The Curse of Pearl Bryan

As with many controversial cases in history, rumors of a curse emerged in the years following the trial and execution. Some people claim it was Walling’s curse, because he was innocent, and some claim it was Jackson’s for the same reason. No matter where the legend originated, there were some exceptionally bizarre coincidences after the trial. It is left to the reader to decide if there was actually a “curse.”


  • Alexander S. Bryan, Pearl’s father, died from cancer in July of 1901.
  • Newspapers reported her mother succumbed to insanity shortly thereafter, but didn’t die until 1913.
  • Ellen Sawyer, of Greencastle, Indiana, one of Pearl Bryan’s closest friends, was declared insane in May of 1898.
  • Judge Charles Helm, who presided over the trial, died unexpectedly of a lung hemorrhage in September of 1903. He was 49.
  • Colonial George Washington, defense attorney for Walling, died in 1905.
  • Ramsey Washington, son of Col. Washington, assisted the prosecution during the Bryan trial. Ramsey suffered a severe appendicitis in 1901 and endured severe stomach ailments and fainting spells for the rest of his life.
  • May Smith, who was Walling’s champion, committed suicide in 1899.
  • Lula May Hollingsworth maintained that Pearl committed suicide throughout the trial. Hollingsworth’s luck bottomed out in December of 1903. The man she was living with tried to commit suicide in front of her by consuming strychnine. He suffered violent convulsions by the time the authorities arrived, and Hollingsworth collapsed. She barely survived.
  • Druggist Foertmeyer was threatened with a libel lawsuit during the trial. He mentioned one of Dr. Wagner’s daughters during his examination and her uncle grew irate. By early 1897, Foertmeyer wanted to bet someone $100 that there would be no hanging. He claimed he had inside information and the two men would escape the noose. Shortly thereafter, the druggist regretted ever becoming involved. He was also involved in a physical altercation with an irate customer, in August of 1897.
  • Dr. George Wagner, the physician suspected of performing the botched abortion and decapitating Pearl’s body, feigned insanity to avoid the trials. His “sickness” instantly disappeared after the trials. Sadly, the courts found Wager was legitimately insane, in February of 1911, and he was institutionalized.
  • George Jackson, whose testimony convicted the two men, was himself arrested in October of 1897. He’d committed perjury two years earlier. The courts held him in jail a year before deciding to drop the charges. He struggled with legal battles until 1900. He was in a runaway wagon accident in 1902 and nearly died, but didn’t actually die until 1914.
  • Detective Calvin Crim, a.k.a. “Don Driscoll,” the lead Cincinnati detective in Bryan’s case, was shot and killed on October 21, 1901.
  • Frank Shuh, a juror, died suddenly on March 24, 1905. He was stricken with a strange throat ailment.
  • William Woods never recovered, socially, from his early disgrace. Immediately after the trial, he enlisted in the Navy. He served as a yeoman on the battleship Iowa. After service, he quietly married heiress Blanche Dally and retired from the public eye. Several newspapers falsely reported he was blown up on the battleship the Maine. Public sentiment was summed up with, “It is to be hoped so at any rate.”
  • James Clay, an attorney who offered his services to Jackson and Walling, attended a dance in 1899. He was shot in the right eye.
  • Sheriff Jule Plummer was demoted to deputy after the trial. Plummer died trying to transport a prisoner in October of 1917. Their vehicle crashed.
  • The Great Nathoo was arrested in May of 1904. He was in Madison, Wisconsin, at the time. The authorities caught him swindling young ladies in a grand opera company scheme.
  • Boone, the world’s greatest hypnotist, was arrested for begging in 1904.
  • Palmist Paradu, who made the famous drive blindfolded, was found dead in 1898. He was living in a seedy boarding house and died from “cigarette smoking.”
  • Jailer John Bitzer was attacked and severely beaten by a mob of 10 men, on May 8, 1898.
  • The Court Clerk during the Bryan trial was A. L. Reuscher. Reuscher’s son was killed in a car accident in February of 1907.
  • Col. Philip Deitsch, Superintendent of Police of Cincinnati, where Jackson and Walling were arrested, died from pneumonia on January 30, 1903.
  • The entire Cincinnati detective force was in upheaval by December of 1903. Sweeping changes were implemented to combat the corruption and dubious behavior of many regular detectives, including Detectives McDermott and Bulmer, who arrested Jackson and Walling. Many were demoted to patrolmen.


It is uncertain how this murder became associated with Mackey’s building. There was no historic connection, whatsoever. There is still plenty of history to cover, even after the Pearl Bryan murder.



This article series appears in Appalachian Curiosities.
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