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The Chilling Case of Pearl Bryan—and Her Missing Head

This young woman suffered a brutal death, her head tragically lost to time. 

photo of pearl bryan

On January 28, 1896, Sunday school teacher Pearl Bryan left her home in Greencastle, Indiana to visit a friend in Indianapolis—or so she said. At the time, Bryan was 22 years old and, unbeknownst to her parents, who would never see her again, five months pregnant.

Less than a week later, Bryan’s headless body was found more than 150 miles away in Fort Thomas, Kentucky. Her head, on the other hand, has never been recovered.

In short order, two students at the Ohio College of Dental Surgery in nearby Cincinnati were arrested for the murder. Scott Jackson, it turned out, had been engaged in a secret romance with Bryan across several months leading up to her death. According to testimony offered during their trial, he had convinced his roommate Alonzo M. Walling to help him. The two had slipped cocaine into Bryan’s drink while they were at a saloon, then murdered her by cutting off her head. The coroner’s report corroborated that Bryan’s stomach contained cocaine, and that she had been decapitated while she was still alive.

As for what the two murderers had done with the missing head, no one could say. The suspects gave conflicting statements, claiming the head was buried in a Kentucky sandbar, or at the bottom of the Ohio River. Some of the authorities investigating the case believed the pair had burned her head in the furnace at the dental college. Though many nearby waterways were drained, dragged, or otherwise searched, Bryan’s head was never found—and remains missing to this day.

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The gruesome nature of the crime attracted considerable media attention at the time. The trial of the two killers was dubbed “the trial of the century,” while contemporary accounts described the courtroom as “theatrical.” What’s more, people came from miles around to view the crime scene, even going so far as to take “souvenirs”—up to and including branches taken from around the area where the body was found, some of which may have been splashed with the victim’s blood. In a shameless display of distasteful opportunism, a store near the courthouse sold Pearl Bryan memorabilia and other merchandise.

Both men  soon found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. According to newspaper accounts, the announcement of the verdict was accompanied by “a large force” of “armed officers in citizens clothing,” ready and waiting for any mob violence that might break out. Indeed, the likelihood of a public lynching in a case already so notorious and widely publicized was a very real danger.

According to a retrospective article published in the Dayton Daily News some forty years later, there was a jailbreak not long after the two men received their sentence. However, “An immense mob, on hearing this news, rushed to the jail but dispersed when they heard that Jackson and Walling were still behind bars.” It seemed that the two killers had been unwilling to join their fellow convicts in their flight, “because they knew that the jail was the safest place for them.”

The two men were hanged on the morning of March 20, 1897. Walling went to the gallows protesting his blamelessness in the crime, while Jackson, when given a last-minute opportunity to stay the other man’s execution with his testimony, “declared that he could not in truthfulness say that Walling was innocent.” Both men were hanged simultaneously. Accordingly to reports, neither of their necks broke—each one strangled to death.

Yet, neither ever confessed to what they had done with the head of Pearl Bryan.

Related: Small Town Noir: The Criminal Past of Newcastle, Pennsylvania

Perhaps unsurprising for so grisly and mysterious a crime, the story of Pearl Bryan and her missing head did not end there. Within a couple of decades of the crime itself, popular folk songs began to appear detailing it—or embellishing it—with the earliest recordings dating to 1926 and ’27. New songs dealing with Bryan’s death have appeared as recently as the 2000s. 

Among these is the claim that the (possibly still headless) ghost of Pearl Bryan haunts the establishment, which is also said to be one of several “gateways to hell.” The tenuous connection between Bryan and the honky-tonk in question is that her body was found just over two miles from the nightclub’s current location.

Legends that have sprung up over the years suggest that Bryan's killers might have been Satanists who cursed the ground on which the nightclub stands, vowing to haunt those involved in the case. (Unlikely, but perhaps not unreasonable, given that the locale of their execution was also just a few miles from the roadhouse.) In fact, the legends around Bobby Mackey's Music World tend to be heavily inflected with Satanic themes, probably due to the fact that most of the stories developed during the "Satanic panic" of the '70s and '80s.

Like most of the stories surrounding Bobby Mackey’s Music World, however, there is precious little to corroborate these tales. Nothing in the trials of either Jackson or Walling suggest occult or ritualistic motivations behind their actions. Bryan’s pregnancy was the far more likely motive. According to that same report in the Dayton Daily News, Walling testified that Jackson “told him of Pearl Bryan’s condition and asked him to relieve her by a criminal operation.”

From there, the plan seems to have gone through several mutations, possibly even once including a proposal to poison her to make it look like a suicide. The truth of what actually happened on that tragic night is shrouded in mystery—all we know is it left the trees along the roadside dripping with blood and Bryan’s headless corpse leaning against the fence. 

As to what became of Bryan’s missing head, it’s a secret that—assuming they truly knew it—both men took to their graves. “I will tell you now, in the last moment of my life,” Walling is reported to have said in an emotionless voice, just before he was hanged. “I was not there and I am innocent of the whole crime. I cannot say any more.”