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Pearl Bryan: chapter four continued

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Pearl Bryan
Secret London
Murder Ballads

Matthew Pinkerton of the famous detective agency certainly believed that Walling was equally culpable. "There seems to have been a strong affinity between these two young men, and that it arose from a common lack of all moral principle, a fiendish and most unnatural disposition, cannot well be doubted," he writes. "The light regard in which they held human life and the brutal manner in which they consumated the terrible crime argues that they were both victims of the homicidal impulse." (25)
With Jackson's cunning mind on the one hand, and Walling's chilling calm on the other, reporters hedged their bets for a while. Two weeks into the investigation, it was still possible to find reports which talked up Walling's unflapability and contrasted it sharply with Jackson's more agitated behaviour. The implication was clearly that Walling had an inhuman, robotic control of his emotions, while Jackson might at least have the excuse that his passions had got the better of him.
As more and more independent accounts of Jackson's actions dribbled in, it became clear that he was not only the father of Pearl's baby but also - in all probability - the man who'd slit her throat. That lover/killer character suited the "murdered girl" template perfectly, and reporters were content to give him the lead role from that point on. Earlier assessments of Walling's sinister character were set aside and, in every story that followed, he became a sort of Millhouse figure to Jackson's Bart Simpson. It was even suggested that Jackson might have literally hypnotised him into participating in the crime against his will.
"Walling was cast as a supporting character rather than as a principal because there was no place for him in the popular conception of what the drama of the murdered girl required," Cohen writes. "The approach taken by the papers was to assign to Walling the role of Jackson's tool or puppet. Although four hands may have assisted at Pearl Bryan's demise, only one will was at work."

Pearl's real family was vengeful rather than saintly, just as you or I might have been in their place

Of the three main roles required, that left just the grief-stricken family to deal with. As Cohen points out, the "criminal-brought-to-justice" template generally gives this role to the killer's parents, and milks whatever pathos may be had from that. In the "murdered girl" formula, however, it's always the victim's parents who get the spotlight, and that meant reporters had to focus on the Bryans. The stereotype here, Cohen continues, demands that Pearl's parents be depicted as "grief-stricken and care-worn by events, devoted to their children, but helpless to alter their unhappy fates. Particular notice is given to the mothers."
In fact, the Bryans were far from the baffled country bumpkins this role requires. They had the money to hire lawyers they thought could help the prosecution case, and argued fiercely for Jackson and Walling to be tried in Kentucky, where they thought a death sentence was all but certain. When Walling's prison chaplain called out at the Bryan farm begging them not to insist that both men must hang, Fred Bryan stopped him at the front door and told him not to bother.
One report insists that, days before Jackson was even arrested, Fred Bryan was seen hunting him in Cincinnati with a large butcher's knife in his hand. Others claim men from the Bryan family were involved in the lynch mobs hoping to abduct Jackson before his trial. "Twice, members of the Bryan family visited the spot where Pearl's remains were found, examined the blood-stained ground, and quizzed the owner of the land about the discovery of the body," Cohen writes. "Fred Bryan twice and his sister once confronted Scott Jackson in prison."
None of this offers much evidence of the passive, poor-but-honest family the stereotype demands. Instead of stressing these elements, however, the papers talked up the "little parlour of their home", Pearl's "doting mother", her "aged father" and their loss of "a favourite daughter". The mere sight of Pearl's mother in court, one account tells us, "brought tears to every eye and a sob to every bosom".
I don't mean to mock the very real pain Pearl's family must have suffered, but only to demonstrate how their portrayal was subtly twisted to improve on an inconvenient truth. Pearl's real family was vengeful rather than saintly - just as you or I might have been in the circumstances - and took an active role in ensuring that vengence came to pass. By the time the papers had finished with them, though, mother, father and siblings could all be clicked into the template prepared for them with perfect precision. Jackson, Walling and Pearl herself were subjected to a similar alchemy, and the version of their story that produced influences our view of them even today. I've no doubt it's shaped my own account too.
The various Pearl Bryan ballads written from scratch about the case followed much the same line as the newspapers. Before these started to emerge, though, her story was already being sung on the streets of Cincinnati as a simple rewrite of an old ballad called The Jealous Lover. This ballad derives from a C19th century English folk song called The Murder of Betsy Smith.
In its standard American form, The Jealous Lover tells of a girl called Florella (or Lorella, or Luella), whose boyfriend William (or Willie, or Edward) takes her off into the woods and murders her there. The suggestion is that she's pregnant by him and hopes he'll keep his promise to marry her, but that he kills her instead so he can stay single. With this plot already in place, all The Jealous Lover needed to adapt it for Pearl's case was a simple substitution of the names involved. The tune had already proven itself eminently suitable for such tales, a fact recognised by Woody Guthrie when he borrowed it for his own murder ballad The Philadelphia Lawyer some 40 years later.

Greencastle: continued

After a few minutes of small talk, we got on to the question of why I wanted to go out to Greencastle, and I launched into the whole Pearl Bryan story, stressing all the gory details with the relish I always try to give them. This normally gets a good reaction, often prompting a spate of follow-up questions and incredulous laughter.
    Walt was different. He obviously didn't want to be rude, but he declined to join in my enthusiasm for the tale, saying only how sad it was that people would want to watch a hanging for entertainment, or scrabble for souvenirs of a murdered girl's pain. My own attitude suddenly felt rather silly and shallow in comparison, and I couldn't help feeling slightly ashamed of myself.
    It was too late to stop now, however, so I pressed on with some tales of the British hangings I've also written about here. But that just made me think of the truly disgusting sadism I'd seen described at lynchings in the black newspapers of the 1920s. Walt was a black guy about my age, and the thought that his grandfather might have faced that treatment less than a century ago made me regret speaking of hangings so lightly in his presence.
    Moving on to other topics, we discovered we were both massive fans of David Simon's cop series The Wire, and this got us on to the whole subject of city crime in America and the crack epidemic that seems to cause so much of its violence.
    For me, this was mostly the gospel according to David Simon, but Walt was able to address the subject from his own experience of living in various American cities, and everything he told me just confirmed again how precisely Simon and The Wire had hit their marks.
    This sprawling discussion took us all the way to Greencastle's Forest Hills Cemetery, where Walt stopped at the open gate and nipped into the office there to make sure we were OK to drive the cab inside. He came out a couple of minutes later with two groundsmen, one of whom leant in through the cab's rear door and asked me which grave I was after.

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