Tweet Follow @PlanetSlade

Pearl Bryan: chapter eight continued

<<<Previous Chapter  –   Page: 1, 2, 3, 4   –   Next Chapter>>>
Pearl Bryan
Secret London
Murder Ballads

Folk musicians took the opposite line, seeing Pearl's decapitation as absolutely key to the song's dark heart. In 1944, Kentucky's Doc Hopkins, then a popular radio performer in the mid-west, recorded his own version of the ballad, drawing mostly on Dalhart's lyrics, but adding this splendid verse about the discovery of her corpse:

It was in the month of January,
The people for miles around said,
'We've found this poor girl's body,
But we cannot find her head.'

Hopkins gave the final warning verse a little tweak too, using it to stress just what a unique murder this had been:

Now all young girls take warning,
Before it is too late,
From the worst crime ever committed,
In our old Kentucky state.

The Cincinnati papers took every excuse they could find to rehash Pearl's story throughout the rest of the 1940s. In cases like this, the trick is to find what journalists call a "peg" from today's news to hang their old story on and present it anew. In Pearl's case, the pegs included reports that the modern soldiers at Fort Thomas were trying to scare new recruits with her tale, a convenient anniversary for one of the case's key events or the death of anybody even vaguely involved. Most ingenious of all was the CP's February 1946 story about Sol and Mollie Mintz, an elderly brother and sister in Hamilton County, who had maintained an unbroken subscription to the paper for the past 50 years. "Hamilton Family Subscribed During Pearl Bryan Murder," the headline read. (58)
The 50th anniversary of Pearl's body being found came in February 1946, offering what many saw as the best peg yet. Enough time had passed now for the tale's more sobering aspects to be forgotten, and the CP's anniversary piece took a distinctly jolly tone. "In Cincinnati, a young roue of a dental student made free with his light o' love and, in his befuddlement, chopped off her head," the writer began. (59)

Folk singers have seen Pearl's decapitation as their key to the song's dark heart

The CE did a better job, not only by getting Cal Crim to write the personal memoir I've already drawn on here, but also by finding an Indiana coroner who'd just visited the murder scene for himself. "I had just graduated from medical college at the University of Chicago when the story made national headlines," Dr DeNaut told the paper. "Every student there read the accounts with intense interest because Scott Jackson and Alonzo Walling had been dental students." (60)
DeNaut had been prompted to make the visit, he said, when one of his Indiana patients mentioned she'd been at school with Pearl. "In all my years as a county coroner, I never had a case like that one," he said. "Medically speaking, the killing was one of the most brutal possible, for the poor unfortunate girl was still conscious when the decapitation was begun."
The CE's Joseph Garretson ensured his paper didn't miss the 50th anniversary of Jackson and Walling's hanging either, making this the lead item in his March 20, 1947, column. "Every year, the old story finds its way back into type," Garretson wrote.
It did so again just two months later, when the CE ran a story headlined: "Death Comes to Last Juror of Pearl Bryan Murder Case". This reported the death of George Stegner, who had indeed served on Scott Jackson's jury. In its copy, the CE obituary called Stegner "the last known surviving member of the jury in the famous Pearl Bryan murder case" and "a member of the Campbell County jury which, 50 years ago, condemned Scott Jackson and Alonzo Walling". (61)
This story did not please an elderly Cincinnati businessman called Michael Moran. Unlike the CE's reporter, Moran knew that Jackson and Walling had been tried seperately, each by a jury of his own. What's more, he'd served on Walling's jury himself, and - last time he looked - he'd still been breathing.
Nothing happened for a few days, suggesting that Moran may have complained to the CE, but been brushed off with the offer of a tiny correction on page 17. The CP's own Stegner obituary had made exactly the same mistake, so Moran was likely to get the same response there. Instead, he marched into the newsroom at Cincinnati's third title, the Times-Star, and told them all about the error. "It made me look dead, and I want the world to know I'm still very much alive," he declared.
Unlike the CP, the Times-Star had no embarrasment of its own to hide, so it was free to have a little fun at its rivals' expense. Headlining its May 30 story "Last Juror in Pearl Bryan Case Not Dead", it quoted the mistaken report at length. "Someone's memory slipped recently," the Times-Star chuckled. "And it wasn't that of Michael R. Moran, who at 85 is still a very active Cincinnati businessman." (62)
There was a sequel to this story two years later when Moran himself died, but nothing seems to have been learnt. Both the CP and the Times-Star obituaries conflated Jackson and Walling's separate procedings into "the jury" and "the trial" which both papers assumed had condemned them jointly. This did not did not stop the Times-Star recalling fondly how Moran had once helped them make the CE look silly.
John Hewling's death in December 1949 made headlines for the Cincinnati papers too, and once again all the obituaries rehashed Pearl's story in their first few paragraphs. Then we were back to the search for her missing head.
In February 1953, Workmen from Cincinnati House Wreckers began tearing down the old boarding house on West Ninth Street to create a new parking lot for Dr Joseph DeCourcy's nearby clinic. Jack Thomas, the foreman running the job, said it would take about 45 days to complete, and told his men to look out for anything that might be a severed head. "Workers Joke at Prospect of Finding Bryan Head," the CP reported. (63)