Questions still linger in Pearl Bryan tragedy
After 121 years, through some 3,200 pages of court records, voluminous source documents and seven months of tireless recent research, the tragic tale of Greencastle's Pearl Bryan remains a mystery in many aspects.
That's what Putnam County historian Larry Tippin told more than 100 interested visitors to the Putnam County Museum who listened for more than 90 minutes to the concluding portion of his two-part presentation Thursday night on the 1896 murder that became known as the "Crime of the Century."
In the last slide of Tippin's power point presentation, he focused on conclusions from his research and the nagging questions of what happened to the 23-year-old pregnant Greencastle woman after she left home for Cincinnati to confront her dental student boyfriend Scott Jackson and his apparent accomplice Alonzo Walling the night/early morning of Jan. 31-Feb. 1, 1896.
The questions that still persist include:
-- Who was the father of Pearl's unborn baby?
-- Who killed Pearl?
-- What happened to Pearl's head?
-- Did Pearl die where her body was found?
-- Who or what claims to be haunted by Pearl?
Tippin said that since Pearl was five months pregnant, according to the autopsy, her baby was conceived between late August and early September, with anecdotal information "making it pretty clear" Jackson was the father.
"In my opinion," Tippin said, "she went to Cincinnati to convince Jackson to man up and do the right thing and marry her."
But instead, the evidence also points to the killer being Jackson, who was hanged in Campbell County, Ky., for the murder along with Walling.
Jackson, Tippin said, "had told others he would 'cut Pearl to pieces' and leave her remains in various places before he would marry her."
He also reportedly said he would disfigure her with chemical burns and dispose of her body in the medical school incinerator.
Meanwhile, the story of Pearl's missing head remains a real mystery that has kept the Pearl Bryan story such a sensational tale for so long.
"I do not know where Pearl's head is," Tippin assured. "With all the research that I did, that was one thing I really wanted to find out. All I can give you is evidence. I don't want to speculate."
Some of that evidence was the blood in the valise that Jackson left behind in the Wallingford Saloon overnight, then returned and picked up and brought it back again, putting it back in the same location near an icebox.
Court transcripts indicated that a tavern employee, Dot Legner, picked up the bag to clean beneath it and noted how unexpectedly heavy it was that first night. When she did the same thing a night later, it was much inexplicably lighter.
"It's a good thing that 18-year-old Dot Legner didn't look in the bag," Tippin told his audience. "She would have never slept again the rest of her life."
In court Jackson had no explanation for why he had the bag, Tippin said, other than saying Pearl asked him to keep it for her. He blamed the large amount of blood present in the bag on his dental instruments, a notion no one apparently bought as the prosecutor asked sarcastically, "Don't you wipe them off for crying out loud?"
Meanwhile, Tippin was amazed that the bag is still being maintained in evidence in this case 120 years later.
That timeframe hasn't caused interest in the case to wane either.
"Why would they cut her head off?" one audience member asked.
Most likely, Tippin said, to try to obscure Pearl's identity.
"Or," he added, "it could have been because these were two of the most heartless men who ever walked the face of the earth ... or a little bit of the former and more of the latter."
Cutting her head off in hopes the body would never be identified didn't hold water, however, as Pearl's uncharacteristically tiny, size 3 shoes were quickly traced to a Greencastle shoe store, Louis and Hays, on the east side of the square, and her rare webbed-foot condition led to her positive identification by family members.
Pearl's head has never been found, although at least twice -- in 1900 and 1907 -- a skull was found near the Fort Thomas, Ky., area where the slaying occurred, purported to be that of Pearl Bryan. Neither of those skulls proved to be hers.
While the theory persists that her head may have been thrown into the Ohio River by Jackson or Walling, Tippin is unconvinced.
"I don't think he would have thrown it off the bridge," he said, noting "there's too much traffic and too many people that would have seen him."
At the murder scene, the presence of blood in bushes several feet away from where Pearl's body was found was evidence the slaying occurred at that site, Tippin's research shows. The coroner, he said, indicated that only a still-beating heart could have sent blood that distance as her head was being severed.
Blood was also reported as 6-9 inches deep in some places at the scene, making it obvious the killing occurred there and not in nearby Cincinnati with the body then transported to Fort Thomas as some writers had postulated. Her injuries included being struck by a rock wrapped in a handkerchief later determined to have been Jackson's. The autopsy also noted traces of cocaine found in her stomach, allegedly put in Pearl's drink by Jackson to knock her out before they took her to Kentucky. The findings also noted a deep, to-the-bone cut on the victim's left hand from her apparent attempts to ward off the murderous attack, Tippin added.
Because of that, he said, she "died with honor and dignity, and that's how I'll remember Pearl," Tippin said solemnly.
The autopsy also revealed a five-month-old male fetus with no indication of any attempt to abort it, thus laying to rest the theory Pearl died from an ill-conceived abortion attempt.
Justice moved swiftly in the case with Jackson being arrested on Feb. 5, 1896, just four days after Pearl's body was found, and his three-week trial beginning April 21, 1896, while Walling was tried separately in May that year. The men were hanged on March 20, 1897.
As Jackson was initially being detained upon his arrest, he reportedly asked if Walling had been arrested yet. A jailer reportedly replied,"No, should he be?"
As noted by the Greencastle Star Press, Pearl's brother Fred Bryan glanced intently at the man accused of the terrible murder of his sister as he was being returned to his jail cell, and suddenly said "in a voice low and hoarse with suppressed emotion: 'If they let him out of here I'll fix him.' Not another word was spoken, and the party stood for a few minutes in dramatic silence."
Tippin agreed that might have made a difference.
"Why they didn't let Fred have a few minutes with these men (I don't know) ... but they did not," the researcher said. "That was probably the last opportunity, a lost opportunity to find out what happened to Pearl's head."
Pearl was laid to rest on March 26, 1896 at Forest Hill Cemetery in Greencastle after her remains were initially placed in a vault because they had always hoped to bury her with her head, Tippin said.
Several haunting stories have been associated with the Pearl Bryan case over the course of time, most notable of which is the claim that her ghost haunts Bobby Mackey's Music World in Wilder, Ky.
An episode of the cable TV series "Ghost Adventures" explored Bryan's murder and claims the presence of supernatural activity at Bobby Mackey's, where it was theorized Jackson had thrown the head down an old well on the property.
"Chances of that," Tippin said, "are extremely minimal."
It would have been "totally absurd," he reasoned, that Jackson and Walling would have traveled an additional 17 miles south from the Fort Thomas murder scene to Wilder to dispose of the head.
"'Don't mind me and this bloody bag,'" Tippin said, acting it out from Jackson's point of view. "'Nothing to see here.'"
After presenting two public programs for nearly five hours on the subject, Tippin told the audience he is working on summarizing his material even more.
"When does your book come out?" he was asked.
"I have an enormous amount of information," Tippin said, indicating he plans to put the information on a website but the list of source documents alone will probably be 500 pages long.
"I've been able to do a tremendous amount of work on it the last seven months," he noted, adding that his main goal was to get the information out to the public.
The sensational and gruesome nature of the case and its unanswered questions has allowed it to stay in the public eye so long, he said.
"It's 121 years later and we're still trying to answer some of these questions," Tippin said.
"I think it would be great if somebody did a fact-based movie," he concluded, "and Jennifer Lawrence needs to be in it. If we're going to do it, let's do it right."