The Mysteries of Pearl Bryan

When the headless corpse of a young pregnant woman was found on John Locke’s farm in the Highlands near Ft. Thomas, on February 1, 1896, the shock was felt far beyond the Ohio Valley. For the rest of that winter and most of the spring the Ft. Thomas Tragedy unfolded in daily newspapers across America and, for a time, rivaled the murder of Lizzie Borden’s parents, four years earlier, for the dubious distinction of “Crime of the Century.” The woman was Pearl Bryan, from the little town of Greencastle, Indiana and the mystery of how she had come to Kentucky, and there met such a gruesome fate, seemed as unfathomable as it was incomprehensible.

Today, more than a hundred years later, Lizzie Borden still captures the public imagination. Forensic experts, using the latest techniques, continue to investigate the Borden family home (now a Fall River bed and breakfast) and speculate what may have occurred that day. By contrast, the story of Pearl Bryan is largely forgotten outside of Northern Kentucky.

They began with equal sensation; why is one story now a part of the American narrative and the other all but lost? The answer seems to be the not-guilty verdict in the Lizzie Borden case. It made the mysteries permanent. If she did not kill her parents, then who did? If she was really guilty, how did she get away with murder? Pearl Bryan’s killers were arrested less than a week after her body was found, by summer there were two convictions, and the following March two men were hanged. There were no loose ends, no mysteries.

On the surface the Pearl Bryan case seems to be an example of efficient law enforcement and swift justice with nothing left to investigate. But a closer look reveals unanswered questions from beginning to end and mysteries at every turn.

Who was she?

With no means of identification it became increasingly likely that the identity headless body would never be known. Because she was found so near the fort, the killer was first assumed to be a soldier and missing prostitutes and dancehall girls the most likely candidates for the corpse. The first mystery of the Ft. Thomas Tragedy was solved astonishingly fast. L. D. Poock, a Newport shoe store owner took an interest in the shoes the victim was wearing. They were a petite, size three cloth topped boot, very stylish but unusual in a size so small. Inside the boot was the imprint of a shoe store in Greencastle, Indiana, and numbers Poock knew to be the manufacturer’s lot number. With a little investigation he was able to locate the manufacturer, who told him the date of the shipment and verified that they were sent to Greencastle. There was only one pair of size three in the lot.

This news was enough to send Campbell County Sheriff Jule Plummer and two Cincinnati police detectives to the little town of Greencastle, Indiana. A search of the books of Louis and Hayes shoe store revealed that the shoes had peen purchased the previous September by Pearl Bryan. Late that night her parents identified Pearl’s clothing and learned the awful truth of their daughter’s death.

Though it had been surprisingly easy to identify the headless body as Pearl Bryan, the question “who was Pearl Bryan” would never be fully answered. In the newspapers, and for the most part in the trials, she was portrayed as a poor, innocent, farm girl, seduced and ruined by a blackguard, an older man from the east. True, she was a farmer’s daughter, but that farmer was Alexander Bryan, a wealthy patriarch and one of the most prominent men in Putnam County, Indiana. Pearl was a blond, twenty-two year old music student at DePauw University and she worked in her sister Mary’s dress shop in Greencastle, making sure the store carried the latest fashions. She was by no means unsophisticated. Pearl told her parents she was going to Indianapolis to visit some family friends but went instead to Cincinnati. There is no question that she went to have an abortion.

Whose child was she carrying?

Pearl was bright and vivacious, but she had her dark secrets as well. It may have been true, as the prosecution claimed, that she was seduced and, in her one moment of weakness, became pregnant, but there was much speculation to the contrary in Greencastle. Pearl’s family and many of her friends first assumed Will Wood, Pearl’s second cousin, was the father. Will had known Pearl his whole life and the two had always been close confidants. Though popular with the boys, Pearl had no regular suitor and Will was always present. Others, though, believed that Pearl was having a secret romance with Scott Jackson, several years her senior, who had come to Greencastle from New Jersey a year earlier. At the time of Pearl’s death, Jackson was studying dentistry in Cincinnati, just short trip across the Ohio River from the spot where the body was found. Scott Jackson quickly became the prime suspect.

Will Wood was the son of Dr. Deloss M. Wood, the Indiana Presiding Elder of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Scott Jackson lived next door with his mother. She had come to Greencastle to be with her daughter, Scott’s half-sister, who was married to Professor Edwin Post, a classical scholar, soon to be the dean of DePauw University. What had begun as an investigation of Kentucky whores and soldiers was fast becoming a rural Indiana society murder.

Jackson was arrested outside his rooming house in Cincinnati and Wood was detained in South Bend, Indiana and persuaded to come to Cincinnati for questioning. After initially denying any knowledge of the matter, Jackson admitted that Pearl Bryan had come to Cincinnati for an abortion that he was to arrange. It was all to be done as a favor for his friend Will Wood, the author of Pearl’s misfortune. Wood concurred that Pearl had gone to Cincinnati for an abortion; he had seen her off on the train. But he said it was Jackson, not he, who had seduced his cousin.

Which of these two would have been the father of Pearl’s child was never determined with certainty. On the witness stand Scott Jackson admitted to having “criminal intercourse” with Pearl Bryan but not before Christmas of 1895 when he was home on vacation and already knew Pearl to be pregnant. Will Wood denied he ever had sexual relations with Pearl but several witnesses, in sworn depositions, claimed that Wood often bragged of having a “soft snap” with Pearl and spoke in detail of his sexual encounters with her.

What happened between Wednesday and Saturday?

Alonzo Walling, Scott Jackson’s roommate, was arrested several hours after Jackson. Jackson claimed he had left Pearl in Walling’s care the Wednesday before she died and that Walling was to facilitate the abortion. Walling said he had never made the Wednesday appointment and believed his roommate had murdered Pearl Bryan in cold blood. Jackson had told him he planned to lure Pearl to Cincinnati on pretext of obtaining an abortion, poison her, then cut the body into pieces and deposit them in outhouse vaults around the city. Jackson and Walling each denied any first hand knowledge of the death but believed the other was, actively or passively, responsible.

Unable to extract a confession from Jackson or Walling, the police proceeded to build a circumstantial case based on testimony of witnesses who had seen the prisoners with Pearl Bryan that week. On Wednesday, after both Jackson and Walling claimed to have seen Pearl for the last time, she was positively identified by Smith Von Fossen, a salesman at Hockett Brother’s Pianos on Fourth Street in Cincinnati. She had come in to shop for pianos; anxious to have her parents buy one for the home. She left her parents’ address with Von Fossen who watched as she left the store and met a man on the street. Mrs. Plymouth Weeks, a spiritualist, saw Pearl on Thursday. Pearl had come for a reading accompanied by a man she referred to as “Doc”, Scott Jackson’s Cincinnati nickname. Friday night Jackson, Walling, and Pearl were seen at Wallingford’s saloon on George Street in Cincinnati. Jackson and Walling were well known at Wallingford’s and that night Dave Wallingford and his porter Alan Johnson saw Jackson come in with a blond woman. Walling came in later and the three of them left in a horse cab driven by a third man.

The cabman was the missing piece and after several newspapers offered large rewards for his identity, George Jackson, an African-American hostler who worked in Mt. Auburn stable, came forward. George Jackson claimed he had been approached by a man, presumably Alonzo Walling, offering ten dollars to drive a doctor and his patient across the bridge to Kentucky. George Jackson agreed and Walling returned with a coupe rockaway carriage. Walling sat next to him as Jackson drove the horse into the country. George Jackson heard a woman moaning inside the carriage and tried to quit the job but Walling pulled out a pistol and persuaded him to continue. When they reached their destination Jackson saw another man emerge with a woman, barley able to walk by herself. When the two men took the woman into the woods, George Jackson took off by foot back to Cincinnati.

The trip from Wallingford’s saloon in Cincinnati, to Locke’s farm in Newport, Kentucky became the official story of the Pearl Bryan murder; the “unbroken chain” of eyewitnesses. But it was a chain with several weak links. Jackson and Walling admitted to being at Wallingford’s with Pearl, but claimed the night was Tuesday. Wallingford and Johnson testified that that Scott Jackson was wearing a full beard when they saw him Friday night as he had for the previous six months. Jackson testified that the beard had been shaved off that afternoon. This was corroborated by his barber, Fred Albion, and by his landlady and her family who had remarked, that afternoon, how strange Jackson looked without his beard. As suspicious as it was that Jackson shaved his beard the day Pearl Bryan died, he could not have been seen at Wallingford’s Friday night with a full beard.

Pearl was wearing a checked cotton house dress when she was found, a dressing gown Pearl’s mother had made for her sister Jenny, handed down to Pearl when Jenny died. It was not a dress to be worn outside the house. It would surely not be worn to a saloon by someone as concerned with fashion as Pearl.

But it was George Jackson’s story of the ride to Kentucky that proved most controversial. The first mystery is why Walling would have hired him in the first place. Both Walling and Scott Jackson were experienced horsemen, if Walling already had a carriage, why would he pay George Jackson, then sit next to him while he drove? He was, in effect, hiring a witness. George Jackson brought his story to the police two weeks after it occurred, plenty of time to study newspaper pictures of the prisoners, but he had difficulty identifying them at the jail. In fact it was the coincidence of their last names that helped George Jackson identify Scott Jackson. George Jackson was asked to pick the prisoners from a circle of men. As he scrutinized one man the police chief thought he had gotten too close and said, “Jackson, step back.” Instinctively, Scott Jackson, the Jackson who had been taking orders from police all week, took a step back. He quickly realized his error and recovered his position but the movement was noticed. A moment later George Jackson identified Scott Jackson.
George Jackson’s reputation also cast doubt on his story. In Springfield, Ohio, he was known as a conman and a seeker of notoriety. Both his former employer and the Springfield Chief of Police publicly expressed their belief that Jackson was lying. After testifying at Scott Jackson’s trial, George Jackson was tried in Springfield, in an unrelated case, and convicted of perjury.

Was there another story?

As in any murder investigation, there were false confessions and misleading information provided by unstable or unscrupulous individuals. A woman in Indianapolis was held for several days after an anonymous tip said she had information regarding the case. Lulu Mae Hollingsworth was reluctant to speak but under questioning she admitted she knew Pearl Bryan and had run into her at the Indianapolis train depot the week of her death. Upon learning of Pearl’s condition, Miss Hollingsworth put together a mixture guaranteed to terminate her pregnancy. Pearl took the medicine then boarded a train to Cincinnati where she died in Scott Jackson’s room. Hollingsworth’s story was taken seriously enough for Sheriff Plummer to offer train fare to send her to Newport. However, the more she spoke, the more outlandish her story became. By the end she claimed that Alonzo Walling and Will Wood were also with Pearl in Indianapolis and Walling performed the abortion in an abandoned building. This story contradicted hard evidence and Miss Hollingsworth was released. She maintained that she had letters from Scott Jackson that would prove her story true and would release them only to save Jackson’s life. This never occurred.

The defense in Scott Jackson’s trial tried to introduce an alternative story of Pearl Bryan’s death. A private detective named John Seward, employed by Walling’s attorneys had assembled a collection of witnesses ready to testify that Pearl Bryan died at the hand of a doctor in a house on George Street in Cincinnati. An unemployed brakeman named William Trusty claimed he drove Pearl Bryan’s dead body from George Street to Locke’s farm.

The story was fabricated by Seward who had coached his witnesses’ testimony. The police had been on to the plan from the beginning. Some of the witnesses were threatened with perjury charges so refused to testify. Trusty, who did not know the plan had been foiled, told his story on the stand witness and was charged with perjury. He and Seward both skipped bail but were eventually captured and convicted. To the end, however, Trusty maintained that his story was true and it was only Seward’s elaborations that were lies.

Did they confess?

In separate trials, Jackson and Walling each testified in their own defense but added nothing to what they had always maintained. Neither man knew what happened to Pearl Bryan after Wednesday of that week. They were both convicted and sentenced to death; they both appealed the verdict. The appeal process took nearly a year but finally the verdicts were upheld. A double hanging was scheduled for March 20, 1897.
In the days of public execution, the confession and repentance of the condemned man was considered part of the ritual. Then, as now, execution was serious business and an admission of guilt by the convicted man was a guarantee that taking his life was justified. The need for confession was especially strong when the conviction was based on circumstantial evidence.

Attorneys for Jackson and Walling had other ideas regarding confession. With the appeal lost and the hangings less than a week away, their only hope was to tell all and plead to the governor for mercy. Walling’s fate, especially could hinge on the truth revealed by Jackson. While there was near universal acceptance that Scott Jackson was guilty of first degree murder, there was a growing sentiment that Walling’s crimes were lesser and done under Scott Jackson’s evil influence. The two men agreed with their attorneys, the time had come to tell all.

On March 18, Jackson and Walling were put together in a room with a table and chairs, given paper and pencils and an almanac to verify dates and left to write their confessions. What they came up with surprised everyone. In separate statements they told virtually the same story beginning with Pearl Bryan’s arrival in Cincinnati for the purpose of having an abortion. Walling contacted May Smith, his girlfriend at the time, for the name of an abortionist. She put him in touch with Dr. George Wagner of Bellevue, Kentucky and arrangements were made to send Pearl to his house. On Wednesday Walling met Pearl in Cincinnati and gave her directions; Pearl went to Dr. Wagner’s by herself. On Thursday Jackson and Walling went to Bellevue to deliver Pearl’s valise, and on Friday they went back for the operation.

There were complications from the beginning and when Pearl appeared to be in pain, Wagner sent Jackson to Foertmeyer’s drugstore for ergot. He administered the ergot but it had no effect. He opened her dress and injected her with a clear liquid then gave her some whiskey to drink. Pearl became unconscious and after a few moments Wagner said she was gone. They loaded her body into a vehicle and took her to a secluded spot. Dr. Wagner severed her head with a dissecting knife and wrapped it in her cloak. He drove Jackson and Walling to the bridge to Cincinnati, then they went their separate ways.

The confessions pleased no one. Scott Jackson did not admit guilt, nor did he exonerate Alonzo Walling. They also implicated a prominent Bellevue physician. When the confessions were made public, May Smith came forward and confirmed that she had procured Dr. Wagner at Walling’s request. Druggist Foertmeyer confirmed that he had filled a prescription from Dr. Wagner for ergot on the night of January 31, 1896. He further stated that he had received telephone messages from Scott Jackson to Maude Wagner, the doctor’s daughter, earlier in the week. Popular or not, the confessions were gaining credibility.

There had been rumors of the Wagner family’s involvement in Pearl Bryan’s death even before Jackson’s trial. The defense subpoenaed Anna, Nellie, and Maude Wagner, the wife and two daughters of Dr. Wagner, but they were never called to testify. Dr. Wagner himself could not be subpoenaed because shortly after the body was found he was committed to the Eastern Kentucky Asylum for the Insane, in Lexington.
Like every story regarding Pearl Bryan’s fate, this one was tantalizing but less than satisfying. May Smith was not new to the case; she had, early on, told the press that she had received letters from Scott Jackson admitting his guilt. The next day she recanted, claiming she was drunk when she told the story. Though it was clear that May Smith had inside knowledge in the matter, she was considered too unreliable to testify for either the defense or the prosecution.

Foertmeyer had testified in Scott Jackson’s trial. He was one of several witnesses who had seen Jackson and Walling in Bellevue with Pearl Bryan, and was introduced only to show that the three had been seen together in Kentucky. Foertmeyer, under oath, had said the calls from Scott Jackson were to a Miss Watson. He made no mention on the stand of filling the ergot prescription because, he explained later, no one asked him. Foertmeyer’s motives were questioned when it was learned that he and Dr. Wagner had a long-standing feud and Wagner never sent him prescriptions.

When the confessions were made public, the Wagners were outraged. They produced a telegram indicating that Dr. Wagner had been at his father-in-law’s home in Nicholasville the night of Pearl Bryan’s death. At the asylum, Dr. Wagner was pronounced cured of insanity and returned home to address the accusations.

The confessions were sent to Governor Bradley who read them but remained unmoved. Citing discrepancies between the two statements and contradictions between the confessions and each man’s sworn testimony, the governor declared the confessions untrustworthy. He further stated that admitting to the attempted abortion showed “an utter disregard for human life.” Governor Bradley saw no reason to overturn the rulings of two Campbell County juries and the Kentucky Court of Appeals. Respite was refused; Scott Jackson and Alonzo Walling were hanged together on March 20, 1897. They each proclaimed innocence to the end.

An Unfinished Story

The execution of Scott Jackson and Alonzo Walling essentially closed the books on the Pearl Bryan case, while Lizzie Borden’s acquittal guaranteed that her case would stay open forever. But as news hardens into history, a dispassionate eye can see that the story of Pearl Bryan’s death is far from finished. Jackson and Walling were not innocent in Pearl’s death but the story that convicted them of first-degree murder, the “unbroken chain” of evidence, is unlikely at best. While the mystery of Lizzie Borden hinges on the truth or falsehood of her simple assertion of innocence, the mysteries of Pearl Bryan involve a myriad of half-truths and improbabilities.

Despite the best efforts of police and citizens of Campbell County, Pearl Bryan’s head was never found. This is the most solid and enduring mystery. To her parents’ sorrow Pearl was buried incomplete. Her story, too, remains incomplete and the mysteries of Pearl Bryan deserve another look.


Cincinnati Enquirer, February 1896 – June 1896, January 1897 – March 1897
Cincinnati Tribune, February 1896 – April 1896
Cincinnati Post, March 1897
Greencastle Banner Times, January 1897 – February 1897
Greencastle Democrat, February 1896, January 1897 – March 1897
Indianapolis Sun, February 1896
Poock, L. D. Headless Yet Identified; A Story of the Solution of the Pearl Bryan or Fort Thomas Mystery, Through the Shoes, Cincinnati, OH: Hann & Adair, Printers, 1897


by Robert Wilhelm. A big tip of Northern Kentucky Views' hat to Mr. Robert Wilhelm for his kind permission to allow us to reproduce this piece. It originally appeared in the Kentucky Explorer.