Two more Masters of Public History students, Robyn Shannon and Elizabeth Boeckmann are making news with their shocking new exhibit “Fort Thomas Horror: The Untimely Death of Pearl Bryan” at Fort Thomas Military and Community Museum, Tower Park, 940 Cochran Avenue, Fort Thomas.
The exhibit, about “Campbell County’s “Crime of the Century” will open to the public on May 10 and will be available for viewing Noon-4.30p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
On Feb. 1, 1896, a gruesome discovery was made on a Fort Thomas farm where the brutally slain body of 22-year-old Indiana native Pearl Bryan was found.
More than a century later, the murder mystery still captivates with questions of why the pregnant Pearl was killed by her lover and why her severed head has never been located. In what was dubbed the “Crime of the Century,’’ the tragic event culminated in the last public hanging in Campbell County. It would become a national news spectacle and forever link communities in Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky.
“It’s just one of those stories that grabs you,” said Debbie Buckley, renaissance manager and economic development director for the city of Fort Thomas.
Pearl was one of 12 children in a prominent family from Greencastle, Ind. She was a bright, attractive girl who enjoyed a relatively normal life until she met Scott Jackson. Jackson had moved to Indiana after avoiding prison time in an embezzlement scandal while employed by the Pennsylvania Railroad Co. in Jersey City, N.J.
The pair started a passionate, but surreptitious love affair that resulted in Pearl’s pregnancy.
Jackson moved to Cincinnati to enroll in the Ohio College of Dental Surgery after being expelled from the Indiana Dental College. That’s where he met Alonzo Walling, a former classmate. The two became roommates, then later co-conspirators.
After learning of Pearl’s pregnancy, Jackson convinced her to take several concoctions intended to induce abortion back in Greencastle. Those attempts failed, and Pearl – holding out hope that Jackson would marry her – went to Cincinnati on Jan. 28 to meet with him.
“Pearl made poor decision after poor decision,” said James McDonald, co-author of “The Perils of Pearl Bryan: Betrayal and Murder in the Midwest in 1896.” “She should have left Cincinnati when it was clear that Scott Jackson was not going to marry her.”
McDonald of Indianapolis wrote the book (published in 2012), along with Joan Christen of Indianapolis, after finding his grandfather’s journal. The journal indicated that his grandfather was a newsboy who sold The Kentucky Post, which enjoyed booming sales during the Pearl Bryan murder case.
McDonald was intrigued when he discovered Jackson and Walling had attended Indiana Dental College, precursor to the Indiana School of Dentistry in Indianapolis, where the now-retired McDonald taught for 36 years.
It was reported that Pearl, five months pregnant, was drugged prior to another failed abortion attempt in Cincinnati. That led Jackson and Walling to hire George Jackson, a carriage driver, to transport the three across the Central Bridge into Kentucky on Jan. 31. The driver was told the woman was ill and her doctor was accompanying her home.
“Back then apparently cocaine was over-the-counter, and they drugged her,” Buckley said. “He drives them over and can hear her moaning in the back of this carriage when they tell him to stop and wait, and they drag her up the hill to murder her.”
The driver fled on foot, leaving behind the carriage. After hearing about the horrific murder, George Jackson would later contact authorities.
The crime scene was ghastly. It was clear there was a terrific struggle as the decapitated and yet unidentified body lay atop pools of blood.
As word got out, throngs of spectators came to the farm in present-day Fort Thomas where the murder occurred, near Grandview Avenue on Alexandria Pike. The adjacent reservoir was drained in an attempt to locate the severed head and identify the victim.
However, the clue determining Pearl’s identity lay at her feet. Newport shoe merchant L.D. Poock took a decided interest in the case and noted a model number on the victim’s shoes, leading authorities to Louis and Hays Shoe Store in Greencastle, where records indicated Pearl had purchased the shoes.
Jackson and Walling were arrested after eyewitness accounts, including that of George Jackson, implicated the pair. They were extradited to Newport, where they were jailed.
The case was front page news in the New York Times. Before and during Jackson’s trial, the men gained a bizarre following of women, often visiting and bearing gifts, intrigued with their notoriety.
For years, people would ride the streetcar to the farmhouse on the property, which is now the Children’s Art Academy on South Fort Thomas Avenue, where refreshments were sold to onlookers.
Jackson’s trial began on April 21, 1896, and ended May 14 with a conviction. The 26-year-old was sentenced to death. Likewise, a separate trial for Walling, 21, resulted in a guilty verdict and a death sentence. Neither of the men admitted any guilt and blamed each other for the crime.
The men were moved to the Covington jail after threats of lynching. After a jailbreak, in which the pair took no part, they were again relocated, to the Alexandria jail. They remained there until March 20, 1897, when they were moved to Newport for the double hanging. A crowd of more than 5,000 gathered to watch the last public execution in Campbell County.
Theories swirled that Pearl’s head was incinerated in a dental school furnace, or tossed into the Ohio River, or was used in an occult ritual at the slaughterhouse now known as Bobby Mackey’s. Despite pleas from authorities and Pearl’s family members, the men took the secret to their graves.
Public fascination still abounds 117 years later. Several Pearl Bryan ballads – most recent by A.L. Phipps and the Phipps Family in 1965 – were written about the murder. Pearl’s alligator valise, which reportedly was used to transport her head, is on display at the Campbell County Historical and Genealogical Society, 8352 East Main St., Alexandria.