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Pearl Bryan: Chapter four

By Paul Slade
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Pearl Bryan
Secret London
Murder Ballads

George Jackson's testimony clicked the last missing piece into the story of Pearl's death, and that meant the newspapers were now free to start casting the main characters in whatever role they could most usefully play.
In her 1973 book Poor Pearl, Poor Girl, Anne Cohen points out that reporters and balladeers alike often shoehorn the story they're telling into a ready-made template, such as "murdered girl" or "criminal-brought-to-justice". The names of the individuals will change, but the stereotypes they're asked to embody never do.

Much of the papers' reporting attempted to confer a sort of retrospective virginity on Pearl

It may even be that this process is an unconscious one, resulting not from cynical manipulation, but from an instinctive need to nudge each tale towards the archetypal forms we learn in childhood. Any untidy facts which don't fit the chosen template's requirements are quietly downplayed or ignored altogether. Newspapers can't be quite as cavalier with the facts as ballads can, but they're by no means exempt from the process.
"Both media tell the story from the same moral stance, express the same interpretation of character, and are interested in the same details," Cohen writes. "The result of this formulaeic filter is that stories tend to be altered progressively towards greater and greater similarity to the model. [...] It is exactly this process which we see occuring, over a 70-year timespan, in the Pearl Bryan ballads." (24)
We'll come to the ballads in a moment, but let's first examine that process at work in the newspaper stories. Cohen identifies the three stereotypes required by the "murdered girl" template as the victim, the lover-murderer and the grief-stricken family. Pearl's real story was able to supply all those characters, but each required a little tweaking before they slotted in as neatly as reporters would wish.
"According to the stereotype, the victim of the murder must be young, trusting and innocent," Cohen writes. "She must be helpless vis-à-vis her betrayer. She is greatly attached to her home and family where she is cherished."
The papers started off on the wrong tack here, with all their early stories assuming the dead girl must have been a prostitute. Initial reports described the garments she'd been found in as clothes "of the cheapest kind", and presented this as evidence of the girl's low character. As soon as Pearl was identified, the papers realised there was more milage in painting her as a naïve girl who'd been led astray, and those same cheap clothes became honest, homespun garments.
Taking this line meant the papers were opting for the "murdered girl" template, and their descriptions of Pearl's character instantly changed to fit that model. "When Pearl's body was first found, she was described as 'an abandoned woman from Cincinnati,' and 'a woman of the town'," Cohen writes. "As soon as it was discovered the corpse was pregnant, the description changed to 'innocent trusting girl, whose only offence was having loved too well'."
Adopting that depiction of Pearl meant she couldn't be seen as complicit in the abortion plans that led to her death. Wood's account suggests she co-operated in taking the abortion remedies Jackson recommended, and knew perfectly well she was travelling east for what would then have been an illegal operation, but that awkward fact was dropped from reports very early in the story. Instead, the papers suggested Jackson had promised to marry her in Cincinnati, and that she came there expecting them to raise the child together and live happily ever after.
It strains credulity to think a girl worldly enough to make those assignations with her lover at the dental office, provide herself with funds for the trip to Cincinnati and lie to her family about going there would really be that na´ve, but that was how Pearl had to be painted to fit the story's template. No wonder the papers were so willing to take Pearl's character at her own family's estimation. "Pearl never was away from home alone," the CP quotes her mother as saying. "The girl knew nothing of the world. She was a trusting person, and easily could be overcome by anyone of a designing nature."
Much of the reporting that followed attempted to confer a sort of retrospective virginity on Pearl, stressing for example that she was eventually buried "in the pure white garments she had worn when she graduated from the Greencastle High School". You could forgive Jackson a snort of cynicism if he ever read those stories for himself. After all, as Oscar Levant once said of Doris Day, he'd known her before she became a virgin.
Having tastefully adjusted Pearl's character to suit their readers' expectations, the papers moved on to consider the lover-murderer role. Their problem here was that two men had been arrested for Pearl's killing and, although only one of them seemed to have been her lover, there was some initial doubt over whether Jackson or Walling would emerge as the lead villain. Having two killers in the story cluttered its narrative line, so reporters were anxious from the start to conclude that one must be the mastermind and the other his dupe. But which was which?
On their arrest, both Jackson and Walling were subjected to the Bertillon method, a system which measured the prisoner's height, armspan, facial features, finger length and other physical dimensions very precisely. Fingerprinting was still about ten years away in the US, and a set of any individual's Bertillon measurements was the best way police had to record his identity for future reference. Bertillon measurements weren't intended to offer psychological insights any more than fingerprinting is today, but sometimes got confused with the pseudoscience of linking certain facial features to a criminal "type".
That's exactly what Sergeant Kiffmeyer, the man in charge of this new technology at Cincinnati's police HQ, did when reporters asked him what Jackson and Walling's measurements had shown. Drawing on data such as Jackson's unusally long skull, Kiffmeyer announced confidently that he was "a natural monster" with "all the characteristics of a criminal" in his nature. "Jackson has the cunning to plot and plan and to conceal," Kiffmeyer summed up. "He has a head such as Napolean would have."
Well, that looked clear enough: there's our monster, case closed, pass the typewriter. The trouble was, police seemed convinced Walling was just as bad. "[He] is supremely indifferent to the consequences and to the crime committed," Kiffmeyer said. "No appeal, not even the fear of punishment will have any impression on Walling."

Postcard three: PlanetSlade in Greencastle

Tuesday, September 14. Indianapolis, Indiana: I arrived at my hotel in Indianapolis early in the evening, unpacked my stuff and then went straight downstairs to consult the concierge about getting out to Greencastle. I knew it was about 50 miles away by road and assumed that, as usual in the land of the free, there would be no public transport option.
    The concierge listened politely to my little spiel about not being able to drive. We quickly ruled out the hotel's limo service when he mentioned the price, and that made him think of someone else he could try. This turned out to be Walt, an Indianapolis taxi driver who seemed to be a friend of the guy I was talking to. Walt's quote for the same trip was $100 cheaper than the limo, so I booked him on the spot and arranged a pick-up at 10:00am next day.

Wednesday, September 15. Indianapolis: I walked out next morning to find Walt already waiting on the sidewalk, chatting to the concierge who'd booked him for me. We introduced ourselves, shook hands and Walt ushered me in through the cab's rear door.
    I fished my print-out of Pearl's page on from my bag and passed the Forest Hills Cemetery address to Walt. It lacked a zip code but, where my Tom Dooley driver in Charlotte would have protested this omission or given me an uncomprehending squint, Walt was determined to help.
    He painstakingly entered the address character-by-character into his SatNav, which promptly blinked into life. Its calming female voice was already reading out her first instruction as Walt clipped the box back on to the windscreen. We were on our way.

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