The year was 1896, and nineteenth-century journalists called the murder of Pearl Bryan the "Crime of the Century." From the day Pearl's headless body was found to the execution of her murderers on the gallows, the details of the murder fascinated newspaper reporters and ballad composers alike.
Often glossing over the facts of the case, newspaper accounts presented the events according to stereotypes that were remarkably similar to those found in well-known murdered-girl ballads, such as "Pretty Polly," "Omie Wise," and "The Jealous Lover." Events, characters, motivations, and plot were presented through this framework: the simple country girl led astray by a clever degenerate. Nearly all variants of the Pearl Bryan ballad point the same moral:
Young ladies now take warning
Young men are so unjust,
It may be your best lover
But you know not whom to trust.
Representations of this formula appear in such diverse genres as the ballad "Poor Ellen Smith" and the novel An American Tragedy.
As Anne Cohen demonstrates, both newspaper accounts and ballads tell the Pearl Bryan story from the same moral stance, express the same interpretation of character, and are interested in the same details. Both distort facts to accommodate a shared pattern of storytelling. This pattern consists of a plot formula—the murdered-girl formula—that is accompanied by stereotyped scenes, actors, and phrases. The headless body—surely the most striking element in the Pearl Bryan case—is absent from those ballads that have survived. Anne Cohen contends that a decapitated heroine does not belong to the formula—a murdered heroine, yes, but not a decapitated one. Similarly, newspapers made much of Pearl's "innocence" and tended to downplay the second murderer. Only one murderer, the lover, belongs to the stereotype.
Poor Pearl, Poor Girl! is a ballad study conducted on historic- geographic lines; that is, it seeks to trace the history and interrelations of a series of ballad texts and to relate the ballads directly to their ideological and historical context in the American scene. It also compares the narrative techniques of ballad composition with the techniques of other forms of popular narrative, especially newspaper journalism.