True Crime Sunday: The Murder of Pearl Bryan

There are places where true crime and the utterly weird intersect. Today’s True Crime Sunday case was chosen after watching a Buzzfeed Unsolved: Supernatural episode about Bob Mackey’s. I won’t be talking about the establishment, but rather a murder with strange elements that may or may not be connected to it.

In 1896, the headless body of a young woman was found by a farmhand in Ft. Thomas, Kentucky. The woman was shabbily dressed, and authorities were ready to call her another prostitute who met the wrong people.

Who was this woman? How did she end up there? Those questions could have gone unanswered if not for shoe salesman Louis Pook. Like so many others, Pook took an interest in the case. However, unlike many others, he had something to contribute to the investigation—though he didn’t know it going in. And he wasn’t just visiting for macabre curiosity and grisly souvenirs.

Pook was friendly with many officers and was allowed into the morgue to check out the body. He took a look at the woman and noticed her shoes, which were clean and high quality. The shoe salesman knew the cobbler who made them, and from there, police were able to track the shoes and identify the woman as Pearl Bryan.

The year before, Pearl’s cousin, William Wood, introduced her to Scott Jackson, a dental student in Cincinnati. They dated, and Pearl soon found out she was pregnant. Her beau refused to marry her and insisted she get an abortion. Jackson told her to arrange for a visit to see him. She told her parents she was going to Indianapolis, but of course, that’s not where she went.

Authorities found telegrams between Jackson and Wood exchanging ideas for ending the pregnancy. Witness testimony revealed that a pharmacist sold Jackson the cocaine and a bartender saw Pearl at his establishment with Jackson and his roommate and fellow dental student, Alonzo Walling. The bartender saw Jackson stir something into the woman’s drink.

Jackson and Walling decided to use their know-how from dental school to perform an abortion themselves. However, things went horribly wrong and they killed Ms. Bryan and removed her head so she couldn’t be identified. Carriage driver George Jackson testified that he drove the three from Cincinnati to Ft. Thomas. He said he was concerned about the dazed, moaning woman, and that Alonzo threatened him with a gun when he refused to take them any further. Once they reached their destination, George Jackson jumped out of the carriage and ran.

Authorities had their killers, but one question remained: Where was Pearl’s head? The men would not answer. One theory, more of a rumor, actually, was that the men tossed it into the well at what would later become Bobby Mackey’s. That theory has been all but debunked since thorough searches revealed no sign of Pearl’s head. It was also posited that the men threw it into the reservoir after some bloodhounds led authorities there. However, nothing was found aside from bloody handprints.

The most likely theory is that Jackson and Walling carried it back to Cincinnati in Pearl’s luggage and tossed it into the furnace back at the dental school. The bartender from earlier testified that Jackson asked him to hold onto the bag temporarily. He testified that he joked about the weight and shape of the bag. He had no idea what possibly waited inside.

Scott Jackson and Alonzo Walling were convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged.

There are a number of things that caught my attention in this case. When I saw the episode, I was curious about the two men putting their dental training to other uses and the possible connection to Bobby Mackey’s. As I researched, I was intrigued by the break in the case from Louis Pook and the testimony of George Jackson, a black carriage driver scared of what would happen if he stayed and scared of what would happen if he ran.

This case has a lot to unpack. The books I’m linking below were recently published, so maybe more information will be revealed and the mystery of Pearl’s head will be solved.

Looking for more?
The Mysterious Murder of Pearl Bryan: Or, The Headless Horror by Anonymous
So Far from Home: The Pearl Bryan Murder by Robert Wilhelm

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