledge of the matter, Jackson admitted that Pearl Bryan had come to Cincinnati for an abortion that he was to arrange.  It was all to be done as a favor for his friend Will Wood, the author of Pearl’s misfortune.  Wood concurred that Pearl had gone to Cincinnati for an abortion; he had seen her off on the train.  But he said it was Jackson, not he, who had seduced his cousin.
Which of these two would have been the father of Pearl’s child was never determined with certainty.  On the witness stand Scott Jackson admitted to having “criminal intercourse” with Pearl Bryan but not before Christmas of 1895 when he was home on vacation and already knew Pearl to be pregnant.  Will Wood denied he ever had sexual relations with Pearl but several witnesses, in sworn depositions, claimed that Wood often bragged of having a “soft snap” with Pearl and spoke in detail of his sexual encounters with her.
What happened between Wednesday and Saturday?
Alonzo Walling, Scott Jackson’s roommate, was arrested several hours after Jackson.  Jackson claimed he had left Pearl in Walling’s care the Wednesday before she died and that Walling was to facilitate the abortion.  Walling said he had never made the Wednesday appointment and believed his roommate had murdered Pearl Bryan in cold blood.  He said that Jackson had told him he planned to lure Pearl to Cincinnati on pretext of obtaining an abortion, poison her, then cut the body into pieces and deposit them in outhouse vaults around the city.  In their statements to police, Jackson and Walling each denied any firsthand knowledge of the death but believed the other was, actively or passively, responsible.  
Unable to extract a confession from Jackson or Walling, the police proceeded to build a circumstantial case based on testimony of witnesses who had seen the prisoners with Pearl Bryan that week.  On Wednesday, after both Jackson and Walling claimed to have seen Pearl for the last time, she was positively identified by Smith Von Fossen, a salesman at Hockett Brother’s Pianos on Fourth Street in Cincinnati.  She had come in to shop for pianos; anxious to have her parents buy one for the home.  She left her parents’ address with Von Fossen who watched as she left the store and met a man on the street.  Mrs. Plymouth Weeks, a spiritualist, saw Pearl on Thursday.  Pearl had come for a reading accompanied by a man she referred to as “Doc”, Scott Jackson’s Cincinnati nickname.  Friday night Jackson, Walling, and Pearl were seen at Wallingford’s saloon on George Street in Cincinnati.  Jackson and Walling were well known at Wallingford’s and that night Dave Wallingford and his porter Alan Johnson saw Jackson come in with a blond woman.  Walling came in later and the three of them left in a horse cab driven by a third man.
The cabman was the missing piece and after several newspapers offered large rewards for his identity, George Jackson, an African-American hostler who worked in a Mt. Auburn stable, came forward.  George Jackson claimed he had been approached by a man, presumably Alonzo Walling, offering ten dollars to drive a doctor and his patient across the bridge to Kentucky.  George Jackson agreed and Walling returned with a coupe rockaway carriage.  Walling sat next to him as Jackson drove the horse into the country.  George Jackson heard a woman moaning inside the carriage and tried to quit the job but Walling pulled out a pistol and persuaded him to continue.  When they reached their destination Jackson saw another man emerge with a woman, barley able to walk by herself.  When the two men took the woman into the woods, George Jackson took off by foot back to Cincinnati.
The trip from Wallingford’s saloon in Cincinnati, to Locke’s farm in Newport, Kentucky became the official story of the Pearl Bryan murder; the “unbroken chain” of eyewitnesses.  But it was a chain with several weak links.  Jackson and Walling admitted to being at Wallingford’s with Pearl, but claimed the night was Tuesday.   Wallingford and Johnson testified that that Scott Jackson was wearing a full beard when they saw him Friday night as he had for the previous six months.  Jackson testified that the beard had been shaved off that afternoon.  This was corroborated by his barber, Fred Albion, and by his landlady and her family who had remarked, that afternoon, how strange Jackson looked without his beard.  As suspicious as it was that Jackson shaved his beard the day Pearl Bryan died, he could not have been seen at Wallingford’s Friday night with a full beard.
Pearl was wearing a checked cotton house dress when she was found, a dressing gown Pearl’s mother had made for her sister Jenny, handed down to Pearl when Jenny died.  It was not a dress to be worn outside the house.  It would surely not be worn to a saloon by someone as concerned with fashion as Pearl.
But it was George Jackson’s story of the ride to Kentucky that proved most controversial.  The first mystery is why Walling would have hired him in the first place.  Both Walling and Scott Jackson were experienced horsemen, if Walling already had a carriage, why would he pay George Jackson, then sit next to him while he drove?  He would be, in effect, hiring a witness.  George Jackson brought his story to the police two weeks after it occurred, plenty of time to study newspaper pictures of the prisoners, but he had difficulty identifying them at the jail.  In fact it was the coincidence of their last names that helped George Jackson identify Scott Jackson.  George Jackson was asked to pick the prisoners from a circle of men.  As he scrutinized one man the police chief thought he had gotten too close and said, “Jackson, step back.”  Instinctively, Scott Jackson, the Jackson who had been taking orders from police all week, took a step back.  He quickly realized his error and recovered his position but the movement was noticed. A moment later George Jackson identified Scott Jackson.
George Jackson’s reputation also cast doubt on his story.  In Springfield, Ohio, he was known as a conman and a seeker of notoriety.  Both his former employer and the Springfield Chief of Police publicly expressed their belief that Jackson was lying.  After testifying at Scott Jackson’s trial, George Jackson was tried in Springfield, in an unrelated case, and convicted of perjury.
Was there another story?
As in any murder investigation, there were false confessions and misleading information provided by unstable or unscrupulous individuals.  A woman in Indianapolis was held for several days after an anonymous tip said she had information regarding the case.  Lulu Mae Hollingsworth was reluctant to speak but under questioning she admitted she knew Pearl Bryan and had run into her at the Indianapolis train depot the week of her death.  Upon learning of Pearl’s condition, Miss Hollingsworth put together a mixture guaranteed to terminate her pregnancy.  Pearl took the medicine then boarded a train to Cincinnati where she died in Scott Jackson’s room. 
Hollingsworth’s story was taken seriously enough for Sheriff Plummer to offer train fare to send her to Newport for questioning.  However, the more she spoke, the more outlandish her story became.  By the end she claimed that Alonzo Walling and Will Wood were also with Pearl in Indianapolis and Walling performed the abortion in an abandoned building.  This story contradicted hard evidence and Miss Hollingsworth was released.  She maintained that she had letters from Scott Jackson that would prove her story true and would release them only to save Jackson’s life.  This never occurred.
The defense in Scott Jackson’s trial tried to introduce an alternative story of Pearl Bryan’s death.  A private detective named John Seward, employed by Walling’s attorneys had assembled a collection of witnesses ready to testify that Pearl Bryan died at the hand of a doctor in a house on George Street in Cincinnati.  An unemployed brakeman named William Trusty claimed he drove Pearl Bryan’s dead body from George Street to Locke’s farm. 
The story was fabricated by Seward who had coached his witnesses’ testimony.  The police had been on to the plan from the beginning.  Some of the witnesses were threatened with perjury charges and refused to testify.  Trusty, who did not know the plan had been foiled, told his story on the witness stand and was charged with perjury.  He and Seward both skipped bail but were eventually captured and convicted.  To the end, however, Trusty maintained that his story was true and it was only Seward’s elaborations that were lies.
Did they confess?
 In separate trials, Jackson and Walling each testified in his own defense but added nothing to what they had always maintained.  Neither man knew what happened to Pearl Bryan after Wednesday of that week.  They were both convicted and sentenced to death; they both appealed the verdict.  The appeal process took nearly a year but finally the verdicts were upheld.  A double hanging was scheduled for March 20, 1897.
In the days of public execution, the confession and repentance of the condemned man were considered part of the ritual.  Then, as now, execution was serious business and an admission of guilt by the convicted man was a guarantee that taking his life was justified.  The need for confession was especially strong when the conviction was based on circumstantial evidence. 
Attorneys for Jackson and Walling had other ideas regarding confession.  With the appeal lost and the hangings less than a week away, their only hope was to tell all and plead to the governor for mercy.  Walling’s fate, especially could hinge on the truth revealed by Jackson.  While there was near universal acceptance that Scott Jackson was guilty of first degree murder, there was a growing sentiment that Walling’s crimes were lesser and done under Scott Jackson’s evil influence.  The two men agreed with their attorneys, the time had come to tell all.
On March 18, Jackson and Walling were put together in a room with a table and chairs, given paper and pencils and an almanac to verify dates and left to write their confessions.  What they came up with surprised everyone.  In separate statements they told virtually the same story beginning with Pearl Bryan’s arrival in Cincinnati for the purpose of having an abortion.  Walling contacted May Smith, his girlfriend at the time, for the name of an abortionist.  She put him in touch with Dr. George Wagner of Bellevue, Kentucky and arrangements were made to send Pearl to his house.  On Wednesday Walling met Pearl in Cincinnati and gave her directions; Pearl went to Dr. Wagner’s by herself.  On Thursday Jackson and Walling went to Bellevue to deliver Pearl’s valise, and on Friday they went back for the operation. 
There were complications from the beginning and when Pearl appeared to be in pain, Wagner sent Jackson to Foertmeyer’s drugstore for ergot.  He administered the ergot but it had no effect.  He opened her dress and injected her with a clear liquid then gave her some whiskey to drink.  Pearl became unconscious and after a few moments Wagner said she was gone.  They loaded her body into a vehicle and took her to a secluded spot.  Dr. Wagner severed her head with a dissecting knife and wrapped it in her cloak.  He drove Jackson and Walling to the bridge to Cincinnati, then they went their separate ways.
The confessions pleased no one.  Scott Jackson did not admit guilt, nor did he exonerate Alonzo Walling.  They also implicated a prominent Bellevue physician.  When the confessions were made public, May Smith came forward and confirmed that she had procured Dr. Wagner at Walling’s request.  Druggist Foertmeyer confirmed that he had filled a prescription from Dr. Wagner for ergot on the night of January 31, 1896.  He further stated that he had received telephone messages from Scott Jackson to Maude Wagner, the doctor’s daughter, earlier in the week.  Popular or not, the confessions were gaining credibility.
There had been rumors of the Wagner family’s involvement in Pearl Bryan’s death even before Jackson’s trial.  The defense subpoenaed Anna, Nellie, and Maude Wagner, the wife and two daughters of Dr. Wagner, but they were never called to testify.  Dr. Wagner himself could not be subpoenaed because shortly after the body was found he was committed to the Eastern Kentucky Asylum for the Insane, in Lexington. 
Like every story regarding Pearl Bryan’s fate, this one was tantalizing but less than satisfying.  May Smith was not new to the case; she had, early on, told the press that she had received letters from Scott Jackson admitting his guilt.  The next day she recanted, claiming she was drunk when she told the story.  Though it was clear that May Smith had inside knowledge in the matter, she was considered too unreliable to testify for either the defense or the prosecution. 
Foertmeyer had testified in Scott Jackson’s trial.  He was one of several witnesses who had seen Jackson and Walling in Bellevue with Pearl Bryan, and was introduced only to show that the three had been seen together in Kentucky.  Foertmeyer, under oath, had said the calls from Scott Jackson were to a Miss Watson.  He made no mention on the stand of filling the ergot prescription because, he explained later, no one asked him.  Foertmeyer’s motives were questioned when it was learned that he and Dr. Wagner had a long-standing feud and Wagner never sent him prescriptions.
When the confessions were made public, the Wagners were outraged.  They produced a telegram indicating that Dr. Wagner had been at his father-in-law’s home in Nicholasville the night of Pearl Bryan’s death.  At the asylum, Dr. Wagner was pronounced cured of insanity and returned home to address the accusations.
The confessions were sent to Governor Bradley who read them but remained unmoved.  Citing discrepancies between the two statements and contradictions between the confessions and each man’s sworn testimony, the governor declared the confessions untrustworthy.  He further stated that admitting to the attempted abortion showed “an utter disregard for human life.”  Governor Bradley saw no reason to overturn the rulings of two Campbell County juries and the Kentucky Court of Appeals.  Respite was refused; Scott Jackson and Alonzo Walling were hanged together on March 20, 1897.  They each proclaimed innocence to the end.
An Unfinished Story
The execution of Scott Jackson and Alonzo Walling essentially closed the books on the Pearl Bryan case, while Lizzie Borden’s acquittal guaranteed that her case would stay open forever.  But as news hardens into history, a dispassionate eye can see that the story of Pearl Bryan’s death is far from finished.  Jackson and Walling were not innocent in Pearl’s death but the story that convicted them of first-degree murder, the “unbroken chain” of evidence, is unlikely at best.  While the mystery of Lizzie Borden hinges on the truth or falsehood of her simple assertion of innocence, the mysteries of Pearl Bryan involve a myriad of half-truths and improbabilities. 
Despite the best efforts of police and citizens of Campbell County, Pearl Bryan’s head was never found.  This is the most solid and enduring mystery.   To her parents’ sorrow Pearl was buried incomplete.  Her story, too, remains incomplete and the mysteries of Pearl Bryan deserve another look.

Cincinnati Enquirer, February 1896 – June 1896, January 1897 – March 1897

Cincinnati Tribune, February 1896 – April 1896

Cincinnati Post, March 1897

Greencastle Banner Times, January 1897 – February 1897

Greencastle Democrat, February 1896, January 1897 – March 1897

Indianapolis Sun, February 1896

Poock, L. D. Headless Yet Identified; A Story of the Solution of the Pearl Bryan or Fort Thomas
Mystery, Through the Shoes, Cincinnati, OH: Hann & Adair, Printers, 1897

Originally published as "Pearl Bryan: Headless Corpse Found on Northern Ky. Farm" by Robert Wilhelm in Kentucky Explorer, Volume 26, No. 6, November 2011
Also posted at Northern Kentucky Views


bianca says:
January 31, 2012 at 10:14 AM

ik weet niet zeker of alonzo walling echt mee te maken heeft misschien heeft scott jackon wel hem op gestookt dat alonzo misschien wel bang is van scott je weet nooit wat echte verhaal is alleen de modernaars weten de echte verhaal

Robert Wilhelm says:
January 31, 2012 at 12:50 PM

I don’t speak Dutch, but I used Google Translate, and I think the gist of the comment is that maybe Alonzo Walling was only involved because he was afraid of Scott Jackson. (Can anyone provide a real translation?)

As execution day approached, there was a growing belief that Walling had acted out of fear of Jackson and should not be hanged with him. Walling’s mother wanted her son housed in a different prison to be away from Jackson’s evil influence. A Cincinnati newspaper speculated that Jackson had an “evil eye” that allowed him to control others, including Walling, Wood, and Pearl Bryan.

But during their time in prison Walling showed no sign that he feared Scott Jackson (or anyone else) and even though they told differing stories, they gave the impression of being co-conspirators.

Anonymous says:
September 9, 2012 at 6:04 PM

I, personally, from both what I've read and from what I've heard---believe that both Jackson and Walling murdered Pearl Bryan. I believe that both men had an evil intent, that Jackson wasn't the only monster. But we'll never be there the night Pearl's head was severed, we'll never know what they did with her head, we will never know their intentions. But as long as I live, I will continue to believe that both parties at hand, Jackson and Walling, were guilty of the decapitation of Pearl Bryan. It still amazes me how some seemed to think Walling should have had a lesser punishment.

But you have written a great article. This is the first time I have been on Murder By Gaslight, and I must say I wholeheartedly enjoy your posts.

Unknown says:
June 29, 2013 at 5:57 AM

I enjoyed this article but there was no mention of motive, from what i have seen before i was under the impression that Pearl was a human sacrifice to Satan (which would explain why she was decapitated) but i don't know whether or not this is true, and if it was why they decided to use her as a sacrifice.

Robert Wilhelm says:
June 29, 2013 at 10:31 AM

The rumor that Jackson and Walling were Satanists is fairly recent, probably invented to support the notion that Pearl’s ghost haunts Bobby Mackey’s nightclub. There was no mention of Satanism at the time. Scott Jackson, before and after his arrest, appeared to be a devout Christian and before the execution, a Baptist minister was working to get Walling pardoned.

The motive, one way or another, was related to Pearl’s pregnancy. They either deliberately killed her because of it, or she died during a botched abortion. They removed her head attempting to hide her identity and it almost worked.

Kerry says:
November 14, 2013 at 12:18 AM

I just read the book The Mysterious Murder of Pearl Bryan - she was almost 5 months pregnant and the fetus was removed during her autopsy. So it was, like you said, a (very) botched procedure -- or she never got there at all. I looked up her grave on Find a Grave, and sadly, there is only a base, and no headstone. Sickly symbolic, I know. The poor girl deserves one, though.

Robert Wilhelm says:
November 14, 2013 at 12:04 PM

I have seen the grave, or what is left of it. The family removed the stone because souvenir hunters would chip away pieces of it. Today people leave pennies, heads-up, on the base in remembrance.

Leslie says:
April 3, 2014 at 6:02 PM

What a truly ignorant comment.

Unknown says:
August 20, 2015 at 10:01 PM

I suspect that Pearl's head ended up in the river. Maybe someday, a fisherman will bring it up and she will be complete once more.

Unknown says:
July 5, 2017 at 11:05 PM

She may have been a virgin whatever the case maybe you got to look at her family where she came from if it was some kind of evil sacrifice and she was a pure good woman or came from a good family it was just to show how they can just ruin something good and basically make a big story about how a good person gets things happen to them that's bad which is just evil do the evilest thing saddest thing that's what they do and this is a very good common I don't know what that guy was talking about saying it was ignorant comment sounds like he needs to go to church himself just saying

Unknown says:
October 12, 2017 at 2:04 PM

This is to "unknowns" post in July this year. Excuse me!? Did you read ANY of this article? How in the hell was Pearl a VIRGIN!? Her fetus was 5 months pregnant. Or are you now going to say they killed her for her innocent baby so they could sacrifice that to Satan?
Come the fuck on. Ignorant idiot! Any claims of satanism was VERY RECENT. What was never in doubt was motive....eaither to kill her to hide the pregnancy and not have to deal with it all or she died during a very botched abortion. Are you aware of how many muderers tried (& succeeded a lot) to hide the identity of a victim by decapitating them.
Yet you want it alllll to revolve around thus freakin god crap. Give it up. The whole fuckin case revolved around her BEING PREGNANT, yet you comment stating how she may been a virgin ....I really hope your not trying to say she was carrying the new messiah? Another virgin birth?

djpass says:
September 19, 2019 at 6:00 PM

How convenient that Wagner was "insane" but quickly cured!

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