August 4, 2017, is the 85th anniversary of the “Goat Castle Murder.” This strange and fascinating tale is recounted in Karen L. Cox’s new book, Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South, publishing on October 9, 2017. John Grisham calls it “a highly entertaining story about a long-forgotten murder.” Read on for a glimpse at the story, and pre-order your copy today!
In 1932, the city of Natchez, Mississippi, reckoned with an unexpected influx of journalists and tourists as the lurid story of a local murder was splashed across headlines nationwide. Two eccentrics, Richard Dana and Octavia Dockery—known in the press as the “Wild Man” and the “Goat Woman”—enlisted an African American man named George Pearls to rob their reclusive neighbor, Jennie Merrill, at her estate. During the attempted robbery, Merrill was shot and killed.
The crime drew national coverage when it came to light that Dana and Dockery, the alleged murderers, shared their huge, decaying antebellum mansion with their goats and other livestock, which prompted journalists to call the estate “Goat Castle.” Pearls was killed by an Arkansas policeman in an unrelated incident before he could face trial.
However, as was all too typical in the Jim Crow South, the white community demanded “justice,” and an innocent black woman named Emily Burns was ultimately sent to prison for the murder of Merrill. Dana and Dockery not only avoided punishment but also lived to profit from the notoriety of the murder by opening their derelict home to tourists.
Strange, fascinating, and sobering, Goat Castle tells the story of this local feud, killing, investigation, and trial, showing how a true crime tale of fallen southern grandeur and murder obscured an all too familiar story of racial injustice. This is a captivating page-turner full of strange twists and turns, oddball characters, and fascinating descriptions of Depression-era Natchez, where the formerly wealthy descendants of planters live in decaying estates, and squabbles over livestock escalate into murder.
The “Goat Castle Murder” has become a familiar yarn for Mississippians and tourists who visit Natchez, and Cox has recast the story to reveal what really happened, why those originally arrested for the crime were freed on their own recognizance, and why it became such a national phenomenon.
Karen L. Cox is professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
“Goat Castle is a highly entertaining story about a long-forgotten murder. It is also a reminder of the racism and intolerance found in southern history and of how difficult change has been. It’s a terrific read.”—John Grisham
“A riveting exploration of a true crime that illuminates the complicated relationship between race and the law in the post-Civil War South.”—Foreword Reviews