Pearl Bryan Murder

Pearl Bryan Murder

By Jim Reis-reprinted here with his permission from his book
Pieces of the Past-Volume I

She came to Cincinnati in 1896 hoping to marry the man whose child she was carrying.  Instead, the 22 year old country girl  from Greencastle, Indiana was drugged, taken to an isolated field in Ft. Thomas and decapitated.  Her head has never been found.

She was Pearl Bryan and her brutal murder is considered by many the most sensational crime in the history of Northern Kentucky.  Two dental students were arrested and convicted of the murder after a theatrical trial.  After a jail break, threats of public lynching and a last-minute flurry of telegrams between the Newport jailer and the governor, they were walked to the gallows in the Newport jail yard.

Scott Jackson held no hope of reprieve.  The 28 year old native of Maine was described by newspaper accounts as 5 feet 6 inches tall, with blond hair and cold, glittering steel gray eyes.  He was considered the mastermind of the murder.

There was hope, however, for Alonzo Walling, a 21 year old native of Mt. Carmel, Indiana.  He was 5 feet 9 inches tall, with dark hair and hazel eyes under heavy eyebrows that almost met.  Walling was considered a stolid and morose character with "little force of character, which made him all the more pliant tool of Jackson."  The governor had told Newport Sheriff Julius Plummer that if Jackson confessed on the gallows, including providing the location of Miss Bryan's head, he would spare Walling.

As they stood on the gallows, Plummer asked Jackson if he had anything to say before he was hanged.  Jackson said he did.  Jackson was the son of a transatlantic sea captain and had traveled extensively by the time he was a teenager.  When his father died, he moved with his mother to Jersey City, NJ and took a job with the Pennsylvania Railroad Company.  His boss was charged with embezzling several thousand dollars and although Jackson was never charged with anything, he lost his job.  His mother later moved to Greencastle, Indiana.

While visiting his mother in 1893, Jackson met Miss Bryan.  She was the daughter of a well to do farmer who lived near Greencastle.  She was described as a "Sunday school and church worker, sprightly and vivacious and a social favorite in her home."  She had "bright blue eyes, blonde hair that shaded to auburn, a pretty face, the almost flawless complexion of an unspoiled country girl."

Jackson and Miss Bryan were introduced by her second cousin, Will Woods, and they became friends, meeting whenever Jackson visited Greencastle. The relationship changed in the summer of 1895 and after Jackson left for Cincinnati, Miss Bryan "made a discovery."  She confided in Woods, who wrote to Jackson.  Jackson wrote back to Woods and told him "to tell the girl to come to Cincinnati."  She arrived by train at Cincinnati's Grand Central Station on Tuesday night, January 28, 1896.

Two days later, on a cold foggy morning, John Hewing was cutting across a field at the corner of Highland Avenue and Alexandria Pike in Ft. Thomas.  The property belonged to Colonel John Lock, Hewing's employer. As he walked he spotted a woman lying on the ground.  "I didn't know if she was drunk or dead" Hewing said later.  "Lots of women from the town used to come out there with the soldiers from the post.  It was a lonely spot and they often used it for a trysting place.  We had lots of women out of there who were drunk."

He told his employer about the woman, and a nearby deputy sheriff was asked to look into it.  The deputy sheriff and some others, including Coroner Bob Tingley, went to the spot and found indications of a struggle and a pool of blood at the woman's feet.  When Tingley turned over the body, he pulled her dress down, revealing that the woman's head had been cut off.

Officials searched the surrounding area for the head.  Bloodhounds were brought out and they trailed the scent from the scene to the Covington Reservoir in Ft. Thomas.  The reservoir was drained, but her head was not found.  The body was taken to Newport where an autopsy was performed.  The woman was pregnant and cocaine was found in her stomach.  The body was identified four days later through a manufacturer's number in one of her shoes.  Police followed the number from the manufacturer to a shoe store and then to Miss Bryan's family.

Jackson was arrested that evening after police learned of Wood's letter telling Jackson of the pregnancy.  Walling was arrested the next day after Jackson accused him of committing the murder.  Walling, in turn, accused Jackson. Jackson had met Walling while the two were going to dental school in Indiana.  Their friendship didn't really develop until they met again in Cincinnati. 

Walling told police Jackson originally had asked him to perform an abortion on Miss Bryan, but Jackson later talked about poisoning the woman to make it look as if she had committed suicide.  On Feb 13, Walling and Jackson were indicted for murder.  Most of the police effort turned to convincing the two men to confess and reveal the location of the woman's head. 

Fred Bryan, Pearl's brother came to the Newport Morgue to take his sister's body to the John P Epply Mortuary in Cincinnati. On Saturday, February 8, police took Jackson and Walling to the funeral home, where Miss Bryan's headless body was dressed in her high school graduation dress. Miss Bryan's sister begged them to tell her the location of the head, but they showed no emotion, a display they maintained throughout the trials.  Pearl's body was taken back to Greencastle Indiana where she was buried in the Forest Hill Cemetery, 2181 South County Road 50 West.  People are always putting a Lincoln head penny on her stone, with the thought that she will not be headless on Resurrection Day.

Jackson's trial lasted from April 21 to May 14.  During his trial medical experts testified that they believed, based on the amount of blood, that the woman was alive during part of the decapitation.  Jackson insisted he was innocent, but his defense tried to prove that the woman was dead before she was beheaded.

Jackson was found guilty and sentenced to hang.  Walling, after a trial that lasted from May 20 to June 18, received a similar sentence.  Police protection, both in uniform and undercover, was heavy because of the rumors that the two would be lynched by angry relatives and friends.  The threat of a lynching was so great that even though a jailbreak occurred while they were incarcerated, Jackson and Walling remained in their cells.  They remained in jail until May 20, 1897, when all their appeals and continuances had expired.

A crown gathered early that day and the condemned men were described as "recklessly defiant" of their situation, looking out through their jail window at the crowd and even greeting some people.  The day was described as a "perfect spring day."

Because of his inexperience in hangings, the sheriff had asked Ed Fauth of Lexington to make sure the gallows worked.  Bracken County Sheriff Maurice Hook also had been asked to attend because of his experience in such work.  The execution was set for 9 am but at three minutes before 9, Jackson asked to talk to the minister in attendance and, after doing so, told the deputies he had a statement to make about Walling.  He then said, "I know that Alonzo M Walling is not guilty of murder."

The message was quickly telegraphed to Governor William O Bradley, who telegraphed back that more details of the crime were needed.  The hanging was delayed and Jackson was questioned again, then left alone to think things over for a few minutes.  When the officials returned, Jackson said he had "nothing further" to say and the double execution proceeded.  The gallows were checked again and at 11:32 the march to the gallows began.

Jackson was described as standing erect and playing the part of an actor.  Walling trembled with his eyes downcast.  At that point, Jackson was again asked if he had anything to say. An eyewitness said, "Jackson hesitated fully two moments before he replied.  Before he spoke, Walling turned expectantly evidently believing Jackson would speak the words that would save his life, even while he stood on the brink of death.  Walling had half turned around and he stood in that position with an appealing expression on his face, while Jackson without looking at him, upturned his eyes and replied, 'I have only this to say, that I am not guilty of the crime for which I am now compelled to pay the penalty of my life."

Walling was then asked if he had any comments.  He said, "Nothing, only that you are taking the life of an innocent man and I will call upon God to witness the truth of what I say."

At 11:40am the trapdoors opened and Jackson and Walling were hanged.  To this day, visitors to Greencastle, Indiana when visiting the grave of Pearl Bryan put pennies on her stone, so that she may have a head when the resurrection day comes. The bag that she brought with her from Indiana and that supposedly carried her head is now in possession of the Campbell County Historical Society Museum in Alexandria, Kentucky.

See also a personal recollection story by Albert Vinton Stegman of Pearl Bryan.

And the legend of Pearl Bryan by Troy Taylor at Legend of Pearl Bryan

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