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Pearl Bryan: Chapter one

By Paul Slade
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Pearl Bryan
Secret London
Murder Ballads

“The lives and deaths of Pearl Bryan, Scott Jackson and Alonzo Walling had everything to make a great story. It had mystery love, tragedy and pathos. Its brutality was enraging and its inhumanity sickening,”
- Joe Doran, Cincinnati Post, May 8, 1930.

“There was the image of a young country girl meeting her tragic end in the big city, there was the scandalous subject of out-of-wedlock pregnancy. There was a question of innocence or guilt. And there was a missing head.”
- George Stimson, The Cincinnati Crime Book.

His first guess was that the girl must have passed out from too much drink.
John Hewling often stumbled across women in that state on his Saturday morning walks into work, and this corner of his employer's orchard always seemed to be the spot where he found them. The three-board fence separating it from Alexandria Pike road was easy to climb, and led directly to a disused wagon track inside where thick privet bushes hid everyone from view. The young farmhand knew that soldiers from the nearby fort often entertained the local whores here, and he'd gotten used to finding the debris of their parties strewn around when he arrived for work next day. "It was a lonely spot, and they used it for a trysting place," he told reporters. "We had to run lots of women out of there who were drunk." (1)

When the woman's dress slipped down, the men found themselves staring at a headless body

Somthing about this particular girl stopped Hewling from trying to rouse her. She was lying on her back, angled down the slope of a bank with her feet at the top and her arms flung up over her shoulders - a position that would make sleep difficult however drunk you were. Her clothes were in disarray, with the skirt of her long green dress pulled up to conceal everything above her waist.
The sun was still rising on this cold, foggy February morning, so that's about all Hewling would have seen on his first inspection. It was enough to convince him this was no routine drunk, though, and that he didn't want to get any closer to her just at the moment. Instead, he ran straight to his boss's house to raise the alarm.
John Lock, the farmer who owned the land, sent Hewling off to summon the police from the nearby town of Newport, and then to alert Colonel Cochran, who commanded the US infantry regiment at Fort Thomas itself. Jule Plummer, the county sheriff, Bob Tingley, the coroner, and Lock himself led a small party back to the orchard, arriving there a little before 10:30am. Now there was enough light to see the whole scene.
"As they approached, they noticed that the ground was torn, leaves were scattered about and bushes were trampled," writes the Cincinnati Post's Joe Doran. "Spots of blood flecked the privet bushes to a height of two or three feet. Beside the woman lay a tan kid glove. The woman's dress, which covered her head, was pale green. [...] A short distance from the body was a woman's white corset, with part of the left shoulder strap cut away.
"Coroner Tingley walked to the woman, grasped her foot, and tumbled her down the bank into the roadway. The small party started back in horror at what his move revealed. When the woman fell to the road and her dress slipped down from her neck, the men found themselves staring at a headless body.
"'When I saw that, I got weak and sick,' Hewling said. 'It was the most gruesome sight I have ever seen'."
With the skirt pulled away, it was also obvious that the girl had been half stripped. "Officers were at first inclined to believe that the woman had been outraged before she was murdered," says the Cincinnati Enquirer. "The upper part of the woman's dress was open, as was the garment beneath and her bosom was bare. The skirtband was unloosed, and the skirt of the dress was gathered up above the waist. Beneath the stump of the neck, there was a large pool of blood." (2)
All this happened on Saturday, February 1, 1896, in the Kentucky town of Fort Thomas, just across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio. The crime uncovered that day was still producing headlines in both states' papers a century later, and has inspired as many as six different songs. It's become an archetype of the "Murdered Girl" ballad, recorded by everyone from Charlie Poole to The Crooked Jades, and a vivid example of the way that story's narrative stereotypes shape its telling. Most recently, Pearl's tale has been told by a dance troupe in San Francisco, where Kate Weare's company choreographed it as part of their 2011 show at the city's ODC Theatre.
Oh, and one more thing: They still haven't found her head.

The late 19th Century was a turbulent time for Newport and the other small Kentucky settlements lining the Ohio river's state boundary. Jim Reis's review of Kentucky Post front pages from that era lists an impressive selection of natural disasters, including an earthquake (1877), a steamboat sunk by ice floes on the river (1881), floods (1884), tornados (1890) and a bridge collapse (1892).(3)
Meanwhile, just across the river, Cincinnati was dealing with problems of its own. Settled in 1788, the city had grown rapidly to become what state historians call "the first American boomtown in the centre of the country". But the shift from steamboats to railroads slowed that growth dramatically and, by 1890, Cincinnati had fallen well behind its mid-west rivals, boasting only 297,000 residents against the burgeoning Chicago's 1.1m. Ten years earlier, you would have needed just two Cincinnatis to equal Chicago's population: now it was more than three.
One field where Cincinnati still led the way, however, was its consumption of beer. The city grew its population by just over a third in the 20 years to 1890, but trebled its beer production over the same period. About half of that beer was drunk in Cincinnati itself, which means the city's annual consumption rose from 26 gallons per person in 1870 to 40 gallons per person in 1893. The national figure in 1893 was just 16 gallons per person.(4)
In 1890, Cincinnati had 1,810 saloons for a population of just 297,000 people - equivalent to one for every 37 adult males in the city. The booziest streets of all were Vine Street, which had 136 saloons in 1890 and Central Avenue, which had 100. Close behind came Walnut Street and Main Street, with 55 saloons each, then Liberty Street with 41 and Court Street's 34. The single block of Fifth Street linking Main and Sycamore had 20 saloons that year, which can't have left room for much else.(5)

String of Pearls: the headless girl goes on record

Pearl Bryan, by Jep Fuller (1926). Fuller was one of many recording aliases used by the country singer Vernon Dalhart. This, the first version of Pearl's song put to disc, has his guitar strumming quietly in the background behind a slightly rushed vocal. Dalhart breaks off singing here and there to add a few Dylanesque harmonica breaks. Available on: YouTube.

Pearl Bryant, by Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers (1927). The first Jealous Lover version on disc. Swings along nicely enough with its fiddle and guitar backing, but there's an oddly emotionless sing-song quality to the vocals. Put some heart in it, lads! Available on: The Essential Charlie Poole (Properbox, 2009).

Pearl Bryan, by Burnett & Rutherford (1928). Dick Burnett and Leonard Rutherford made some very good records in their day, but this cover of Charlie Poole's Pearl isn't one of them. The tinny twang in Rutherford's voice makes him sound uncomfortably like Popeye at times, and the kazoo solo doesn't help either. Available on: Burnett & Rutherford 1926-1930 (Document, 2005).

Pearl Bryant, by Lois Judd (1940). This Jealous Lover variant was recorded by song collectors at one of California's migrant work camps in the final years of the Great Depression. Judd, a refugee from Kentucky, sings it a cappella, in a sweet, tender voice. It's marred somewhat by loud background noise as she starts, but notable for the fact that it includes the forgiveness verse normally excised when Scott Jackson's name appears. Available via "Pearl Bryant" search on Library of Congress website:

Pearl Bryant, by Doc Hopkins (1944). We're back to the real ballad with Hopkins' disc, and it's all the better for its lack of frills. He sings with great sympathy for Pearl's fate, backing himself with just enough acoustic guitar to keep the tune ambling along. His careful pauses add a serious, confiding tone to lines like: "Their sorrow no tongue can tell". Available on: America's Favourite Folk Singer (Global Village, 2009).

Pearl Bryan, by Bruce Buckley (1954). Buckley pushes the music even further into the background for this high-voiced, crooning version. He lingers a little too much over the show-off notes, as if he's inviting us to admire his voice, but it's undeniably pretty. Available on: Ohio Valley Ballads (Folkways, 2009).

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