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Pearl Bryan: chapter nine continued

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Pearl Bryan
Secret London
Murder Ballads

John remembers the valise story slightly differently from Cyndi, guessing that they might have held on to it for about eight months instead of the two years she estimates. "Finally, they sent out the County police," he said.
Both John and Cyndi were home at the time. "We were going out somewhere," Cyndi recalled. "I was coming downstairs, the police lights were all in the dining room area, and I'm thinking: 'What's going on?' So I walked out the door, and he's still in his car. I said: 'Yes? Can I help you?' He said: 'Yeah, do you have the valise from Pearl Bryan?' I said: 'I do'. And he said: 'Well, the court kind of wants it back'. I said: 'I'll give it back if they don't lose it again'.
John took up the story from there. "That's what we both said," he confirmed. "We were both there, and I said: 'We're not giving it up till you can promise you're going to take care of it'."
"How many police actually turned up?" I asked. "Only one," John replied. "But he was big! He said: 'If you don't give it to me right now, I'm going to call down to the station and get a warrant, and I might have to take you in. You have county property, and you're considered a thief.' So, naturally, I turned it over. But, after I turned it over, I made phonecalls and phonecalls and phonecalls saying: 'Do not throw that in the corner, do not just pile it in a corner where it gets lost or destroyed.' And, apparantly, it had some effect."

'All the local children know about Pearl's murder,' Debbie told me. 'The teachers love teaching it.'

Finally, in 1996, Campbell County mounted a permanent display for the valise and the remaining clippings and photographs that went with it, which they still maintain today. "But there have been a lot of papers lost," John told me. "In fact, a lot of stuff that I donated was lost. That's history - it really is - and it just irritates me."
Debbie Buckley, my guide in Fort Thomas, had introduced me to John and Cyndi and sat in as I interviewed them round the kitchen table. Debbie's work at Fort Thomas's military museum included telling local schoolchildren about the area's history, and she found the Pearl Bryan story was guaranteed to get their attention. They all thought the decapitation was the coolest thing they'd ever heard, she said, mimicing one little girl's "Ewwwww!" of shocked delight.
"I had John and Cyndi come in, and John helped to lead a class about Pearl in our junior rennaisance camp," Debbie told me as the interview wound down. "They're middle schoolers - mostly 13, 14, 15 years old - [and] they loved the news article you two provided that showed the headless body on the hillside. All the schoolchildren know about it. The teachers love teaching it, because it's so interesting to everybody."
That's a point that was brought home to me again and again during my visit to Cincinnati and Fort Thomas. I'd been in Charlotte, North Carolina, just a few days earlier to research Tom Dooley, but found very few people there who either knew or cared about their own local ballad. As soon as I mentioned I was researching an old murder to anyone in Cincinnati, though, they instantly knew I must be talking about Pearl, and often as not they'd start regaling me with their own version of the story. This happened again and again, in second-hand bookshops, taxis and bars.
"Jackson and Walling have become a legend of this town," the CP's Alfred Segal wrote in 1954. "It keeps on being told by generations unborn in the years 1896-1897. The fathers and grandfathers have handed it down to the youngsters, and they doubtless will hand it on to their offspring. [...] Even to this day, the story of Pearl Bryan and Jackson and Walling is retold here." Half a century later, when I arrived in town, they were telling it still.
Before I left the old Lock farmhouse that day, John and Cyndi told me one last story, this one about their early efforts to renovate the place. "I was working on some walls here, in this house," John recalled. "And I'm chipping away at the plaster. All of a sudden, I pull out a big hunk of hair. I said: 'Cyndi, here's the head!' She went screaming down the steps!"
We all had a good laugh at that, Cyndi included, but the real explanation turned out to be rather more mundane. "The fact is, when plaster was not of better quality, they used to reinforce it with horse hair," John explained. "So there was a big clump of blonde horse hair, and I said: 'Look at that, there's the head! They buried it here!' She freaked out." Cyndi smiled at the memory. "I was gone," she admitted.
"Be honest, though, John," I pressed. "Just for one second, didn't you think yourself it might be the head?" He laughed again, then said: "Oh, I thought ... Yeah. Maybe! It was a shock when I grabbed that hair."

Pearl's ballad has never been as widely recorded as the likes of Stagger Lee or Knoxville Girl, with only a dozen versions on disc that I've ever been able to find. She lacks the really famous "biographers" the first rank of murder ballads can claim too, though there are rumours that Joan Baez once included the song on a long-forgotten album.
Where Pearl does score is the uniquely fascinating story of how she met her death and the ingenious investigation that followed it. Even with such a sparse musical legacy to help things along, details like the missing head, the shoes that identified her body, the constant lynching threats and Deitsch's pioneering bugged cell have kept her tale alive well into what is now its second century.