Who Killed Pearl Bryan and Where Is Her Head?
In 1896, a pregnant Pearl Bryan was decapitated in Fort Thomas, Kentucky. Could her headless spirit haunt the present-day site of her murder?By Shannon Byers
The last decade of the 1800s was a murderous one. Bloody Victorian crimes made sensational headlines and pumped up the coffers of newspaper owners. In 1896, coming on the heels of the Lizzy Borden family murders and the mind-boggling H.H. Holmes killing spree, another brutal and appalling murder case gripped the nation, elements of which included unrequited love, chemistry, criminal conspiracy, feticide, ghoulish mobs collecting and selling “murderabilia,” a fetus in a peppermint stick jar, and an elaborate manhunt for a head. Just about every newspaper in the nation reveled in the tragic saga of Pearl Bryan.
There is no way to know how many people have paid to tour and/or investigate Bobby Mackey’s Music World in Wilder, KY; and there is no way to know how many of those people have done their own historical research on the location rather than relying on hearsay, urban legends, and TV shows. A lot of people have come through the doors of the famous “Haunted Honky Tonk ” since a book published in 2001 made the claim that the building that is now Mackey’s had been a place of satanic worship in the 1800s, but it’s time to check the actual records and reports of the day and set the record straight.
The story told today regarding the Pearl Bryan murder goes something like this: Pearl Bryan was pregnant with Scott Jackson’s baby. She wanted to get married and he tricked her into coming to Cincinnati from Greencastle, IN. When she arrived, he and Alonzo Walling murdered her and because they were members of a satanic cult, they beheaded her and threw her head down a well located in the basement of an abandoned slaughterhouse as a blood sacrifice. Bloodhounds used in other famous cases were brought in and they tracked Pearl’s scent to the same slaughterhouse. Refusing to tell anyone what had really happened, the killers stood on the scaffold the day they were hanged and threatened to come back and haunt everyone.
How much of the above is true? Well, some of it.
I am not saying the property that is now Bobby Mackey’s Music World is NOT haunted. Things have occurred on that property that could definitely lead to restless spirits. Not long after the Civil War this area of Finchtown, as it was called then, was known as Gallows Gap because of all the illegal lynchings—at least 20—that took place there. Additionally, a bridge collapse one-quarter mile from the property killed over 40 people in 1892. People have been reporting spooks in that area since long before anyone now associated with Bobby Mackey’s was even born.
A map of Finchtown from the period shows that a slaughterhouse was located in the southwest part of the town, several-hundred feet south of where Bobby Mackey’s stands today. It was not a large-scale commercial slaughterhouse, but a small home operation run by a butcher to serve local residents.
Research done by Dan Smith, author of Ghosts of Bobby Mackey’s Music World, corroborates my own and shows a distillery built by George Roberson Jr did once stand where Mackey’s is now.
In 1876 Roberson applied for and obtained permission to dig three tunnels under the railroad, from the distillery to the nearby Licking River. These tunnels were used to pump water into the structure for the distilling process. All three of these tunnels are still in existence and one of them is what has been deemed “Hell’s Gate,” or the “Well to Hell.” It’s ironic that the water was actually flowing from the river INTO the building rather than the commonly told story that slaughterhouse waste was pumped from the building into the river.
A careful study of satanic cults, their whereabouts and activities show that none existed in any part of Campbell county in the late 1800s, and since there was no slaughterhouse with a Well to Hell at that spot, in combination with the fact that the distillery was in full operation when Pearl was murdered, we can safely say that neither Pearl’s head nor any other part of her was disposed there. In addition, accounts by the witnesses at the hanging make no mention of Alonzo Walling giving the crowd the “evil eye,” nor Scott Jackson ever uttering threats that he would haunt anyone.
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.”
Newspaper accounts of the day and interviews conducted with witnesses indicate that nothing about “Satanists” was ever mentioned in conjunction with the Bryan case or Bobby Mackey’s itself until 2001 when the first of two books focusing on the hauntings there was published.
And what of Pearl? The true tale of her murder is plenty bizarre and in no need of padding or elaboration.
Pearl Bryan was one of 12 children born to Alexander and Susan Farrow Bryan. She was born between 1872 and 1874 in Greencastle, Indiana, the second-to-youngest child and the last daughter. Alexander was a well-todo farmer, stock breeder, and dairy business operator. The Bryan family had high social standing in their community. None of the financial collapses of the 19th century seemed to ever affect the family and they even survived the diphtheria outbreak unscathed, but by the beginning of the 20th century, their luck changed and half their children were be dead. The causes included consumption, brain fever, a peculiar folding bed accident, and of course, murder.
Pearl was very active in the community, church, and school. The below photo was taken at 1891 Greencastle Arbor Day celebrations–Pearl is in the second row from the bottom, eighth person from the left.
This photo purports to show Pearl in 1886, but does not specify which one is her. The girl sitting right above the “Z” in the sign bears some resemblance and may be her–she would have been 12-14 at the time.
Below is the Greencastle High School graduating class of 1892 and the original photograph from which the individual portrait at the top of the page was taken. After graduation, Pearl taught Sunday school at the Methodist church and helped raise the young children left motherless by the deaths of her sisters.
In the spring of 1895 Pearl met Scott Jackson. He had moved to Greencastle with his mother, who was trying to hide the fact that he had been in serious trouble for embezzling from the railroad and disorderly conduct involving a prostitute, which got him kicked out of dental college in Indianapolis. They moved in with Scott’s sister and he got an interim job working for the town dentist while waiting for the fall quarter of the dental college in Cincinnati to start.
Not long after moving to Greencastle, Scott met William Wood, Pearl’s cousin. William introduced them, and soon Bert (Pearl) and Dusty (Scott), as they were known to their closest friends, were courting. Right before Scott left for school in October, he and Pearl became intimately involved. After he had left for Cincinnati, Pearl discovered that she was pregnant. Jackson did not express an intent to marry her.
Western Union agent A.W. Early testified that on several occasions in the months leading up to her murder, Scott and William had exchanged correspondence that included various recipes for concoctions thought to induce miscarriage. How’s that for blunt? Pearl tried all of these unsuccessfully, and after a meeting with Jackson during the Christmas holiday where he emphatically refused to marry her, they came up with a plan for her to come to Ohio for a criminal abortion.
The plan was for Pearl to tell her parents that she was going to visit a childhood friend who had moved to Indianapolis, but she would secretly go to Cincinnati instead. William Wood put Pearl on a train on January 28th and that was the last time he saw her alive.
Testimony from various witnesses indicated that for the next three days Jackson continued to play the unsuccessful chemist and gave Pearl drugs that he hoped would cause her to abort. A druggist from a local pharmacy stated that he had sold Scott a large amount of cocaine (legal at the time), and a bartender at Wallingford’s Saloon testified that he had seen Scott mix something into her drink early in the evening the night she was killed. Her autopsy would show that she did ingest a substantial amount of the drug shortly before death. The cocaine did not work as planned, and late that night Jackson and his friend Alonzo Walling hired a livery driver named George Jackson (no relation) to take them on what would be Pearl’s last ride.
Scott Jackson and Alonzo Walling had been friends at dental school in Indiana and they got reacquainted after the both moved to dental school in Cincinnati, where they shared a room at a boarding house. No one really knows why Walling went along with Jackson’s murderous plans. At the time it was supposed that Jackson was one of those personalities who could talk anyone into anything, and Walling had always been a follower, in this case to the gallows.
A few days after the murder, George Jackson told the police that he had been the one to drive the trio from Cincinnati, OH to Fort Thomas, KY. Although some people doubted his testimony, he was put through every test possible to validate his claims, including detectives and reporters recreating the drive.
George Jackson stated that he had been hired on Elm street to drive. He left Elm street, turned left on 3rd street, right on Broadway and crossed the Central bridge. When they had crossed into Kentucky, the route went from 3rd street to Central Ave, to Chestnut St, Isabella St, Keturah St, and Patterson St. He got scared because of Pearl’s moaning in the back of the carriage and pulled over at the distillery on Licking Pike–this is the closest Pearl would come to being on what is now Bobby Mackey’s property. He tried to refuse to go any further, but he testified that Alonzo jumped in the driver’s seat with him and pulled out a gun, forcing him to continue, saying “You black bastard, if you try to jump out here, I’ll send you to hell.” They proceeded on, eventually ending up on Alexandria Pike and eventually Grandview Ave, where John Locke’s farm was located.
Scott and Alonzo dragged Pearl out of the carriage and into the night. George took off running—damaging the lantern on the carriage in the process—when he heard Pearl scream, and he didn’t look back. The later investigation turned up the correct carriage with the damaged lantern.
All hell broke loose when Pearl’s body was discovered at the Locke farm the next morning. The coroner would later testify that Pearl had been alive when she was decapitated, because arterial spray was found on leaves as high as three feet off the ground (some papers reported 6 feet), and the ground was soaked with at least three inches of her blood. That would not have been possible if she had been dead—as Scott Jackson later claimed—when her head was cut off. George Jackson’s testimony confirmed that the female in the carriage had been alive during their journey.
A macabre mob of people swarmed the area looking for keepsakes, including the bloody leaves. Entrepreneurs set up souvenir stands. Pearl’s murder lined a lot of pockets. Her unborn five-month old fetus ended up in a jar that had held peppermint sticks at a drug store, and people paid for the privilege of seeing it.
Six days after the murder, Pearl was finally identified by the tag in the shoes she was wearing, and Scott and Alonzo were arrested in Ohio. It had to be officially determined where she was killed in order to know which state was going to prosecute the case. Ohio and Kentucky had different laws pertaining to the death of Pearl’s unborn child, with Kentucky’s laws being more stringent.
The family and detectives tried repeatedly to get Jackson and Walling to reveal what they had done with Pearl’s head. They never would get a straight answer from them. Two separate individuals testified that Jackson had carried around Pearl’s valise the day after she was killed, and had asked each to store it. The bartender at Wallingford’s had jokingly asked if it carried a bowling ball because “the weight [inside] rolled around.”
Investigations in Cincinnati had turned up a number of bloody items of clothing that the dastardly pair had discarded down various sewers drains around in the city, but they never found poor Pearl’s head.
From witness testimony concerning the timeline of Scott’s activities with the valise, which contained hair and blood stains, Detective Cal Crim surmised and was of the belief until the day he died, that Scott brought the head back from Fort Thomas in the valise, took it to the dental college and cremated it in the furnace in the cadaver room. Back then, dental students worked on dead people and parts of them were sometimes burned in that furnace, so it was certainly hot enough to destroy her head. Pearl’s family had to bury her headless, and for decades after the murder, people found skulls and were convinced they had at last found her head, but none were ever proven to be hers.
Jackson and Walling volleyed back and forth on who actually killed Pearl, and it was never really settled, but popular opinion was that it was Scott. We do know that he carried around the valise, and a letter from him was intercepted before it reached William Wood.
Write a letter home signed by Bert’s name telling the folks that he is somewhere & 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[ndianapolis] 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
Arthur Carter’s famous bloodhounds were called in to help locate the rest of her and did indeed pick up a scent eventually, but the trail went in the opposite direction of the distillery to the Covington Reservoir. Over $2000 was spent to dredge and drain this location to no avail. Nothing was found other than bloody handprints on a cistern.
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.
Many a ballad has been written about poor Pearl, but they are not really accurate to the facts in the case, up to and including Bobby Mackey’s own original tune. The valise that she brought to Cincinnati, which blood and hair analysis proved carried her head, is on display at the Campbell County Historical Society along with some other artifacts from the case. Her unborn baby, preserved in a candy jar, was lost after a time and almost certainly never got a proper burial.
Pearl may well haunt somewhere. She would certainly have every reason to do so after such a traumatic death, especially now with so many misconceptions being thrown around about her. But she has no reason to haunt a building where neither she nor any of her body parts had ever been, a building that is four miles away from where she lost her life.
This article was first published on America’s Most Haunted.
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