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Fascination behind 1896 murder still persists, feeding rumors of ghostly presence at Bobby Mackey's

'Nobody today lets her be dead'
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Posted at 12:00 PM, May 13, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-13 12:37:43-04

COVINGTON, KY. -- There's a sign at Bobby Mackey's Music World that reads: "This establishment is proported (sic) to be haunted. Management is not responsible and cannot be held liable for any actions of any ghosts/spirits on the premises."

One of the spirits thought to haunt the premises is Pearl Bryan. On a cold morning in 1896, Bryan's headless body was discovered in a farmer's field near Fort Thomas, Kentucky. Mackey even memorialized the young woman's tragic tale in a song:

"Poor Pearl, poor girl,

Laid dead upon the ground.

Poor Pearl, poor girl,

Her head was never found."

So who was the woman who captivated imaginations for over a century?

Haunted tours of the Bobby Mackey's basement reveal scenes frozen in time. Allison Cohen | WCPO contributor

Kevin Caldwell, founder of ARC Paranormal, leads haunted tours in the basement of Bobby Mackey's Music World every other Friday night. The country music upstairs is muffled by creaking floorboards and punctuated by the occasional crash of a beer bottle. The rooms of the basement are untouched after decades; china gathers dust from long-gone dinner service and mirrors in vintage dressing rooms still supply warped reflections.

Caldwell described a time before the Civil War when the building was a slaughterhouse. All of the animal blood dyed the nearby Licking River red. His tours include a comprehensive history of the building as a speakeasy for the mob, occult ritual hotspot and eventually country music bar.

Caldwell has conducted several paranormal investigations in the basement. He said that he has tried to contact Bryan through Ouija boards and a tool called a spirit box, a device that scans radio frequencies at a fast rate. The spirit box creates static that can be manipulated to create voice responses from spirits. However, Caldwell admits that he doesn't think he can speak to Bryan directly.

"There is no observable evidence that we are actually in conversation with anything other than spirit box instant responses," said Caldwell. "My research has proven that we don't get direct responses, the voices just pop in as fractals or fragments. It would be dishonest to claim that we are actually communicating with something."

Caldwell is skeptical that Bryan actually haunts the bar. He said that a book called "Hell's Gate" by Doug Hensley is to blame for the prevalence of ghostly legends about the woman.

"(Hensley) claims -- and this is a big claim -- that the dogs traced the head back to the old slaughterhouse here," said Caldwell. "I think her story is completely irrelevant to that location since it is not based on facts, just speculation. There's no verification."

Andrew Young first learned about Bryan while studying for his master's in public history at Northern Kentucky University. He said the legends about Bryan are a way to cope with the gruesome details of her death.

"I think we have a tendency to almost fictionalize victims," said Young. "It's a little too hard to really think that's a real person. I think we do make a spectacle out of it."

Young's fascination with Bryan's story led him to write a book titled "Unwanted: A Murder Mystery in the Gilded Age."

"You don't get a feel for the victim because she didn't write anything down or say anything to anybody," said Young.

Though the details of Bryan's short life are few, they provide some insight as to who this young woman was: a cattle rancher's daughter from Greencastle, Indiana, the home of DePauw University.

The small display on Bryan's murder in the Campbell County Historical and Genealogical Society includes the valise that purportedly carried her head. Allison Cohen | WCPO contributor

"She was the youngest of 12, the baby of the family," said Young. "Her parents doted on her."

Young said her friends mostly described Bryan as "the sweetest thing ever," but her cousin, Will Wood, gave one tantalizing detail about her personality that might have indirectly led to her demise.

"(Wood) said that she was very sweet but ambitious," said Young.

When Bryan met Scott Jackson, a young dental student from the East Coast, Young said he might have seemed worldly to her.

"I think she latched onto him as a hope of going somewhere more interesting than Greencastle, Indiana, with its dresses and cows," said Young.

By the time she met Jackson, Bryan knew that her chances of getting married were getting slimmer and slimmer.

Yet Jackson showed little interest in committing to Bryan.

"At 22, she's getting to the point where she would be undesirable when it comes to marriage," said Brian Hackett, director of public history at NKU.

When Bryan discovered she was pregnant with Jackson's child, she found herself in an impossible situation. Hackett said in the 1890s, an unwed mother would have disgraced her family and ruined her chances of ever finding a husband.

"She would've lost everything and he (Jackson) could've gone along the way very happily," said Hackett. "She felt she had no choice. She was looking down the barrel of a gun. I bet she was probably scared to death."

So in January 1896, Bryan told her family she would be visiting friends in Indianapolis. In reality, she was meeting up with Jackson in Cincinnati for what she thought would be a secret abortion.

This sketch depicts what the young Bryan might have looked like. Allison Cohen | WCPO contributor

Instead, Jackson and his roommate, Alonso Walling, took Bryan to a remote hillside in Fort Thomas and murdered her.

The brutal killing immediately became a sensation -- so much of a sensation, Young said, that people were eager for a macabre souvenir from the murder scene.

"When her body was found, people were digging up dirt because it was soaked in blood," he said.

Hundreds of people watched as authorities drained a reservoir in hopes of recovering Bryan's missing head, but it was never found.

Young said her fetus, however, was very much intact. It was extracted, pickled and put on display at a local pharmacy.

Shirlene Jensen, a volunteer with the Campbell County Historical and Genealogical Society (CCHGS), said Bryan's story continues to be exploited. Jensen believes it is highly unlikely that her ghost haunts Bobby Mackey's Music World.

CCHGS has a small display on Bryan's murder, including the valise in which Jackson supposedly transported her head. Jensen said that the murder continues to be a popular reason why people visit CCHGS' museum and library.

She added that although Bryan's tragic and gruesome story still fascinates people, it's time to let her rest in peace.

"I just find the whole situation sad on her behalf," said Jensen. "Nobody today lets her be dead."