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Pearl Bryan: chapter one continued

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Pearl Bryan
Secret London
Murder Ballads

It was around this time that the military barracks in Newport upped sticks to move four miles south-west and create what is now Fort Thomas. They made that move in the early 1890s, and many local businesses were forced to follow in the barracks' wake. These concerns, which included a pool-room, a barbershop, a hotel, several tattoo parlours and a host of Newport's own saloons, set up a new entertainment district called the Midway opposite the fort's new site in Tower Park. "It was a fairly rough and wild area of town at night because of all the soldiers stationed at Fort Thomas," one newspaper notes. It was along the Midway that these soldiers found the working girls they'd later sport with in John Lock's orchard.
Sheriff Plummer and the rest of the men now standing in that orchard arranged for the girl's body to be taken to White's funeral parlour in Newport for autopsy, and then set about gathering what evidence they could. There was a glove thrown to one side on the ground, and a scrap of the dead woman's dress found hanging on a branch several yards from the body. Examining the footprints they'd found leading to the spot, Plummer concluded that a man and a woman had been walking side by side there. "For some reason, the woman had attempted to flee, and the man had followed and overtaken her," the CE reports. "The tracks were especially distinct here, for the woman had run through a very muddy spot, which she would have avoided had she been able to pick her way."
Plummer could see this was too big a case for him to handle alone, so his next move was to phone Larry Hazen, Cincinnati's chief of detectives, for help. "I'm the sheriff of this county, and I think I'm a good sheriff," Plummer explained. "But I know I'm not a detective." (6)
Hazen had two of his best men, John McDermott and Cal Crim, working a vice detail in Cincinnati's black district at the time. Everyone assumed that Plummer's headless girl would turn out to be one of the Midway's prostitutes, so it made sense to give McDermott and Crim the case. "The first impression was that the victim was probably one of our charges," Crim writes. "I went over to Newport to see Sheriff Plummer. He was pretty well worked up over the case and at a loss how to proceed."

'The ground showed signs of a struggle and was soaked with coagulated blood,' police said

Plummer took Crim and McDermott out to the orchard at about 1:00pm, where they set about searching for clues. "When the sheriff and I arrived, the body had been removed to an undertaker's in Newport, but the ground showed signs of struggle and was soaked with coagulated blood," Crim says. He noticed blood on the leaves of the bushes all around him, and on the edge of the bank. When McDermott pulled the leaves through his hand, he found the blood was still wet enough to stick to his fingers and leave a red mark.
Crim compares the blood spots to glistening rain drops, which shone with reflected light when he turned the leaves in his hand. "I found near these blood spots an impression on the ground as though someone had been sitting there," he says. "During the time I was there, some person took a stick and dug down six or seven inches. There was blood down as far as he went."
One of the soldiers aiding in the search also found a group of closely-spaced cuts in the earth where he thought someone had plunged a knife in and out to cleanse it of blood. Digging at the slits with his own pocket knife, he unearthed a clot of blood and some long blonde hairs. The clothes Hewling had found the girl wearing that morning were too dry to have been caught in the previous evening's rainstorm, so the detectives knew she must have arrived in the orchard after that rain had stopped at about 10:30pm on Friday.
Examining the ground near where the body was found, Crim discovered a set of man's footprints leading across Alexandria Pike and up the hill to an abandoned cistern which had once been used to collect rainwater. The cistern was 15 feet deep, and partly covered by a large stone, where Crim found a handprint marked in blood. But the cistern itself was empty, and the footprints led on up the hill to the edge of Covington Reservoir.
Further searches that day produced a blood-stained scrap of cloth from a woman's chemise stuffed into some tree roots near the scene and a piece torn from a man's shirt-sleeve, also stained with blood. There were fresh wagon tracks on Alexandria Pike, leading back towards Cincinnati, and police found a woman's hat, crushed and broken, on the same route. The hat was tied to a stone with a blood-stained handkerchief, suggesting the killer's intention had been to dump it in the river as his wagon crossed Cincinnati's Central Bridge. Still there was no sign of the head.
Plummer's next call was to Robert Carothers, his family doctor and a professor at Ohio Medical College. Tingley, who had a parallel career in state politics which interested him far more than his medical work, seems to have fled for the state legislature in Frankfort immediately after the body was found, so Plummer needed someone he could trust to carry out the autopsy immediately.
Carothers was out on his rounds when Plummer called, and got home late that Saturday afternoon to find the sheriff's urgent messages awaiting him. "I called back and, without further explanation, he asked me to go immediately to a nearby undertaking establishment," he writes.
"I walked the short distance and, as I approached the address, I realised that something unusual must have happened. Crowds were milling about, voices were loud and angry, and women were hysterical. I pushed through the crowds, reached the door of the undertaking establishment, and gained entrance with two other men, who stated they were detectives from Cincinnati." Those two men, of course, were Crim and McDermott, now back from their first examination of the scene, and the undertaker was White's.
Plummer hustled them all to an upstairs room and told Carothers what he'd found. "Since the County Coroner was away at the time, Mr Plummer asked me to perform the autopsy," Carothers writes. "He said 'This is a big thing, and there must be no mistakes'." Plummer seemed quite relived that Tingley had dealt himself out of this one, Carothers adds. He knew that Carothers had a lot of experience in conducting autopsies, and thought he could rely on him to focus more seriously on the case than Tingley would have done.

String of Pearls: continued

Pearl Bryan, by Oscar 'Doc' Parks (1962). This unaccompanied version was taped by the song collector Pat Dunford in Alton, Indiana. Stamping out the rhythm with his foot, the 71-year-old Parks brings great feeling to the song. His voice cracks and wheezes through the performance, producing a recording that's raw as hell, but utterly captivating. Dunford includes a brief audio interview with Parks too, which is well worth hearing in its own right. Available on: The Art of Field Recording Vol II (Dust to Digital, 2008).

Pearl Bryan, by Fleming Brown (1962). Brown backs himself on banjo for this short cover of Doc Hopkins' version. His voice has a melancholy, intimate tinge that suits the story well. Available on: Appalachian Banjo Songs & Ballads (Folk-Legacy, 2010).

Pearl Bryan by AL Phipps & The Phipps Family (1965). Arthur Leeroy Phipps and his family were a country gospel quartet, somewhat in the Carter Family mold. They do full justice to Pearl's tale here, delivering the kind of close harmony singing only blood relatives can manage. Arthur's guitar keeps the music simple, with an arrangement balancing ghastly content against a Godly tone. Available on: Faith, Love & Tragedy (Folkways, 2009).

Page Pearl Bryan (Intro), by The Crooked Jades (2001). The Jades include two versions of the song on their Seven Sisters album, and this first one is a bluesy instrumental. Lisa Berman's Hawaiian slide guitar picks the tune out with deep, echoey, ominous tones. Available on: Seven Sisters: A Kentucky Portrait (Jade Note Music, 2001).

Pearl Bryan (Outro), by The Crooked Jades (2001). The first version's ominous atmosphere is replaced with melacholy here. The Jades' Jeff Kazor joins with guest singer Martha Hawthorne to lead us unhurredly through all but two of the Phipps' original eight verses. Lisa Berman's Hawiian slide brings the darkness again, and there's a natty little mandolin solo from Bill Foss. The band would later pare this version down to its chorus alone, as I've explained in the main piece. Available on: Seven Sisters: A Kentucky Portrait (Jade Note Music, 2001).