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Pearl Bryan: chapter three continued

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Pearl Bryan
Secret London
Murder Ballads

Swain took George to police headquarters, where he was presented with an identity parade. "Out of a long line of prisoners, he picked Scott Jackson and Alonzo Walling as the two men who had been his fares on that grim ride," Doran writes. "He asked them to speak before picking them out definitely, but his identification was positive." Walling was the man who'd climbed out to threaten him with the gun, George said, and Jackson the one who stayed inside with the girl.
Police set about trying to trace the hired carriage and the grey horse George had described. They found both up at Cincinnati's Walnut Hills Cab Company, where the owner said he'd rented them to a man he later identified as Scott Jackson on the night Pearl was killed. Some accounts have it that the carriage was returned to Walnut Hills in the small hours of Saturday morning, others that it was found abandoned somewhere else in Cincinnati. But all agree that, when the company got it back, it was covered in mud and freshly dented on its left lamp. Searching its interior, police found scraps of blonde hair which matched the colour of Pearl's, traces of mud from the murder scene, and a few blood spots.
George was ordered to drive each of the company's grey horses in turn, and said he recognised one particular horse from the way it pulled on the bit so strongly. Chester Mullen, the owner there, confirmed this was the horse he'd hired out with that particular carriage on Friday night.

'I had heard the girl's moanings long enough. I was scared and wished I was shot of the job.'

There was other evidence that supported George's story too. Police found a toll collector who remembered a carriage driven by an old black man passing through the bridge's open gate towards Newport late on the night of Pearl's murder. A Mrs O'Brien, who lived near the murder scene, had heard the same scream George mentioned, and her guess at the time this happened confirmed his own. The bit of old railway iron he described matched the one police had found weighing Pearl's clothes down in the sewers, suggesting the two killers had brought it back to the city with them for just that purpose.
This testimony formed a vital link in the story's chain, not least because it was the only account police had that put both Jackson and Walling at the murder scene. There was plenty of forensic evidence that Pearl had been alive when her head was cut off, but George's account of hearing her groan just minutes before that happened would bring that fact powerfully home to a jury. With all this in mind, Crim and his colleagues wanted to be very sure that George's story would stand up to everything an aggressive defence attorney could throw at it.
"Crim devised the hardest test of all for the Negro to undergo," Doran writes. "At 00:50 in the morning, he was placed in the seat of a cab, given the reins, and told to retrace the course over which he had driven Walling, Scott Jackson and Pearl Bryan. Crim, McDermott, Plummer, other officers and newspaper men formed a procession behind the Negro as he as started out on his drive through the black night."
George set the horse in motion at the corner where he'd been hired, and then led the way down Elm Street, turned left on Third Street, right on Broadway and straight to the Central Bridge. At the other end of the bridge, he turned right onto Newport's Third Street, then drove via Central Avenue, Chestnut Street, Isabella Street, Keturah Street and Patterson Street to a spot outside C. Robinson & Sons Distillery. He drew the horse to a stop and peered into the darkness.
"This is where I tried to jump out," he said. "I had heard the girl's moanings long enough. I was scared, wished myself shot of the job, and was determined to get away. Walling pulled a gun and began to swear at me. 'You black bastard, if you try to jump out here, I'll send you to hell!' There wasn't much said, but he made me drive on."
A little further down the road, George spoke again. "Walling was still mad when we got here, and cursed me some more for trying to get out," he said. "He told me there were 15 of their friends who would kill me if I ever told anything about their drive."
The procession drove a little way past a farm owned by the Siebert family, and then George stopped his horse again. "I don't seem to remember this," he said. "I'm afraid we're not on the right track." He retraced his path as far as the Siebert's farm and then said: "The road lies that way, down toward the barn", Plummer was sceptical, as he didn't know of any road there that could possibly lead to Alexandria Pike, but he held his tongue and followed along with everyone else.
"The road had become exceedingly rough, and led through creeks and ruts that appeared as though they had never been used," Doran writes. "The Siebert family were awake mourning the death of a small child, and the party obtained lanterns and went ahead. One carriage was over-turned, and it took some time to right it. Some of the newspaper men got mad, and thought Jackson was crazy. 'They were all for lynching him, but we restrained them and went ahead,' [Crim said]."
That casual reference to lynching George for no more than a moment's confusion on his part underlines again just how brave men like him and Allen Johnson had been to volunteer evidence against a couple of white men in the first place. In the racial climate of that time, any attempt by a black man to challenge whites was likely to be slapped down very hard, and the mere fact that the black man's accusations were true would do nothing to save him.
Fortunately for his health, George's sense of direction turned out to be right all along. The road - which even Sheriff Plummer had never suspected was there - led them all out on to Alexandria Pike, a little way south of Fort Thomas. George was sure he was on the right route again, and led them confidently onwards.
"Near Colonel Lock's farm, he stopped and again peered intently into the darkness," Doran writes. "An outcropping of rock caught his eye. 'I remember it now,' he cried. 'There's the house on the hill. There's the three-board fence with the board off, where they took the girl over into the orchard. Over there is where the groans came from'."
As George spoke those words, he was standing just 75 yards from the spot where John Hewling had found the dead girl two weeks earlier. "[George] Jackson had kept his word," Doran writes. "The final and most convincing link in the chain of evidence against Scott Jackson and Alonzo Walling had been forged."

Kentucky: continued

When Debbie mentioned the soldiers stationed at Fort Thomas back in 1896, and the prostitutes who gathered round there to service them, I innocently asked if the town still had a red light district today, and everyone at the table fell about laughing. I hadn't seen the genteel streets of modern Fort Thomas for myself at that point, but as soon as Debbie drove me round, I could see that a red light district there would be about as likely as a brothel in the middle of Cheltenham. No wonder they laughed. We continued our chat over coffee, then I produced my microphone and mini-disc recorder for a slightly more formal three-way interview. I tried to remember all the best bits of what everyone had told me so far and prompt them to tell those stories again, which worked pretty well. John and Cyndi had some ghost stories to share about the house as well - Pearl's ghost playfully placing their young children in a toy chest, strange apparitions in the attic, that kind of thing - but even John seemed to take these with a pinch of salt. Cyndi was the real believer, and thought Pearl's ghost may have been active while their children were little because she missed her own unborn child so much. John and Cyndi were off to the Pete Rose tribute game across the river that evening, and I had a ticket for the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company's downtown production of Much Ado. We just had time for Cyndi to show me some of her paintings before we left, though, including a wonderful portrait of Willie Nelson which she'd been allowed to present to the great man himself. Debbie gave me a lift back across the river, Much Ado proved thoroughly enjoyable, and I had time for a couple of pints at the beer festival before going to bed. I've had worse days.

Many thanks to Debbie, Cyndi and John for all their help and hospitality during my visit to Kentucky. I couldn't have told Pearl's story properly without them.