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Our Rich History: Shoe dealer solves ghastly murder of Pearl Bryan, found missing her head, in 1893

By Andrew Young
Special to NKyTribune

Part 40 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

Shoe store owners aren’t usually known for their Sherlockian skills of sleuth in solving brutal murders. Unless, of course, that shoe salesman was Louis Poock of Newport, Kentucky. In 1896, Poock himself would have never imagined that his skills would result in helping to solve one of the region’s — and the nation’s — most ghastly murders.

Born in 1872, Pearl Bryan was the youngest daughter of a well-respected farmer
from Greencastle, Indiana.

For years, Poock had been a traveling shoe salesman. In 1893, having saved his money, he bought his own shoe store in Newport. A respected member of society, he was on good terms with many of Newport’s people of authority and importance. He was a civically involved resident, belonging to the Masonic lodge, as well as to the United Brethren Church.

On the morning of February 1, 1896, a young man and friend of Poock’s — Mr. Locke — visited his shoe store to tell him about a horrible murder. A woman’s body had been found on Locke’s uncle’s property in the town of Fort Thomas, a few miles away. Not only that, but the woman had been decapitated, her head hacked off and taken away by the murderers. The story spread like wildfire and became the talk of not just Newport. It was later reported in New York and Chicago newspapers.

Poock was intrigued. However, he showed great restraint, unlike the hordes of people who had gone to the murder scene and absconded with gruesome souvenirs, including buckets of blood-soaked mud from where the body had lain.

The victim’s body was sent to White’s Funeral Home in Newport, which was used as a morgue. Poock’s store was only a few blocks away, and so Louis closed up shop and walked to the funeral home. There was a crowd gathering. The police were guarding the entrances, only admitting a few people. Being familiar with many of the policemen, Poock was allowed into the morgue without question.

Louis A. Poock. Intrigued by the shoes found on the body, Poock was instrumental in breaking the case by using his expertise to identify the shoes, and ultimately, the body. (Source: Cincinnati Enquirer)

Poock described his first encounter with the body in a later book that he authored: “After taking a passing glance at the body, I stepped to where the neck was covered up, and there my attention was attracted to the way in which the head had been severed from the body by a remarkably smooth incision.”

Unlike today, when fingerprints and DNA evidence might be used in the identification of a body, forensic science was still in its infancy. Hence, without a head, identifying a victim would be nearly impossible. Yet, the victim’s decapitation is not what next attracted Poock’s attention. Rather, he focused on the tiny size of the victim’s feet and her equally small pair of shoes. The shoes were size three and of good quality. Up to that point, it was generally regarded that the victim was perhaps a poor prostitute, yet her shoes seemed to defy that theory.

Poock also found the following code on her shoes: 22, 11, 62458. He could decipher this code: 22 meant a size 3, 11 a “last B” (which was the form used to shape the shoe), and 62458 was the stock number given by the manufacturer.

Fellow dental student Alonzo Walling ended up sharing rooms with Scott Jackson after a chance encounter. Like Jackson, Walling had transferred from
Indianapolis to the dental school in Cincinnati. (Source: Cincinnati Enquirer)

Poock spoke to the Newport chief of police and was allowed to conduct an investigation into the shoes and the manufacturer. His detective work involved late-night train rides and hurried telegrams. He found that the shoes had been sold in Greencastle, Indiana and directed investigators to go there and visit the store that had sold them. Based on Poock’s directions, the detectives found who bought the shoes, who wore them, and therefore, the identity of the victim of this horrible murder — young Pearl Bryan. She was an innocent country girl brought to the city by her boyfriend, Scott Jackson.

Jackson and his friend, Alonzo Walling, were arrested as suspects in the murder. Poock sat through the entirety of both men’s trials and later recounted his experiences in a book. The coroner found that Pearl Bryan was pregnant when she was murdered and that she had been drugged with cocaine. Jackson and Walling were found guilty and sentenced to hang. Both men asserted their own innocence up until the very end, claiming that they did not know the whereabouts of Pearl Bryan’s missing head.

Scott Jackson was a dental student when he met Pearl Bryan. He had been kicked out of a school in Indianapolis before enrolling in the Ohio College of Dental Surgery in Cincinnati. (Source: Cincinnati Enquirer.)

To this day, the whereabouts of Pearl Bryan’s head remains unknown. Her name, however, lives on, due to the civic engagement of a shoe salesman who cared enough to get involved.

For more information, see: Andrew Young, Unwanted: A Murder Mystery of the Gilded Age. Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2016; Jim Reis, Bryan, Pearl, in Paul A. Tenkotte, and James C. Claypool, eds., The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2009: 126-127; and Anthony W. Kuhnheim. The Pearl Bryan Murder Story. Alexandria, KY: Campbell County Historical and Genealogical Society, 1996.

Andrew Young is a historian and writer living with his wife and two children in Northern Kentucky. He is the author of Unwanted: A Murder Mystery of the Gilded Age, which is a historic true crime book about the Pearl Bryan murder in 1896.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

The Bryan family home in Greencastle, Indiana. It was here where Pearl’s family learned of the tragedy and confirmed that the body was indeed that of their daughter.

Scott Jackson, left and Alonzo Walling, right, on the platform beneath the gallows a few minutes before their execution. They were hanged on March 20, 1897. (Source: Cincinnati Enquirer.)

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