The Death of Pearl Bryan

In beginning my research in this story, for the most part it seemed an open and shut case.  Upon further reading I was left with questions, partly because of conflicting information, but also because that same information appears to go with other information.  Of course, like many of the cases I have recently written about the fact that this case took place in 1896 leaves it open for legends.  Neither of the men convicted and executed for the crime truly confessed at least according to the theory given by the prosecution.  I will first give you the long and short of the crime as told by the prosecution at the trials of the condemned men as well as the newspaper accounts.  I will then look into the other proposed theories as to if there is any credence to them. 

On February 1, 1896 the headless body of a woman was found on a farm belonging to John Locke in Newport, Kentucky.  Newport was located just over the bridge from Cincinnati Ohio.  It was thought that identification would prove to be difficult in a day before DNA or even blood typing.  One of the investigators noticed the shoes on the corpse seemingly custom made as well as small in size.  Amazingly in a short period of time (considering the era) they were able to trace the shoes back to a shop in Greencastle Indiana and to a twenty-two year old woman named Pearl Bryan.  The clothes that were on the body were also later identified by the Bryan family.  Pearl had left her home on January 27th, telling her family that she was going to Indianapolis to visit friends or family.  Instead she got on a train and went to Cincinnati where she was meeting up with Scott Jackson.  Jackson and Pearl had met the previous year when he was visiting in Greencastle with his mother and sister.  Apparently sometime throughout this time they were intimate and a few months after Jackson had left Greencastle for Cincinnati Pearl discovered she was pregnant.  Jackson by this time had all but moved on and was ignoring Pearl.  He was supposedly having contact with Pearl's cousin Will Wood, through whom had met Pearl, and after several attempts to have her miscarriage Jackson supposedly left word for Pearl to come to Cincinnati to obtain an abortion.  

Once she was in Cincinnati she was seen several times in the company of Scott Jackson and his roommate Alonzo Walling. Witness claim that they saw the three arguing at different points. It somehow came to be believed that Pearl had changed her mind about obtaining the abortion. According to the prosecution on the night of January 31st, Pearl, Jackson and Walling were seen in a tavern called, Walliford's. It is suspected that one of the men put something, possibly cocaine, in her drink.  Walling's then went to rent a carriage.  The carriage driver, George Jackson, said he never saw Jackson and Pearl get into the back of the carriage, although he heard a woman moaning, and that Walling sat up front with him.  George Jackson claims he was directed to drive over the bridge into Kentucky and was directed to stop near the Locke farm.  He claims to have seen the two men having to help the woman up the hill as she seemed very ill or drugged at the time.  George Jackson claims that at this point he was very scared and went back to Cincinnati as fast as he could. Some reports claim that he left the carriage and ran on foot but this is not confirmed. 

Prosecutors claim that after they murdered her Jackson went and asked a tavern owner to hold on to a travel bag that ultimately they learned belonged to Pearl.  The tavern owner said when Jackson left it with him on that night it was very heavy and he commented to Jackson, asking if there was a bowling ball in it. The following day Jackson retrieved the bag and brought it back again later, much lighter.  Prosecutors obtained the bag and claimed it was blood stained, indicating it was Pearl's blood. They theorized that Pearl's head was initially in the bag and that the following day when Jackson retrieved it that he had taken it to the dental school, to which he was a student, and put it in the incinerator. Her head was never found.

Jackson and Walling both received separate trials within the next few months.  Both were found guilty and sentenced to hang. Both defendants blamed the other for the crime, although stating they had not seen it to know for certain. It was reported that Jackson's defense hired a private detective and they were accused of paying witnesses to commit perjury. Prosecutors were onto the plan and only the private detective and a druggist were ever charged with perjury as most opted not to testify. Most agree that Walling was all but convicted because he stated that he knew Jackson was going to kill Pearl but had not warned her. The community at large was appalled by the crime and threatened to storm the jail, grab the defendants and perform a lynching. At some point there was a prison escape and it is said that neither Jackson or Walling participated or would leave, feeling they were safer in the jail.  They were both executed at the same time, from the same set of gallows on March 20, 1897 in Newport Kentucky.  

That was the official version, an open and shut case.

Over the more than a century since the crime of course, as with many cases, questions have been raised.  However, apparently it did not take a 100 years for these questions and many were raised very early, some even early enough to have other suspects. Then there is also the impression of things given at the time of the crime as to how things really were.

First, to get it out of the way, as it will likely sound like victim bashing, which I do not like to do, Pearl was not the meek, little, poor shy girl the media made her out to be.  She was the youngest of 12 children whose father was a prominent farmer in the Greencastle area.  Poor was not a description that was associated with the family.  Secondly, she was apparently very popular with the men, not to the extent that she had brought any sort of shame to the family but it was not like she was naive.  

Prior to her death her family did not know that she was pregnant, let alone five months along. However, when they first learned of this they assumed that the father of the child was her second cousin, Will Wood as they were very close.  Will Wood claimed to the police and at the trials that he was not intimate with Pearl, however, there were others who testified that Wood had bragged otherwise prior to her death.  While police were in Cincinnati arresting Scott Jackson they were also in South Bend Indiana detaining Wood to bring him for questioning.  At this point Jackson and Wood both accused each other of being the father of the baby.  Wood admitted he knew that Pearl was pregnant and that he had seen her off at the train station, knowing she was going to Cincinnati to meet Jackson and obtain an abortion. He was apparently cleared of all suspicion.  

After their trials both men were asked to write their confession.  This was often done in cases where the defendant still claims innocence, if for no other reason than to reassure the executor of their guilt.  Both Jackson and Walling wrote a similar confession that involved a prominent doctor in the area.  From the surface some of it seemed credible and worthy of investigation.  However after seeing them the Governor reportedly stated that the confessions were obviously untrustworthy, but despite that, the act of abortion was an illegal act so they still deserved the gallows.  Upon later investigation the story seemed to fall apart. A few of the witnesses were either considered unstable or found to be lying.  One of those witnesses were later brought up on perjury charges, although I am uncertain to circumstances surrounding that.  Reports are that this confession did not occur until after the trial hence the witness questioned but unless it was in court it would not be "under oath" and subject to perjury charges. 

George Jackson, the carriage driver, and his story has also been brought into question.  For one, apparently Walling supposedly owned a carriage so there is question as to why they would hire a driver and in essence "hire a witness."  Secondly, the discovery of Pearl and the crime had dominated the news for two weeks, with both defendants' pictures being shown often before George Jackson came forward.  Even still it was said that he had difficulty identifying Scott Jackson in a line up.  Rumor is that he only did so when a jailer was asking George Jackson to step back but only called him by his last name and Scott Jackson moved, "reminding" George they shared the last name and making his identification easier.  

During their trials, both Jackson and Walling claimed that they last saw Pearl on Wednesday, two days prior to the crime.  There was a witness (was the owner or an employee) from Walliford's Tavern who claimed to have seen the two men with Pearl on Friday night, just prior to the murder.  He was certain in his identification as he knew Jackson fairly well and mentioned the full beard that he had.  Both Jackson and Walling admitted to being in Walliford's with Pearl but both claim that it was on Tuesday evening, not on Friday.  Witnesses, including Jackson's barber and landlady and her family confirmed that early on Friday Jackson had shaved his beard so he could not have been identified by that on Friday evening.  

Yet another question about the crime, or at least the circumstances laid out by the prosecutor involved in how the corpse was dressed.  It was reported that Pearl was very much into proper dress and fashion.  The dress in which was found on Pearl at the scene was said to have been a hand-me-down dress that was not one in which would have been worn outside the home, let alone to a tavern.  If this is true it then it would eliminate Pearl being taken from the tavern and immediately to her death.

We have to remember that this was a time period in which tunnel vision was not even considered a bad thing from officers.  Nor were there any laws that prevented any kind of abuse to suspects. Many were beaten into confessions.  Often times if a police officer believed someone was guilty they would do whatever it took to get that confession.  With that said, and with all the questions that have come about in the more than 100 years, I am still struck by something.  Regardless of anything I believe there is no doubt that Scott Jackson was involved in some way. Why?  By 1897 forensics were very much in their infancy but things were coming out and attempted, little by little.  I am struck by the fact that Jackson was a dental student and Pearl's head was never found.  This gives me what I call my "icky feeling."  This occurs when something just does not feel right and although is not evidence against the defendant, just says to me that at the very least Scott Jackson was involved.  Of course using this theory, any dental student could have been involved but not just any dental student knew Pearl or was accused of impregnating her.

In the end I think the tactics used in ALL of these old crimes, as well as what the newspaper reported can be brought into question, but "If it looks like a duck....."


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