It Ends with Death

Both Jackson and Walling authored a final confession the day before the hanging. Their letters were supposed to go to Governor William Bradley’s office. Walling admitted he’d asked his girlfriend, May Smith, if she knew of any physicians that performed abortions, as a favor to Jackson. Smith eventually said Dr. George Wagner performed those procedures in Bellevue, Kentucky. Walling and Jackson made the necessary arrangements with the physician and delivered his instructions to Bryan.

The two men, despite authoring individual confessions in separate rooms, created nearly identical statements. They said Dr. Wagner needed ergot because Pearl was in pain. Jackson visited the druggist Foertmeyer for a prescription of ergot. The medicine didn’t help. The two then said Dr. Wagner then injected her with a clear liquid and gave her some whiskey. She was dead within minutes. The autopsy proved Pearl had cocaine in her body at the time of her death, but neither of the convicted men knew about it.

Wagner decapitated her with a dissecting knife to hide her identity after they arrived in an empty field. There wasn’t hardly any blood because she was already dead. He wrapped her head in a cloak. He then drove Jackson and Walling back to Cincinnati where they went their separate ways. There was no cab driver.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t what the Newport police or public wanted to hear. Jackson didn’t admit guilt or exonerate Walling. Both of them dared to implicate a physician. Even the druggist Foertmeyer supported filling the prescription for ergot.

Rumors of Wagner’s involvement weren’t as new to the case as the police pretended. The defense subpoenaed Wagner’s wife and two daughters before either trial, but they were never called. Shortly after Pearl’s body was found, Dr. Wagner was stricken with a mystifying case of insanity and admitted himself to the Eastern Kentucky Lunatic Asylum. The mysterious ailment was something no attending physician could diagnose, but fortunately it disappeared just as magically after both trials were over. He didn’t have to answer to or for anything. He was released after the trials, just in time to refute any lingering allegations.

Wagner denied association with any person in the case and claimed he had not been on agreeable terms with the druggist Foertmeyer for a long time. He claimed he never had prescriptions filled at Foertmeyer’s drugstore. He said he was at his father-in-law’s home at the time of Bryan’s death, although he couldn’t provide exact dates to the authorities.


May Smith

Walling’s girlfriend tried every way she could to help exonerate him. She even conceded to the authorities’ theory that Jackson was to blame. She also frequently contacted Governor Bradley in Walling’s favor. When the governor read the final confessions, Smith was there.


Lula May Hollingsworth

Hollingsworth was questioned early in the investigation, and some details seemed entirely factual. The rest, however, casts a serious doubt on her story. Her statements were a perfect reflection of the woefully bizarre judicature. It was never established, but Hollingsworth was suspected of being Jackson’s girlfriend.

Hollingsworth was a long-time friend of Bryan. The two met at the train station when she arrived. According to her, Bryan told her about her trouble. Hollingsworth instructed her to procure three different medicines in Greencastle, and a fourth in Cincinnati. She couldn’t recall the names of any of those drugs, but she remembered the fourth was a deadly poison that had to be administered precisely. She also remembered the sum of all the drugs was 45 cents. She said they visited four different pharmacies to find the right regimen, but she couldn’t recall the pharmacy names, either.

She eventually tried to appease the authorities and said Bryan told her she was pregnant by Jackson. She said no one was murdered, Bryan just overdosed. Friday morning, Bryan was already ill. Hollingsworth then said that Bryan requested she perform the abortion in the hotel stairway and she did.  This is not true as Bryan was still pregnant when she was autopsied.

If Bryan actually took the other medications before she visited the physician, it is easy to see how additional drugs would’ve caused a lethal reaction or an overdose.



The authorities barred Jackson and Walling from having visitors the day before the execution. They also barred the media from interviews. This was most likely to cover their malfeasance.

Cincinnati detectives declared the doomed men’s final statements were as they expected because they blamed someone else. The authorities then had a case of convenient amnesia and stated Walling and Jackson should’ve stated those facts during trial, instead of waiting until the time of their execution. If the detectives had kept up with the case, they would’ve recalled that Wagner’s relatives were subpoenaed before the trials.

The mothers of the two convicted men were the most pitiable. Walling’s mother literally dropped to her knees in front of Pearl Bryan’s mother, Susan, and begged her to help get a new trial for her son. Susan Bryan ignored her. Pearl’s brother, Fred, said he would do everything he needed to do to prevent any meeting or communication between the mothers.

One of the strangest events was enacted by the relatives of Dr. Wagner. The night before the execution, Wagner’s relatives came to the gathering crowd as they awaited the execution. They distributed documents they claimed placed Wagner at his father-in-law’s. This was unprecedented, as both trials were over and the men were convicted. Perhaps Wagner felt the weight of guilt for what was really the murder of two innocent men.

Both Walling and Jackson were hanged on March 18, 1897. Rev. Lee counseled them prior to their execution. Walling pleaded for his life with the mayor and sheriff, but to no avail. Walling was certain something Jackson knew could save them both. In truth, nothing said would’ve saved either man. No document, statement, or evidence would have altered the case’s outcome.

When they stood on the scaffolding at the gallows, Jackson said, “I want to say before you all that Lon Walling is not guilty of murder.” Jackson then broke down and cried. Chaos broke out in the crowd, which had swelled to over 5,000 people. The public had pushed for a lynching for some time, despite a strong lack of motive or evidence.

Judge Helm allowed Jackson five minutes to compose himself. He said if Jackson allowed an innocent man to hang, he would have to answer for it before his maker. Jackson likely knew there was no hope for either of them, no matter what he said. Again, they were marched out to the gallows. They were asked for last words and both professed his innocence. The drops fell at 11:40 am. Both men were strangled.



The execution didn’t provide resolution. Over a century later, the crime lacks credible motive, method, and evidence. A prospective murderer would not have paraded his victim around a city for a week before the crime. If Jackson had been the true culprit, he wouldn’t have involved Walling or Woods, as they were witnesses.

As for Bryan, the authorities found her body in an old checked housecoat, an article exclusively for private use, which indeed supports the suspicion she was in a physician’s care. If she were riding in carriages and visiting saloons, as witnesses stated, she would have worn suitable clothing.

The body’s placement is also a mystery, as is the missing head.  Many assumed her head was thrown into the river. If so, it only makes sense that her entire body would’ve been thrown in. Her head was removed by a medical professional, not a dental student. A surgical instrument was used, not a tool of dentistry.

One theory was that the body was planted on private property to encourage discovery. The authorities didn’t offer a formal cause of death at the time of the proceedings, although they said they performed an autopsy. Disposal of the body was done in a hurry, not by a calculating individual.

Another unusual aspect of the case was the trial’s placement. The trial occurred in Kentucky; however, Pearl was never actually seen in or going to Kentucky. She was last seen in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her body was dumped in a Kentucky field, but the authorities had no proof the “murder” actually occurred in that state.


At the Time

Several publications during the 1890s were refreshingly critical of the proceedings. When most other newspapers accepted every word from authorities as gospel, a few dared to question.

Jackson and Walling were convicted before they ever went to trial. Many felt attorneys Lockhart and Nelson ceased to be mere prosecutors, and were Inquisitors, hell-bent on persecution regardless of guilt. Those attending the trial went for entertainment; they heckled and often physically attacked both Walling and Jackson. Three ladies, allegedly of society, obtained front row seats so they could kick Jackson when he passed them.

Judge Charles Helm, who presided over the trials, was called out for his woeful lack of jurisprudence. He single-handedly violated the principals and precedents of the court, and excluded anything that might aid the defense.

Jackson was convicted, not out of guilt, but because the press decided so. Sheriff Plummer exceeded his duties throughout the case. One of the most striking points critics never discovered answer for was the total lack of motive. Any criminal aspect of the case was committed by someone who feared to lose money or status, when Jackson and Walling had neither. Woods and Wagner both did. Rumors also circulated that the Bryan family bribed witnesses to secure convictions.

It is also food for thought that the overwhelming majority of officials involved in the case were Masons. The gallows was used once more around 1910. From that point on, there were no other hangings in Newport.




This article series appears in Appalachian Curiosities.
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