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A Haunting and the Unsolved Mystery of Pearl Bryan and her Missing Head

On February 1, 1896 a young farmhand by the name of Johnny Hewling was out doing his chores in a rural area of Fort Thomas, Kentucky when he stumbled across a gruesome sight. There sprawled out on the ground was a dead woman without a head, who also appeared to have been pregnant. The shocked and disgusted young man immediately called police and they soon converged on what was obviously a murder scene. The woman was found to have been 5 months pregnant, and her hands and back were covered with cuts, but most horrific of all was her missing head and the coroner’s assertion that it had been removed while she was still alive. Who would have done this to the woman and who was she? It was the first of many mysteries, in a case that would turn into one of the most shocking mysterious unsolved cases of the century, and spawn tales of a haunting and other strangeness as well.

Since there was no head, at the time it was difficult for the police to figure out the dead woman’s identity. There was no identification on her person and this was in an era before fingerprint databases, which would have only worked if she had ever committed a crime anyway. It was speculated that she was everything from a drifter to a prostitute serving the soldiers at the nearby Fort Thomas base, but her clothing didn’t really seem to fit in with either one of these theories, being merely a common checked cotton house dress. The mystery was eventually solved when a local shoe store owner commented on how tiny the woman’s feet were, and also remarked that the shoes seemed to be custom made. On a hunch, he checked the shoes and found the imprint of a shoe store in Greencastle, Indiana, as well as the lot number, and with the help of detectives was able to find out that only one pair of that design had been sold in that size at that shop, and they had been sold to a woman named Pearl Bryan.

Pearl Bryan

Pearl was the 22-year-old daughter of a wealthy farmer, stock breeder, and dairy business operator by the name of Alexander Bryan, who was a prominent, well-respected member of the community. Pearl herself was a music student at DePauw University, and was found to have been an upstanding, well-liked citizen and Sunday school teacher who had been very involved in church and community activities, so it was difficult for police to fathom why anyone would have wanted to kill her in such a brutal fashion. Another deep mystery was why she had been pregnant and who the father was, as it was claimed by those who knew her that she had had no steady boyfriend, but it was soon ascertained that she had been seen spending time with a dental student in Ohio by the name of Scott Jackson. With this being one of the only leads of any kind that they had, they approached Jackson for questioning and the tale would unfold even more.

Jackson was found right away to be a shifty and not very reliable interviewee. He at first denied even knowing Pearl at all, before changing this to that he kind of sort of knew her, and then finally admitting that she had personally come to him to help her with arranging a trip to Cincinnati for an abortion for her unwanted child, the father of which he claimed was a man named Will Wood. Interestingly, when Wood was approached for questioning he denied that, claiming that it was in fact Jackson who had been the father, and that he himself had never had a sexual relationship with her. However, witnesses would tell police that Wood had often bragged about sleeping with Pearl, which contradicted his story, so what was going on here? Considering all of this information and the fact that there was evidence that indeed Pearl had told family that she was planning on taking a trip to Cincinnati right before her death, police arrested Jackson and Wood on suspicion of murder. When the trial came it attracted considerable notoriety and media coverage. After all, this was the most horrific crime the region had ever seen, and all eyes were on how it would play out. As various testimonies were heard, a rather grim and tragic story would be painted.

It came to light that indeed Jackson and Wood had allegedly both had intimate encounters with Pearl, and when she had gotten pregnant they had helped her to try all manner of concoctions meant to give her a miscarriage, yet none of them had worked. Pearl at the time became convinced that the baby was Jackson’s, and so failing the induced miscarriage she asked him to marry her, which he had refused. Instead, he supposedly suggested that she come to Ohio, where he would arrange for an illegal backstreet abortion. Pearl told her parents she was going on a trip to meet a friend in Indianapolis, but instead headed to Cincinnati to meet with Jackson. Once in Ohio, Jackson allegedly continued trying to chemically induce a miscarriage, and when this didn’t work he resorted to more direct methods, deciding that she couldn’t really have the baby if she was dead.

The crime scene with Pearl’s body to the left

According to several witnesses, on the evening of January 31, 1896, Jackson allegedly slipped a large amount of cocaine into her drink at a Cincinnati saloon, after which he and his roommate, an Alonzo Walling, arranged to have her taken to a remote spot, hiring a livery driver named George Jackson to take them there. George would testify that he had become suspicious of what was going on and that Scott had pulled a gun on him and told him to keep driving. They continued on to the farm of farmer John Locke, where they purportedly killed her and removed her head so that no one would be able to identify her. At first this was completely denied by both Jackson and Walling, and was only pieced together through witness testimony, and considering there was no real solid evidence it was all just one scenario that seemed the most likely. However, Jackson and Walling would finally confess to what had really happened and paint a slightly different picture.

According to them, Walling had put Pearl in contact with a Cincinnati abortionist by the name of Dr. George Wagner. Pearl then allegedly went to Wagner’s house by herself, and was joined later by Jackson, but at some point during the procedure there had been complications. Jackson had gone to the drugstore to fetch some ergot to relieve the pain, but it didn’t work. Wagner then had injected her with some sort of clear liquid, and whether intentional or not, this killed her. According to them, Wagner was the one to order the ride out to the location where the body was found, and that it was Wagner who had decapitated the body. There was some evidence for this version of events, as the pharmacist had a prescription filled out for ergot to Jackson on the night in question, but Wagner himself could not offer testimony because rather oddly he had been committed to an insane asylum for unrelated reasons. Who really killed Pearl Bryant and which version of events is true? It remains a mystery.

The question of what had happened to Pearl’s head turned into another mystery altogether, as no one could get a straight answer from either of the two accused. They alternately told authorities that it had been thrown it into the Ohio River, dumped at a sandbar in Dayton, Kentucky, or thrown away at the Covington waterworks or the Miami and Erie Canal, but all of these places were scoured to turn up no evidence of the head. Several witnesses would claim that they had seen Jackson carrying around a valise that seemed to have something rolling around within it. The valise was actually located and was found to have blood and hair on it, proving that it had held Pearl’s head at one point, but where it was taken is unsolved. One idea was that Jackson had brought it to his dental school and had it cremated, and still another theory was that they had disposed of it in a well or in the sewer. Police searched everywhere, dredging up the river, the reservoir, and the canal, checking the sewers, even the crematorium at the dental school, and making extensive use of scent dogs, but although some bloody fragments of clothing were found, Pearl’s head never was and remains missing.

Head or no head, confession or not, both Jackson and Walling were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by hanging, taking the secret to the grave with them and proclaiming their innocence the whole way. Both of them to the end denied being the one to actually kill Pearl, and both this and the location of the head remain mysteries. In the years after the case all manner of dark rumors would gravitate towards it. One was that the two men had been Satanists and had killed Pearl as part of a human sacrifice, and another was that Jackson and Walling cursed the town and threatened to come back as ghosts while on the gallows. Another still is that the head had been thrown down a well at a distillery in Wilder, Kentucky built by George Roberson Jr., which would later become the popular establishment Bobby Mackey’s Music World, which also just happens to be very haunted and which I have written on before. One of the spirits said to roam here is the headless ghost of Pearl Bryant herself, as well as that of Scott Jackson. The TV show Ghost Adventures famously investigated Bobby Mackey’s Music World and claimed to have spoken with the ghost of Jackson, who admitted to them the whole thing. It’s all very spooky, but considering that there is no evidence that Pearl or Jackson were ever even anywhere near this place makes it hard to know why they should be haunting it. An this is where the story seems to end, with a mysterious unsolved murder we will likely never unravel, and the many rumors and legends it has spawned.