February 1, 1896
Fort Thomas, Kentucky
The headless body of Pearl Bryan (23) is found
The body of a decapitated woman, tossed into some bushes, was discovered by a farmhand on February 1. As her head was missing, identification proved difficult. The murder became an immediate sensation in the area due to the gruesome end the woman had met as well as the mystery surrounding her identity, leading souvenir seekers to scoop up dirt that had been soaked in the woman’s blood to keep as macabre trophies.
The corpse was examined and it was estimated the victim had died the day before her body’s discovery. It was also found the victim had been decapitated below the fifth vertebra and, in the opinion of Dr. Robert Carothers who performed the autopsy, the woman had been alive when she was beheaded. It was also determined she had been pregnant at the time of her death. The fetus was extracted, pickled, and displayed for some time at the local drug store. Additionally, prussic acid (also known as hydrogen cyanide) was found in the woman’s system during her postmortem, though it was unclear if it had been injected as an abortifacient or with the intention to murder her.
Detectives were soon able to determine the woman’s identity through the shoes she wore. The footwear was linked by a maker’s tag to a Greencastle, Indiana cobbler who reported only two women had purchased shoes in that size. One of the women was still alive and the other, Pearl Bryan, had recently left her home to travel to Cincinnati, Ohio to meet with a suitor named Scott Jackson (28) with the hopes of marriage.
Jackson was tracked down as well as his roommate, Alonzo Walling (20), after a coachman stated he had last seen Bryan in the company of the two men. Both men were arrested. Both blamed the other. Through investigation, it was found that Bryan’s cousin had written to Jackson after she admitted her pregnancy to her family. Jackson replied he could “fix her” to prevent the disgrace of her family, then asked Walling to assist with an abortion.
Speculations regarding the circumstances of Bryan’s death were copious among the public and authorities; some believed she was murdered when she refused the “criminal operation” (an abortion), while others suggested she had been killed during a botched abortion using dental instruments (Jackson was a dental student).
Jackson and Walling were convicted, and both sentenced to death. They were executed simultaneously on March 20, 1897, becoming the last to be legally hanged in Newport, Kentucky.
Bryan’s head has never been recovered, though popular legend holds it was thrown into a well of blood inside a Wilder, Kentucky slaughterhouse during a ritual. A music store currently stands over the location of the old slaughterhouse and it is claimed Bryan’s ghost haunts the area. A volunteer with the Campbell County Historical and Genealogical Society doubts the claim, however, and has criticized the store for exploiting Bryan’s death.
Pearl Bryan. Find A Grave. Accessed: January 31, 2021. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/30686832/pearl-bryan
“Ghost of Pearl Bryan said to be roaming Bobby Mackey’s bar.” Northern Kentucky News. October 18, 2018. Accessed: February 1, 2021. http://newsnky.com/pearlbryan.html
Cohen, Allison. “Fascination behind 1896 murder still persists, feeding rumors of ghostly presence at Bobby Mackey’s.” WCPO. May 13, 2017. Accessed: February 1, 2021. https://www.wcpo.com/news/insider/fascination-behind-1896-murder-still-persists-feeding-rumors-of-ghostly-presence-at-bobby-mackeys
Knight, Cameron. “120-year-old beheading still fascinates.” Cincinnati.com. February 8, 2016. Accessed: February 1, 2021. https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/crime/2016/02/08/120-year-old-beheading-still-fascinates/80032790/
Taylor, Troy. No Rest for the Wicked: History & Hauntings of American Crime & Unsolved Mysteries. White chapel Productions, 2001
“Pearl Bryan’s Story.” The Sunday Chronicle [Chicago, Illinois]. May 10, 1896
“Jackson’s Trial.” The Brownstown Banner. April 30, 1896