The Headless Horror: The Murder of Pearl Bryan

On February 2, 1896, The Courier-Journal wrote a short piece about the mysterious remains of a woman found beheaded in a lonely area, about one mile south of Fort Thomas, Kentucky.

Only 5 years before H. H. Holmes had stalked the World’s Fair for his victims, and the year after that Lizzie Borden’s parents had been hacked to death in their home. 

Initially it was suspected she was an “abandoned woman” from Cincinnati, and law enforcement was unable to find her head, despite bringing in bloodhounds to find it.  A soldier in Ft. Thomas reported seeing a man and a woman walking out late at night along Alexandria Pike close to where the body was found, and a sergeant claimed he had heard a woman scream around midnight.

The stylish, but unusually petite, size three, cloth topped boots she was wearing eventually led to the identification of the victim. Mr. Poock a local shoe vendor using the imprint and numbers inside the boots, contacted the manufacturer who confirmed that only one size 3 had been sent to a store in Greencastle.  On February 7, the body was identified as Pearl Bryan; Lewis and Hayes where she purchased her shoes from identified her as the purchaser of that particular pair of boots. The public was riveted when it became known the victim was a pretty, country girl.

The brutality of Pearl Bryan's murder had far reaching effects, even to those with the best intentions who were horrified over the fate of this girl.  By 1896, L. D. Poock who helped in identifying Pearl's body, lost his once thriving business by devoting so much time to solving the mystery of the petite boot.  The article describes where other residents in the area had gone insane over the tragedy.

However, this was not the end of Mr. Poock as an intrepid investigator. In January 1898, the police department from St. Paul, Minnesota contacted him in order to identify the murdered remains of a woman, using her shoes of course. All that was left of her were skeletal remains.  The article was titled Another Pearl Bryan Case. Mr. Poock said he identified the shoe manufacturers and stated he was sure the mystery would be solved.

​In November, 1899, a young lady requested to have gold fillings removed from her teeth that Scott Jackson had put in while he was a student at the Indianapolis Dental College, claiming that since the death of Pearl Bryan. her teeth had hurt. She said she found relief once they were replaced.

Pearl was born October 12, 1872, one of twelve children born to Alexander and Susan Farrow Bryan, a wealthy farming family who lived on the outskirts of Greencastle, Indiana.   She was a music student at DePauw University and she worked in her sister Mary’s dress shop in Greencastle. 

Pearl lied to her parents when she told them she was going to Indianapolis to visit some family friends, but went instead to Cincinnati.  It was during these three days that events unfolded which ended as she fought an assailant intent on separating her head from her body while she was alive.  As the investigation evolved, it had all the factors that attract the public today, illicit love affair, sex, unwanted pregnancy, drug use, double lives, and a violent death of one of the participants.

One wonders if Pearl was a simple country girl tricked into thinking she was running away with her lover, or did she go with the full intent of having an abortion performed.  It was apparent she had run out of options as she was 5 ½ months pregnant when she was killed.

Her torn and bloody clothing were brought to the family’s home and her mother confirmed they belonged to her daughter, also the fact that she had webbed feet, which she had been teased about by her siblings when they were children.

Based on information provided by Pearl’s family, William Wood, a pastor’s son and second cousin to Pearl was sought out.  He was known among friends and family as being Pearl’s confidant, and the one who had introduced Pearl to Scott Jackson in the spring of 1895. Jackson quickly became a main suspect.  When Wood was questioned by the police and faced being charged with murder, he disclosed that Scott Jackson had led Pearl on after she had fallen in love with him, and Jackson had contacted him when she had become pregnant to help him get rid of the pregnancy because he did not intend to marry her. During the trial questions arose as to whether the father of Pearl’s child was Scott Jackson or William Wood. Both admitted to having intercourse with her, but Jackson claimed he had done so only after he was aware she was pregnant by Wood.

During the trial Western Union agent, A. W. Early testified the Jackson and Wood in the months leading up to the murder had exchanged various recipes thought to cause a miscarriage.  Apparently none of them worked.  That was when plans were made for the abortion in Ohio, and Pearl was instructed to lie to her family in order to make the trip to Cincinnati.

Scott Jackson and Alonzo Walling were brought in for questioning and they immediately accused each other of the crime.  Friends of both Jackson and Walling hired a dozen eminent attorneys to defend them.

William Wood met Scott after he had moved to Greencastle with his mother in the spring of 1895.  They left Indianapolis after Scott got kicked out of dental college due to accusations he had embezzled money from the railroad, and was involved with prostitutes.

Walling and Jackson became friends while attending dental school in Indiana, and struck up their friendship again, sharing a room at a boarding house while they both attended the Ohio Dental School. Walling was implicated because he told Jackson of performing a successful abortion on May Smith, a girl he seduced.  Afterward the situation was hushed up and no one was the wiser of the indiscretion. 

​They agreed on Walling performing an abortion on Pearl and Wood acting as intermediary to pay Walling $50 for it afterwards.  As to why Alonzo’s role went beyond procuring an abortionist to committing murder is not clear.  Some stated that he was lead into it by his older roommate, others that he was totally complicit in the planning and execution of a murder plan.

The autopsy confirmed that Pearl had a significant amount of cocaine in her stomach, enough to make a person unconscious. In a ghoulish move her fetus was removed and stored in alcohol in a peppermint stick jar, and ended up at A. F. Goetz Pharmacy where people paid to see it.  Over time it was removed from the shelf, and  it's present  whereabouts are unknown.

Crossing paths with either Walling or Jackson proved fatal for not only Pearl but for May Smith as well.  In May 1899, May Smith committed suicide with an overdose of laudanum.  She was a tragic figure, and it was reported that in 1892 her father had shot and killed her husband, but was acquitted of the crime since he claimed he had done it because his daughter had been betrayed.  In March 1896, her brother Joseph Carson was scalded to death in a boiler explosion.

William Wood was charged as an accomplice but charges were dropped when he agreed to testify against Jackson and Walling, however his involvement in the whole affair tainted him for many years afterwards.  After the execution, he was shunned by all including his parents, which forced him to join the Navy and he served on the Iowa.

In July of 1900, he eloped with 18 year old Blanche Daily whose father had been opposed to their relationship. His parents were prostrated when they heard the news, and Blanche's father who was the ex-auditor of the state, and quite wealthy claimed he was cutting her out of his will.

That Jackson was the main perpetrator is apparent after a letter he wrote to William Wood was intercepted.  Among this group of friends, Pearl was known as Bert and Jackson as Dusty

Hello, Bill
Write a letter home signed by Bert’s name telling the folks that he is somewhere and going to Chicago or some other place–has a position etc.–and that they will advise later about it–Say tired of living at home or anything you want. Send it to someone you can trust–How about Will Smith at LaFayette–tell the folks that he has not been at I[Indianapolis] but at LaFayette and traveling about the country. Get the letter off without one seconds delay and burn this at once. Stick by your old chum bill and I will help you out the same way sometimes. Am glad you are having a good time
Be careful what you write to me

From the moment the body was discovered until the day Walling and Jackson were waiting to hang, there had been a search for Pearl’s head.  Two different testimonies were taken during the trial that Jackson was seen carrying Pearl’s valise the day after she was killed.  The bartender at Legner’s Saloon, commented after Jackson asked him to store it, if he carried a bowling ball inside since “the weight [inside] rolled around”. The valise was found to have hair and blood stains, and later analysis of this forensic material proved it had carried her head.  Detective Crim who investigated the crime believed that Jackson had brought the head back in the valise in order to cremate it in the furnace of the cadaver room of the dental college.  In those days dental students practiced on corpses, and the furnace was used to dispose of the bodies afterwards.
Walling and Jackson gave different stories as to how the other had disposed of the head, none of which proved accurate.

Pearl's parents held out hope that their daughter could be buried with her head, and they waited seven weeks before realizing this might never come to pass, so she was laid to rest on March 27, 1896 at Forest Hill Cemetery.

Scott Jackson and Alonzo Walling were both convicted of the murder and hanged on March 20, 1897. Their necks did not break during the hanging and they both took quite a while to die of asphyxiation.


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