…And little did Pearl Bryan think when she left her home
The grip she carried in her hand would hide her head away
She thought it was her lover’s hand she could trust both night and day
Although it was her lover’s hand that took her life away…
~From the American folk ballad describing the murder of Pearl Bryan.
When Pearl Bryan boarded a train in central Indiana bound for Cincinnati, she hoped the trip to Ohio would mean an end to her troubles. Pearl just wanted to make a problem go away; she had no idea that her tragic fate would be immortalized as a cautionary tale of what awaits young ladies who stray from the path of virtue.
It was January 1896 and the 21-year-old belle of Putnam County was desperate. Unmarried and pregnant, Pearl was heading to Cincinnati where the father of the child said he had arranged for an illegal abortion.
Instead, the girl who would evermore be known as “Poor Pearl” was betrayed and most foully murdered by the man she trusted.
Ordinarily such a story would pass into oblivion after killer was swung off into eternity by the hangman; no doubt this family secret would be buried deep. But this time was different: Pearl’s murder was tailor-made for the popular culture of the time. The barbarity of the crime, its characters and its cause created a plot songwriters and playwrights dream about: A villain deflowers a beautiful young girl and murders her to cover up an unplanned pregnancy so he can continue to live a life of debauchery. To prevent the girl from being identified he cuts off her head, which is never found.
The tragedy understandably resonated with the public, prompting the composition of one of America’s most enduring folk ballads meant to encourage young ladies to embrace chastity and modesty. In this public spirit The Malefactor’s Register presents the facts of the crime that spawned the song. Readers, particularly young ladies, are invited to draw their own lessons.
A note about sources The main source for this article and the best source for an introduction to Pearl’s murder is a pamphlet, The Murder of Pearl Bryan, or, The Headless Horror, published by “Barclay & Co.” probably in 1897 consisting of word-for-word copies of content that ran in the Cincinnati Enquirer. It was likely to have been published to capitalize on the villains’ pending execution. More
The Belle of Putnam County
If not for her ignominious end, Pearl Bryan likely would not even rate a footnote in history. Assuming she returned alive and well from Cincinnati, she should have thanked her lucky stars and learned her lesson. Pearl had no aspirations beyond being a wife and mother and could have her pick of suitors, so it is likely she would have settled down, become a mother if she was still able to have children and dealt with her past as best she could.
There are a few facts we can glean about Pearl if we are willing to accept the contemporary newspaper accounts with a grain of salt.
We know that she was the youngest of 12 children born to the anonymous wife of Alexander Bryan, a well-to-do dairy farmer in Putnam County. Six siblings were alive to mourn the death of Poor Pearl in 1896, along with both parents. The Bryans were well-respected in the area, known for their piety and upright character. Members of the Bryan line had been in central Indiana for close to a century, and people remember that the family helped pacify the Indians back in the days before statehood.
We know that Pearl graduated near the top of her class from Greencastle High School in 1892. She did not pursue any further education and lived with her parents. She was an avid seamstress who fashioned most of her own clothes. Her commitment to sewing was readily identifiable by callouses that are apparently unique to practitioners of that trade. These later proved useful to investigators.
There is only a single photograph of her, probably a graduation portrait; most images of Pearl are lithographs based on the picture. More than 100 years out of style, it is hard to judge from a line drawing whether Pearl was as beautiful as the reporters described her. We will give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she deserved the high praise and it was not simply de mortuis nihil nisi bonum which prompted the effusive praise of Pearl.
Pearl… of a fine, voluptuous form, with a sweet, lovely disposition and manners, popular with all who were acquainted with her, cheerful and happy at all times …
Beautiful in form and features, highly accomplished, well educated, with a doting father and mother, well provided with this world’s goods, and with whom she was a favorite daughter, Pearl Bryan had much to live for…
From the time she left school, aye, even before her graduating year arrived, she had many admirers, and to look on her was to love, to love was to lose.
Pearl was in no hurry to settle down despite having her share of suitors. The Enquirer tells us that “none of her ardent admirers had made a deeper impression upon her, and her heart was still her own.” Although friendly, she was universally aloof to the suitors.
“Money and position did not have any effect upon her favors, the young man, struggling hard to make his way in life, was as graciously received and as well treated by her as the young swell, rolling in luxury and wealth.”
She counted her admirers by the score, but to none did she give her heart, or encourage them in any serious intentions. She was liked by all, but while she was of a lovable, affectionate disposition, she allowed none to go beyond the line of admiration, and cupid’s swift and seldom erring shafts, fell harmless by her side.
Perhaps knowing she was doomed to be nothing more than a wife and mother, Pearl was not ready to surrender to her fate. Time was not on her side (press reports stated that “three long years” had passed since her graduation), but eventually some man would win her favor; as the Enquirer said about her, “Cheerful and talkative, yet lacking in force, by nature kind and benevolent to a fault, and her development of individuality and self-reliance small, she was one who could be easily persuaded but never driven.”
The time would come when the proper man would be vetted and a formal courtship begun. Eventually the number of gentleman callers Pearl received would dwindle down from many to one and then zero — forever. She would go from the special favorite of her parents with its accompanying benefits to homemaker with its attendant duties.
There was one young man who stood out from the rest, but only as a friend. Will Wood was Pearl’s second cousin and was the nearest relative in age and location to Pearl. A student at Depauw College (now a university) with hopes of becoming a doctor like his uncle, Wood was the son of a well-known and respected Methodist minister. He played a critical role in advancing the plot of this real-life melodrama by introducing the “hypocrite and demon” Scott Jackson to Pearl Bryan. Wood was Jackson’s closest friend, and together the two men frequented some of the region’s more questionable saloons and gambling joints.
His intentions in introducing Pearl to Jackson were completely honorable. Friend of both Pearl and Jackson, Wood was intimately connected with the crime but hardly culpable. His interview and testimony prove that he was doing everything he could to help Pearl and was interested only in her welfare.
Letters between Jackson and Wood openly discuss failed attempts to induce a miscarriage through home remedies. In one of the last letters Jackson discusses Pearl’s itinerary and assures Wood that everything will go according to plan (just not the plan Wood and Pearl expected).
“He said that it was very frequently done, done every day and if he had the instruments he could do it himself,” Wood testified at Jackson’s trial. “Such operations, he said, were everyday occurrences and if we got it done she would be all right in three or four days.”
Wood had a genuine love for Pearl that was described as being more like that of an older brother. He was far away when Pearl was in Cincinnati and would never have sent her if he suspected Jackson’s true intention.
Like the others connected to the case, Wood was overwhelmed by the strength of Jackson’s personality. Not until he met Jackson did the reputation of this Methodist minister’son, attending a religious college with hopes of joining his uncle’s medical practice, decline to what the Enquirer decreed to be “mixed,” and sank much lower than that following the tragedy.
While Wood escaped any earthly punishment, the Enquirer condemned him for the unpardonable sin of bringing shame to his family.
They met through the intimate acquaintance and friendship of each with Will Wood, who little thought when he brought this pure spotless virgin in contact with the hypocrite and demon, Jackson, that he was committing a sin, which he would regret to his dying day, and which would bring disgrace, dishonor and ruin on two highly respected families and also upon his own head and that of his aged respected and Christian father.
With the notoriety surrounding Pearl’s murder and the key part he played in the trials of Jackson and his co-conspirator Alonzo Walling, Wood found his plans for medical school in ruins. He disappeared from public view until a few years later when a wire story reported falsely that Wood had been aboard the U.S.S. Maine when she exploded in Havana in 1898. The dispatch took the opportunity to rehash more of the Pearl Bryan story than was necessary. In truth no sailor named Wood was listed on the crew manifest for the Maine.
What prompted this false report and what really happened to Will Wood are unknown.
In the small city of Greencastle Scott Jackson was a Jekyll and Hyde. His lineage was rarely equaled and never surpassed by those in his new hometown and he was welcome in parlors around the city. When away at school he preferred different company, the kind that would have barred him forever from any home in Greencastle.
Physically he was a little short, but he was handsome and cut a fine athletic figure. He sported a bushy mustache of the type then in vogue and his blond hair supplied his nickname, “Dusty.” Jackson possessed that fragile kind of self-assurance particular to narcissists. In the right company he was dominant and he had a talent for finding companions who could not withstand his forceful personality. He was a villain from head to toe and sternum to spine, lacking any conscience whatsoever.
The Enquirer gave an apt description of Scott Jackson:
Belonging to an excellent family, he was outwardly a man whom any father would be proud to have his daughter associate with. With dimples on his chin and cheeks, a childish smile on his lips, frank, beautiful, pale violet-blue eyes, he had a most winsome countenance. But behind the angelic front was hidden a very demon…
To those not knowing his habits, a handsome, affable, pleasing man of fine form and features; to those who knew him truly, a villain of the deepest dye, a very demon in human shape.
In the fall of 1894 Scott Jackson and his widowed mother moved from Jersey City to Greencastle, ostensibly to be closer to one of her daughters who had lived there some years as the wife of a Depauw College professor.
Like Pearl and Wood, Jackson came from a good family, but this had no effect on his character because he had none to affect. Jackson’s father had been a merchant marine fleet commodore with all of the integrity of character such a position requires. In Jackson’s case, however, the apple fell far from the tree.
There was an equally important reason for the move which was the family’s secret shame: Scott Jackson had narrowly dodged a long prison term in New Jersey for grand larceny, avoiding conviction only by cooperating with the prosecution. His crime ruined the family name on the East Coast. When it became clear there was no future for them in New Jersey, Jackson and his mother gave up the bustle of the East Coast for the refined quiet of a Methodist enclave in Central Indiana.
Jackson’s first known crime was reckless and stupid (a trait he would continue to display in his murder of Pearl). Working in the mail room of the Jersey City office of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Jackson was tasked with opening the correspondence. This gave him uncontrolled access to checks and probably cash. He helped himself to more than $32,000 before he was caught.
The other man, Alexander Letts, had not instigated the scheme but was considered more culpable because he forged the signatures on the checks in his role as a financial clerk. Jackson was presented with a deal that allowed him to be nolle prose if he testified against Letts, who was later convicted.
Not surprisingly there was almost no money left to recover.
The saloon which they kept had become notorious. They were acknowledged high flyers in sporting circles. Both had become “plungers” on the race tracks. It was reported that they made much money, owing to their lavish expenditures. They “entertained” liberally in their own particular way, and for a time were looked upon as “good fellows” among the sporting fraternity, who sought the privilege of their acquaintance. Jackson was a prominent member of the Entre Nous, an exclusive social club.
One can only hope that poor Letts, lured into the scheme and left take the fall, took no small satisfaction in hearing of Jackson’s ultimate fate.
Because the Jackson family was not native to Greencastle and had few acquaintances there besides the sister, news of Jackson’s criminal past and lewd behavior did not reach that city. Will Wood was a neighbor to Jackson and once they found their shared interest in the underworld lifestyle, the two young men became fast friends.
Jackson entered the Indianapolis Dental College where Wood frequently made the interurban ride for entertainment. Jackson and Wood proved that New Jersey had nothing on Indiana as far as being able to find a good time.
“Both being fond of ladies’ company, they spent much of their time together in the company of women of loose moral character and were in several very unsavory escapades, escaping notoriety however under assumed names, which prevented their families and friends at Greencastle from hearing of them,” according to the Enquirer.
Love and Ruin
Wood introduced Jackson to Pearl in the Spring of 1895 and it was love at first sight. Jackson’s words, which the Enquirer reports “came only from the lips and never from his heart,” quickly overwhelmed Pearl’s Victorian sentiments and excited her passions.
Jackson maintained the outward appearance of a gentleman of high morals and good character, winning the approbation of Pearl’s parents, who were in their dotage. With the less intensive scrutiny that younger children receive from their parents, Pearl was given wide latitude in her relationship with Jackson.
The parents of the erring girl never for a moment suspected anything wrong. Pearl was their favorite, the daughter of their old age, had been raised with every care and precaution, had always moved in the very best of society, and Jackson to them was a gentleman, a member of one of the best families of the country…
Without hesitancy they permitted their favorite daughter to accept the attentions of Jackson, go out with him when he was visiting home, and remain alone with him in their parlor until late hours in the night. They had every confidence in Pearl, and no suspicion of the villainous intentions of Jackson, or the evil influence he possessed over her.
Pearl was putty in Jackson’s hands and he molded her to fit his will. Older, more experienced and with a plan that ended in the naive girl’s full surrender, Jackson knew the things Pearl wanted to hear and how to woo her. The Enquirer also blames Pearl’s fall on Jackson’s mesmeric powers.
“He became attentive, and with a veneering of the usages of polite society managed to fascinate the farmer’s daughter. His power over her seemed almost hypnotic. So great was his control over her that she is said to have kept appointments with him in the dental office where he was serving his apprenticeship.”
Will Wood pins down the date of Pearl’s first encounter with her seducer somewhat by testifying that Jackson told him “he betrayed her in September.”
“The accomplishment of his devilish designs, her ruin, was easy,” reports the Enquirer. “She fell a victim to his lustful desire, and in a short time discovered that she would soon become a mother.”
In a panic, Pearl turned to Wood, who became the primary conduit of information between the expectant parents. Any communications between Pearl and Jackson were lost forever and there was a suggestion that Pearl was carrying something that Jackson desperately wanted. It was clear that her body was searched after she was dead. It remains a mystery what, if anything, he found.
Wood, however, kept his letters from Jackson which put the dental student in the center of the plot. The letters provide a clear portrait of what was happening.
After confirming with Wood that “Bert,” their code name for Pearl, was indeed pregnant, Jackson wrote that something would be done, but as it was early in the pregnancy he recommended a wait and see position. Later Wood responded that the baby was healthy and probably going to stay that way, so Jackson provided some recipes for homeopathic abortifacients, or miscarriage-inducing tinctures and oils.
Several home remedy abortion concoctions were tried without success and Wood reported to his friend that Pearl was beginning to show physical signs of her condition. Her mental state, bordering on hysteria, was no better.
Jackson had transferred from Indianapolis Dental College to the college in Cincinnati, and told Wood that he was going to procure an abortion. He needed Wood to get Pearl to agree. It took no convincing on the part of Wood to induce his cousin to travel for the operation.
Question: Did you have a long talk with the girl?
Answer: Well, I talked with her.
Question: About the operation?
Answer: Yes, sir.
Question: Did she seem pleased?
Answer: I never saw her so happy in my life.
In addition to sharing his troubles with Will Wood, Jackson confided everything to his roommate, Alonzo Walling, whose involvement in the crime would result in his death on the gallows before his 22nd birthday.
Walling was also a student at the Ohio Dental College, although his background was much more common than Jackson’s. The oldest of three boys, he was 19 years old and had worked his way through high school in one of the Indiana glass factories until it closed. Like Jackson, Walling’s mother was a widow and the Enquirer reported that “having very poor health, her only thought was to try and give him a good education.”
While not absolving him of one scintilla of guilt, The Enquirer paints him as an unintelligent dupe who lacked the backbone to stand up to Jackson. We have no reason to doubt the accuracy of this view.
Pearl in Cincinnati
Wood saw Pearl off at the Greencastle train station on Monday, January 27, 1896. Their meeting at the depot was by mere chance. He was there to pick up his father who was returning from a church conference. Wood was the only relative who knew where she was really heading as she told her parents she was going to spend the week with friends in Indianapolis.
She arrived in Cincinnati in the afternoon on Monday, was met by Jackson and put up at the Indiana House, but from there her activities until the night of her murder are unknown. Most likely she remained in her room or close by during the day. How Jackson kept her in limbo for a week waiting to have an abortion is a mystery, but probably she was still under his hypnotic influence.
Walling eventually acknowledged being with Pearl and Jackson at Wallingford’s saloon early Friday night, when confronted with witnesses who saw the three there. He claimed that was the first time he spent any time with her. Jackson also denied knowing Pearl was in town until he was presented with the witnesses from Wallingford’s saloon. He was the last person seen with her in the city, at around 8 p.m., when Pearl and Jackson boarded a cab. The only witness who put Walling with them at that time was unreliable and eventually convicted of perjury in connection with his testimony. He admitted he lied simply to inject himself into the story.
In their desperate attempts to deflect blame for the horrific crime Jackson and Walling told everything they knew — about the other man. Thanks to this mutual betrayal, it was simple for police to track the movements of each man and pick up evidence along the way.
However, since each tried to portray the other as the one who actually did the killing and denied he was even there, neither man would say what happened in a small wooded area outside Fort Thomas, Kentucky on the night of January 31, 1896. However, the killer painted in crimson a picture of how Pearl Bryan died, which was left for investigators to decipher.
A typical winter thaw warm front caused snow to turn to rain across the Ohio River Valley that Friday night, and by clues at the murder site Pearl and her killer — undoubtedly Jackson — arrived outside Fort Thomas across the river from Cincinnati, after 10 p.m. By that time the warm front had moved through and the clouds were dissipating. We know this was the hour of her death because Pearl’s body and her clothes were dry when she was found the next morning.
Discovery of the Crime
The young man who discovered the body of Pearl Bryan around 7 a.m. on Saturday, February 1, testified that it was not unusual to find “ladies of the city” asleep or camping near the soldiers stationed at Fort Thomas, so at first when he came over a small hill in a pasture on John Lock’s farm and looked into the copse below, he assumed it was just one of these unfortunates sleeping it off.
Then, he testified, he saw the blood. It was spattered everywhere. Police reported finding blood on the underside of leaves and high up in the trees fifteen feet away from the crime scene.
“The ground was literally saturated with blood,” testified Cincinnati Detective Cal Crim. “The earth was upturned and blood was found to a depth of eight or nine inches.”
The crime scene was out of a nightmare. The already bleak grayness of a Northern Kentucky winter was made worse by the blood-drenched snow turning into crimson-tinted mud puddles. The melting snow created a slight mist in the air that contributed a damp chill. Crowning the dismal spot was the reason everyone was there: a bloodless corpse with nothing more above her shoulders than a stump.
The young woman’s head had been severed at the fifth cervical vertebra, right above where the neck meets the shoulders. The head itself was missing.
The cut was made with skill; she had not been butchered. A quick glance at Gray’s Anatomy indicates that a cut near that area is what someone well-acquainted with the anatomy of the head and neck would make when separating one from the other.
The woman’s clothes were in such disarray that police incorrectly thought she had been raped. Instead the killer was searching for something, possibly a letter, which the woman kept with her.
“The upper part of the woman’s dress was open as was the garment beneath, and her bosom was bare,” the Enquirer wrote. “The skirt-band was unloosed, and the skirt of the dress was gathered up about the waist.”
Several yards away police found a woman’s glove and a piece of cloth torn from her dress.
The forensic evidence at the scene allowed the investigators to recreate the timeline of the murder, which told of the woman’s terrible end.
The killer and victim walked toward the copse side by side but at some point the woman tried to flee. The victim fled through a mud puddle that, had she not been running, she certainly would have avoided. The killer followed her directly through the mud and caught her, tearing off the bit of cloth from her dress.
Pinning the woman to the ground he drew a knife and slashed her throat. The woman put up a valiant struggle for her life: The three defensive wounds on her left hand laid open her palm and fingers to the bone. At some point in her death struggle she tore a piece from the killer’s shirt sleeve. It was recovered at the scene and the amount of blood on the scrap indicates she was already severely wounded.
At the coroner’s inquest the jurors concluded the woman was alive when the killer began to cut off her head because her body was completely devoid of blood. Had she been dead, the coroner said, some blood would have remained in her veins.
News of such a horrible crime spread fast and soon the relic hunters were competing with investigators to find clues. Anything relating to the crime was fair game, from bloodstained leaves to the Holy Grail of murder memorabilia: A strand of the victim’s hair.
The autopsy revealed that the woman was around five months pregnant and that she had not been raped. At first the soldiers at Fort Thomas were the likely suspects, but every man was present and accounted for at the time of the crime. This news caused authorities to shift their focus to finding a man, probably married, who got a girl into trouble and who lost his mind at the wrong moment.
The authorities identified the remains through circumstantial evidence beginning with the only lead from the crime scene: A pair of shoes. The woman was wearing small black leather-and-cloth boots that bore the label of a clothing store in Greencastle, Indiana. Police headed there to interview the owners of Louis & Hayes, who told them that a dozen pairs of the shoes were made especially for their store. Ten had been sold and police were able to track down all but two of the purchasers. The shoes in question went to one of those buyers. It appeared they were at a dead end.
Because Depauw Women’s Seminary was close by, the police tried to make up for lost time by visiting the campus to make sure all the ladies there were accounted for. They were.
When the description of the girl’s sewing calluses and a small wart on a finger became known, Pearl’s mother became concerned. She asked her son to check on Pearl.
“Fred Bryan a brother of Pearl telegraphed to Indianapolis to Pearl’s friends, asking if she was there,” the Enquirer told its readers. “The answer came that Pearl had not been in Indianapolis.”
Faced with the likelihood that the impossible had become possible and that the murdered girl might be their youngest daughter, Pearl Bryan’s parents were about to go to the police with their concerns. Detectives from Newport and Cincinnati were ahead of them and arrived on their doorstep in the early hours of the day. The officers were already convinced that the dead woman was Pearl Bryan and only needed confirmation from the family.
The clue that broke the case open came from the Western Union telegrapher who happened to be a friend of Will Wood’s. A.W. Early knew of the telegram sent by Fred Bryan and also knew that Pearl Bryan was not in Indianapolis but that she was in Cincinnati to have an abortion.
“It was then, he knew, that he possessed positive information, not only as to the identification of the headless body at the Morgue in Newport, but also to the fixing of the guilt on one or more persons, one of whom at least was Early’s intimate friend,” the Enquirer told readers.
Wood not only talked to Early about the problems of Pearl and Scott Jackson, he showed him the letters written by Jackson with the various suggestions for inducing an abortion.
“Wood told me afterward that Pearl had gone to Cincinnati to have a criminal operation performed, and had told her parents she was going to Indianapolis to visit friends,” he told police. “She had money with her, sufficient to cover any expenses she might incur in such an undertaking.”
Armed with this information the detectives went back to the clothiers. A cross-check of records confirmed that the size 3 boots were bought recently by Pearl Bryan. With the shoes and Pearl’s homespun clothes in hand, the detectives knocked on the door of the Bryan home around 2 a.m.
Suffice to say that within an hour arrest warrants had been issued for Scott Jackson and Will Wood for the murder of Pearl Bryan. Alonzo Walling had not yet been connected to the crime.
Jackson was the first man arrested and his capture went without incident: he was picked up outside the rooming house where he lived with Walling.
It was after nine o’clock, when almost the last ray of hope had died out of the officers breasts, that Chief of Police Deitsch received word that Jackson had just been seen at the Palace Hotel. The chief started out and ran into a man answering Jackson’s description. He informed the detectives of the fact, the fellow was watched and was seen to walk slowly down Ninth Street, and on reaching 222 he looked up at the windows. He strolled slowly to Plum Street and stopped and again looked back at the house.
One of the detectives approached Jackson from behind and called out, “Dusty!” which made Jackson turn.
“Your name’s Jackson, isn’t it?” asked the detective.
The Enquirer records Jackson’s reaction: “The man turned perfectly livid and trembled like an aspen, and as the detective continued to say, ‘I want you,’ he exclaimed, ‘My God! what is this for?'”
The most interesting thing about Jackson’s first interrogation after his arrest was where and how it occurred:
The scene in the private office of Mayor Caldwell in the City Hall was undoubtedly the most remarkable ever witnessed there. The Mayor was sitting in his office with his Chief Clerk, Cliff Lakeman, when Jackson was ushered into his presence by the officers, at the head of whom was Chief of Police Deitsch. A few minutes later the room was thronged with representatives of the newspapers and detectives. Coroner Haerr was also there waiting for possible developments.
Jackson, the prisoner, sat in the center of a long sofa on the east side of the room. On the side of him was Chief Deitsch. The latter conducted the examination, while the Mayor sat in his chair, smoked a cigar and listened.
Jackson said he last saw Pearl on January 2 in Greencastle and had no idea why she was in Cincinnati — assuming it really was her body in the morgue. What he could not explain away with a lie he simply shrugged off with an “I don’t know.”
Jackson was surprised to learn that police had been doing more than just trying to identify a body. Jackson’s acquaintances knew he was from Greencastle, as was the victim, and he was seen in the company of a mysterious young girl before the body was found but not after. When Jackson began carrying a valise for no apparent reason, he was brought to police attention.
Although it was one of hundreds of tips provided, police dutifully sent a detective to speak with a saloon keeper who was holding on to a case for Jackson. The officer came back with a critical piece of evidence. Known forever as “the bloody valise” because the name fit, the satchel appeared as how one would imagine it would if its previous contents was a severed head.
His explanation for this was weak. When asked why he left the valise in the saloon, Jackson said he did it because he did not want to carry it. He admitted his boardinghouse was just across the street and the valise was empty.
Following the interview Jackson was booked into the Hamilton County Jail on a charge of murder. Jackson’s cell contained no light and was built from dark stone. Several cells away, a single gas lamp flickered. The Enquirer did not report if Jackson’s cellblock was otherwise empty, but he was alone in his cell. In this dungeon he began to lose his cool demeanor and was afraid of being lynched. He requested the jailer to sit outside his cell. The jailer said he thought Jackson was more likely to kill himself than be lynched, and thus began a restless night for the accused.
Around 2 a.m. he asked the jailer if Walling had been arrested yet. When the turnkey asked why he should be, Jackson clammed up. The jailer reported the behavior to investigators and by 3 a.m. Walling was in custody, although Jackson was not made aware of this.
The report of Wood’s arrest in South Bend reached Cincinnati around 6:30 the next morning.
Will Wood was interrogated in much the same fashion as Jackson, but with his father in the room, as well. Based on the information uncovered in Greencastle, police did not consider Wood guilty of anything other than having a bad choice in friends. His interview did not shed any new light on the case and he was released on his own recognizance without being charged.
The circumstantial evidence against Jackson and Walling was increasing exponentially with every edition of the Enquirer, but the paper’s accounting was not far from the truth. Faced with the overwhelming stack of evidence, the men turned on each other.
In Jackson’s locker at the dental college searchers found trousers that were blood-flecked and had muddy cuffs — as if the wearer had run through a mud puddle. Jackson claimed Walling wore the pants the night he killed Pearl, while Walling simply denied knowing anything about the pants.
A possible weapon was found in the form of a straight razor hidden in the bottom of Walling’s trunk. He admitted the razor was his, but denied it was connected to the crime. Authorities were alerted to its existence by Jackson.
Walling repaid the favor by pointing out that Jackson purchased cocaine and was planning to give Pearl an overdose via injection. No injection site was present on her body, but the autopsy showed she had ingested cocaine powder. He went on to say Jackson told him the cocaine was to paralyze Pearl’s vocal chords so she could not scream when he killed her. Jackson admitted buying the cocaine, but said he did this at Walling’s request.
Continuing his quixotic effort to lay the crime squarely at the feet of Jackson, Walling told police where they could find the coat Jackson wore the night of the murder.
A detective went to the spot and found the black coat which matched the pants found in the locker. Blood stains were found on the sleeves and front. The Enquirer claimed in one of the pockets was found “tansy flower, which, made into tea, is used to produce miscarriages.”
Occasionally the prisoners were questioned together, which resulted in conversations between the two that always degraded into each man demanding the other do the honorable thing and tell the truth.
In reality Walling was not helping his case much, if at all. Desperate to escape the gallows, he was cooperating fully with police in locating evidence that just further established his guilt and did nothing to exonerate him. His knowledge of the intimate details of the crime made him an accomplice and subject to the same penalty as the principal. At best the only difference was whether Walling died in prison sooner, rather than later. Still, he had nothing to lose by trying.
With the testimony of Will Wood and the corroboration by telegrapher Early, establishing motive and opportunity would be easy for the prosecution.
The most damning piece of evidence was the bloody valise recovered from a saloon where Jackson left it. Confronted with the it, which he said he intended to destroy but had not yet done it, Jackson was clearly shaken. However, his story was so simple that even with his back against the wall it was easy to remember: “Walling did it all.”
Jackson’s face flushed and his eyes twitched. He pulled his mustache and ran his fingers through his hair. He was only a moment answering, but it appeared to be an hour to those who were waiting for a reply. He finally moistened his lips with his tongue and said: “Yes, that is blood.”
“Isn’t that the valise in which you carried the head?”
“I guess it is, but I did not carry it.”
“Well, who did?”
The valise is one of two that made appearances in the trial, both of which belonged to Pearl. The bloody valise was left at a saloon and later an empty case was turned in by Jackson and Walling’s barber. He could not recall which man left it, however.
At the Funeral Parlor
Jackson and Walling had to face one more ordeal before ever seeing a courtroom. The police were hoping that being confronted with the fruits of their crime, one or both of the men would crack. The plan resulted in a most unusual meeting at the undertaker’s parlor.
The Bryans spared no expense and gave Pearl the kind of funeral accoutrements one would expect a grieving family to do in such a situation. Her coffin had a white satin cloth finish, trimmed with a cord and tassel. The handles were silver, as was the plate in the center of the casket lid that read simply, “Pearl.” She was buried in the same white silk dress she wore to her graduation.
“The absence of the head was made scarcely noticeable by the placing of a square satin pillow in the head on the casket down to the shoulders of the corpse,” wrote the reporter present at the scene.
Standard police practice encourages investigators to confront the accused by showing images of the victim, but rarely is a suspect brought to a funeral parlor and interrogated in front of the dead victim by her family. Cincinnati PD had no such compunction.
Mayor Caldwell Chief Deitsch and Sheriff Plummer went to Epply’s morgue, where the remains lay. In a short time Detectives Crim and McDermott arrived with the prisoners. Jackson was placed at the head of the coffin and Walling near the foot. Both faced the brother and sister of the murdered girl, who were on the other side of the casket.
The Enquirer relates that Jackson’s cool demeanor, damaged by his encounter with the bloody valise, was near collapse when he arrived and it looked like the police theory was correct. But by the end of the interview he had recovered his nerve.
“He shook his head and sighed deeply. His face was terribly flushed, and he looked as though he might break down at any moment,” the paper reported. “On the other hand Walling was to all appearance the coolest man in the room. He gazed at the corpse without a shiver and looked around on the faces of those present.”
Perhaps he was expecting Jackson to confess and exonerate him. It was a forlorn hope he held to his final hours.
The police then turned the interview over to the Bryan family, which was most interested in locating Poor Pearl’s head.
Determined to make one more effort to secure a confession as to where the head was, Chief Deitsch arranged for Mrs. Stanley to ask the prisoners. Almost begging on bended knees, and sobbing heavily she cried: “Mr. Jackson, I come to you and ask where is my sister’s head. For the sake of my poor mother and for my sister and for my brother I beg of you to tell me where my sister’s head is. It is my last chance and I want to send it home with the body. Won’t you please tell me, I beg of you?”
Jackson looked at her, and, without turning a hair, said: “Mrs. Stanley, I do not know.”
The same question was asked Walling to which he coldly and without any semblance of feeling, replied: “I do not know where it is.”
Jackson and Walling were returned to the jail, where they were greeted by a throng of citizens there for the single purpose of seeing the two men. Extra police were called out to clear the street and the people dissipated quietly, the Enquirer reporting that the crowd lacked a leader to turn it into a mob.
That evening Pearl’s body was taken by train to Greencastle. Her father had it placed in a sepulcher until her head could be found. Over and over he rejected entreaties to hold a funeral but only responded, “We must have her head. She cannot be buried without her head. The head must be found.”
The two men fought extradition from Ohio to Kentucky but the courts upheld the governor’s order. Their trip from Cincinnati across the Ohio River to Newport is without question one of the greatest police chases ever conducted and contains an ironic twist that can only happen in real life. The Enquirer’s vividly detailed account by an anonymous reporter (likely paid by the word) conveys the festival-like excitement caused by their transfer to Newport and deserves quoting at length.
St. Patrick’s day, March, 17., 1896, will ever live green in the memory of Alonzo Walling and Scott Jackson. It was on this day they were taken to Kentucky, quietly and without much ado.
The crowds about the Jail and the reporters had no idea what was going on until patrol wagon No. 3 backed up to the door and Sheriff Plummer, followed by his prisoners and the detectives, went to get in. Immediately the crowd went wild and a mighty yell went up. “They’re going to Kentucky,” was yelled by a thousand voices. Cabs were telephoned for by reporters, spring wagons were pressed into service and before the officers and prisoners could get in the patrol wagon fully twelve or fifteen vehicles were ready to follow. The horses were forced to a run and those following increased their speed accordingly.
The crowd increased. Fear was unmistakably seen on the countenances of both prisoners. Down Sycamore Street to Eighth the horses went on a wild run. Before reaching Eighth Street, Sheriff Plummer said that it would be impossible to thwart the fast increasing throng and in order to throw them off their guard, ordered the driver to turn west off Sycamore on Eighth and drive to Central Police Station. A large crowd awaited them there and the prisoners were quickly hustled into the cells. The crowds increased until the large iron doors had to be closed to keep the crowds from the driveways and corridors of the big City Building. The prisoners were kept there for two hours or more. Every movement of the officers was watched closely, especially by the reporters.
Suddenly the large iron doors flew open, and patrol No. 1, dashed into the court-yard, when the party was again loaded in quickly. Once in the wagon, a wild drive to Newport was made. East on Eighth Street to Broadway dashed the team of splendid police-horses, down Broadway to Second and over the Central Bridge on a full run thence up York Street in Newport, up to Third to the jail.
Everywhere the people stopped and stared at the strange chase, as patrol No. 1 and vehicles containing press-representatives galloped by, throwing mud and snow in all directions, and unconsciously the correct conclusion was arrived at in nearly every case — that Jackson and Walling were being taken across the river.
We must assume the writer, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day while on the job, was peddling blarney when they wrote that the transfer was done “quietly and without much ado.”
The overwhelming circumstantial evidence made the summer 1896 trials of Jackson and Walling perfunctory affairs. There was the typical legal wrangling in which every lawyer bore the title “Colonel” and the state of Kentucky was represented, the Enquirer assured readers, by the best team of prosecutors that could be assembled from across the Bluegrass State.
Jackson took the stand in his defense, but there was nothing new to his theory of the crime: Will Wood got Pearl pregnant and as a favor to him Walling took Pearl across the river and murdered her.
“He maintains that Walling was confused and panic stricken when he saw the articles in the newspapers describing the finding of the body at Fort Thomas,” according to reporters. Jackson’s duties, which he failed miserably, were to dispose of Pearl’s luggage. His jury took under 15 minutes to find him guilty and recommend the death penalty.
Walling’s attempt to pin everything Jackson was similarly unsuccessful and he joined his former roommate in the death house.
All appeals were unsuccessful and the execution scheduled for March 20, 1897.
On the night before the hanging, Jackson and Walling were lodged together in the death house where they spent their time writing notes to family and friends, eating hearty meals and talking with the “death watch” made up of jailers and newspapermen. Both men were resigned to their fates, but Walling appeared to be more accepting. He ate a steak dinner and decided at 1 a.m. to go to sleep. The Enquirer reports that soon he was sleeping like a baby.
Jackson, on the other hand, did not sleep. He talked with his jailers well past 2 a.m. when he was visited by Sheriff Jule Plummer. The sheriff interrupted Jackson in his letter writing and asked if the condemned man planned on making a statement.
“If you are, I would appreciate knowing that in advance,” the sheriff said. Jackson replied that he would not make a statement. Plummer then asked if Jackson would exonerate Walling. A villain to the end, Jackson demurred.
“I cannot save Walling without lying,” he lied. “And I will not do that.”
Shortly after dawn the next morning Jackson and Walling, dressed in black cutaway coats and white shirts, mounted the gallows and without making any statements, were hanged for the murder of Pearl Bryan. They both died instantly. The Enquirer headline over its long article describing the hangings read “Sheathed: Justice’s Sword.”
The article reported that once the black hoods were removed from the corpses, Walling’s face appeared peaceful while Jackson died hard.
Only those who gazed upon the distorted and discolored face of Scott Jackson after the lifeless body had been cut down from the scaffold will ever realize the agony which he suffered before death’s icy grasp reached out and released him from his earthly sufferings.
In rather gruesome detail for a newspaper in 1897, the Enquirer described how Jackson’s head had swollen to three times its normal size and caused the undertaker’s assistant nearly to faint with fright.
The relic hunters who were out after Pearl’s murder were there for her killers’ executions but came away — at the moment — empty handed. As the bodies swayed at the end of their ropes the throng began to push forward, and the militia, which was on hand for just such an expectation, fixed bayonets and forced the crowd back.
Legend tells us that pieces of the hangman’s rope are particularly valuable as charms, so it is likely some lucky collectors eventually paid a pretty penny for a few inches of rope, thanks to eager jailers or militia members.
Pearl Bryan’s severed head was never located despite intensive efforts by the police and public reunite it with her body. At one time a pond near Fort Thomas was drained at considerable expense with nothing to show for it.
Walling spoke openly of his speculations and eventually fixed on the idea that Jackson threw Pearl Bryan’s head off the bridge into the Ohio River. He backed up this claim with another: Jackson not only brought Pearl’s head back to the rooming house, he looked at it admiringly.
“He came in with a valise, and I saw him open it and say, ‘You are a beaut, you are.’ He thought I was asleep,” Walling said during questioning.
An interview by Walling with the Enquirer is a good example of the game of hot potato played by Walling and Jackson.
Question:Well, now, did you do it or did Jackson? He says you did it.”
Answer: He’s putting it all on me now, is he? Well, he’s the one who is guilty. I know nothing of it.”
Question: What did he tell you had become of the head?”
Answer: I understand that he threw it in the Ohio River.”
Question: Jackson says that you threw the head into the river, and that the next day you told him to get rid of anything lying around loose at the boarding house by throwing it into the river.”
Answer: I never saw the head, and he told me that he threw it into a sewer.”
Question: Then he says the skull was cut up and thrown over piecemeal by you.”
Answer: I don’t know about the cutting up part, but deny the other.”
In his earliest statement after admitting he knew about Pearl’s murder, Walling told police he believed Jackson buried it near the murder site. Extensive digging produced nothing, but the burial theory retained popularity despite denials by Jackson and an alternative theory later suggested by Walling. For several decades every time a human skull was unearthed in Northern Kentucky (a surprisingly common experience) it was suspected of being Poor Pearl’s head. Each time, the skull was ruled out.
Pearl’s father, Alexander, reconciled himself to the sorry fact that Pearl’s head would probably never be found and allowed his daughter’s remains to be buried without it. Her coffin was removed by pallbearers from her high school class from the tomb where it had been stored. Will Wood’s name is not mentioned in any newspaper reports. The six men carried the coffin to her final resting place at the highest point in Greencastle’s Forest Hill Cemetery where the grave could be seen from the Bryan homestead.
If ever a ghost was doomed to spend eternity searching for something, it is Pearl Bryan. However, whether it is because it is true, or because there are simply no ghost hunters in the area to dispute it, Pearl’s headless body appears to be resting quietly in her white satin coffin.
Birth of a Legend
There are many scholarly books about American folk music that tell how Pearl’s story was adopted by performers and became the standard for what researchers call “the murdered girl” genre of music. For a detailed exploration of the murdered girl ballad, I suggest Poor Pearl, Poor Girl! The Murdered-Girl Stereotype in Ballad and Newspaper by Anne B. Cohen. Her scholarly research on the actual crime is very granular and her book contains photographs not previously published. Those who are interested in the folklore aspect of the case will also be quite pleased. Be forewarned: This is a sociology textbook.
Young girls, if you’ll listen, a story I’ll relate
That happened near Fort Thomas in the old Kentucky State
On January the thirty-first the dreadful deed was done
By Jackson and by Walling; how cold Pearl’s blood did run!
But little did her parents think when she left her happy home,
Their darling girl just in her youth would never more return.
How sad it would have been to them to have heard Pearl’s lonely voice
At midnight in that lonely spot where those two boys rejoiced!
And little did Pearl Bryan think when she left her home
The grip she carried in her hand would hide her head away
She thought it was her lover’s hand she could trust both night and day
Although it was her lover’s hand that took her life away
The driver in the seat is all who tells of Pearl’s sad fate
Of poor Pearl Bryan away from home in the old Kentucky state
Of her aged parents we all know well what a fortune they would give
If Pearl could but to them return her natural life to live
In came Pearl Bryan’s sister and falling to her knees
Begging to Scott Jackson, “My sister’s head, O please!”
Scott Jackson he set stubborn not a word would he proclaim
“I’ll meet my sister in heaven, where I’ll find her missing head.”
In came Walling’s mother, Pleading for her son
“Don’t take my son, my only son; from him I cannot part
O please don’t take him to prison; it would break my poor old heart!”
The jury gave a verdict, and to their feet they sprung:
“For the crime these boys committed they surely must be hung.”
A Note About Sourcing
The main source for this article and the best source for an introduction to Pearl’s murder is a pamphlet, The Murder of Pearl Bryan, or, The Headless Horror, published by “Barclay & Co.” consisting of word-for-word copies of content that ran in the Cincinnati Enquirer. The articles are arranged in semi-chronological order, but not always. Two events that occurred almost simultaneously would be covered in separate stories and included in different parts of the pamphlet.
The fact that the Enquirer name does not appear leads to the conclusion that it was pirated.
This was often done with sensational trials usually by someone close to the case, most likely a reporter who cut a deal with a rival printer.
In the trial of Dr. James Snook for the murder of his mistress, daily trial transcripts were compiled and sold by the court reporters because they held more salacious details than could be printed in the newspapers. Few copies of the Snook pamphlet exist today because Columbus, Ohio, police confiscated and destroyed the bulk of them.
Occasionally newspapers published commemorative editions after the final sentence is carried out, such as the one printed after the execution of Mayor Sam McCue. There was no difference between those publications and today’s scandal sheets or those TIME/Life “special editions” that come out when a big celebrity dies.
Although Pearl’s story involved premarital sex, pregnancy, abortion and murder, there was not much in the pamphlet that was not in the papers. Mostly it is word substitution: “rape” for “outrage,” “abortion” instead of “criminal operation,” etc. The phrases “criminal intimacy” and “betray” as a action verb on the part of the victimizer, is used in the pamphlet and newspaper to mean “had sex” (The intimacy was criminal because they were unmarried).
The lack of new information means it was probably published as a special edition prior to the execution of Jackson and Walling as it ends right after the guilty verdicts are rendered.
For information about the hanging, I reviewed Enquirereditions at the Ohio State Library.
Regardless of its provenance, The Headless Horror collects articles and extensive verbatim transcripts of the trials and interrogations in one convenient place.
Back to the article.