Gina Mahalek talks to Karen L. Cox, author of Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South
Overview: Eighty-five years ago, in August 1932, the investigation into the murder of 68 year-old Jennie Merrill of Natchez, Mississippi, made national headlines. That she was born into the southern planter aristocracy and her father was once U.S. Ambassador to Belgium were enough to garner attention. Yet the story that emerged focused on those charged—her eccentric neighbors, Dick Dana, 61, and Octavia Dockery, 68, also born into elite southern families except that by 1932, they lived in squalor in a crumbling down antebellum mansion with all variety of animals, including goats. Their home was nicknamed “Goat Castle” and the pair became known as the “Wild Man” and the “Goat Woman.” Journalists compared their story to those of Edgar Allan Poe and William Faulkner—a southern gothic narrative come to life. And despite the collection of their fingerprints from inside Merrill’s home, the case never went to trial. Instead, as was typical of the Jim Crow era, the black community was targeted. In the end, the only person to be punished was an innocent African American woman named Emily Burns. She was convicted as an accessory to murder and sentenced to life in prison in the state penitentiary—Parchman—while Dana and Dockery profited from their notoriety. Burns’ sentence was eventually suspended in 1940, and she returned to Natchez. Previous accounts of the case are terribly brief, and focus exclusively on the white principals. This book offers the first extensively researched account of this Depression-era crime, including the national media coverage, while also recovering the story of racial injustice.
Gina Mahalek: How did you discover this story?
Karen L. Cox: As part of my research on a previous book, I was interested in learning more about a tourist event in Mississippi known as the Natchez Pilgrimage. Specifically, why were Americans drawn to tour antebellum homes in this small town on the bluffs of the Mississippi River in the midst of the Great Depression? While working in the state archives, I met Clinton Bagley, a historian and Natchez expert. He said to me, “You should be looking at Goat Castle. Goat Castle put Natchez on the map.” I had him repeat himself, as many people have me do now, “Did you say Goat Castle?” He had. That day, I requested the vertical files of news clippings on this story and knew instinctively that I wanted to pursue this as a book project.
GM: Why did you write a book about a crime from such a small town as Natchez, Mississippi?
KC: There’s a phrase I often repeat to my students that “all history is local,” a take off of “all politics is local,” because embedded in the history of a locale, one often finds the history of the United States. So while the crime took place in this small town, the historical context of this crime required an examination of the antebellum cotton boom, the planter aristocracy, the domestic slave trade, Reconstruction, the Great Migration, Jim Crow, racial injustice, and America’s fascination with both Old South grandeur and the southern gothic. It also made national headlines and drew tourists to Natchez for several years.
GM: Why do you think this story attracted national attention?
KC: During the Depression, true crime sold newspapers and magazines and served as a cheap form of entertainment for Americans during desperate economic times. Such stories frequently involved the demise of prominent individuals and were fixated on the salacious details of family dysfunction. The murder of Jennie Merrill in Natchez, Mississippi, had all of this and then some. She was referred to as an “aristocratic recluse” and the way her neighbors lived led journalists to compare what was happening in Natchez as something that could have come from the pen of William Faulkner or Edgar Allen Poe—except it was all true. Thus, Natchez provided readers with two distinctive, and yet popular narratives, of Old South grandeur as well as southern gothic.
GM: Why is this crime known as the “Goat Castle murder” when the murder took place at a different house altogether?
KC: In 1932, it was called the “Merrill murder,” and people understood that the crime took place in Jennie Merrill’s home, Glenburnie. But for decades the focus has been on the sideshow that was taking place on the neighboring estate. The odd pair originally charged with her death—Dick Dana and Octavia Dockery—lived in a crumbling down antebellum mansion with their goats. Within 48 hours, the story of murder really became a story about the shocking lives led by Merrill’s neighbors. And the jailhouse photo of them that circulated nationally stoked the narrative of “Goat Castle.” It’s unclear when it started being called the “Goat Castle murder,” although a small book published in 1985 used it in the title. So it was likely around before then.
GM: People have noticed similarities between Goat Castle and the more famous Grey Gardens. How do the two compare?
KC: Analogies have been made between Goat Castle and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and the film Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, too, but perhaps the best comparison is with Grey Gardens. Like Grey Gardens, Goat Castle is the name of a house and specifically a fine house that, by the time the public learned about it, was in shocking condition. Both homes had fallen into wrack and ruin, both were filthy and full of garbage and debris, and two people who were clearly not in their right mind occupied both houses. There is also the similarity that despite the years and the location that separate these two estates, Goat Castle, like Grey Gardens, is a story of the social and economic downfall of elites—in this case, people descended from the planter class of the Old South.
GM: In your research, what was your most important find?
KC: Without a doubt, it was the photograph of Emily Burns. I had been researching this case for a few years and was prepared to write the book, but had no idea what she looked like—and she was the only person to be put on trial and was ultimately convicted of the crime. No photos of her appeared in the newspaper and it took me nearly five years to locate extended family members. She didn’t have children so there were no direct descendants. Finally, in October 2015, I met four sisters who were second cousins. Sitting around the kitchen table at one sister’s home, she produced the only photo known to exist, a family portrait from 1913. It was not a mug shot or a prison photo—it was a photo that gave her life context. It was the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me as a historian.
KC: You have to understand that there were other researchers before me to investigate this case. And I found that the Adams County Courthouse is basically a sieve where records are concerned. Not only documents, but also an entire Circuit Court ledger—one of those large ledgers with heft that contained details of the case—was missing. Several times, I’d go to a file that was supposed to contain something I was looking for, and it was missing. This was true at other repositories. The one item, however, I wish I could have located was the petition of “well-respected citizens” that led Governor Paul Johnson to suspend Emily Burns’ sentence in 1940. It would have revealed important details about the white community in Natchez who believed in her innocence. Once again, that file had been emptied.
GM: Could you talk a bit about the relationship of archival and oral methods in the research you did to write the book Goat Castle?
KC: Because this was a local story and a story about people who did not leave behind a record of their lives through letters or diaries, I had to recover their stories through sources like the U.S. Census, city directories, maps, and similar records. Significantly, the oral record was important because it led me back to the written sources I’ve just described. In trying to locate what became of Emily Burns after she left prison, for example, I interviewed an octogenarian from the black community named Duncan Morgan. Mr. Morgan was known to have a keen recall of local history. I remember asking him, “Whatever happened to Emily Burns?” And without missing a beat, he replied, “Oh, Miss Burns. She lived across the street from me. She married Lee Randolph.” Those details led me back to the city directory where I saw for myself that she had indeed returned to Natchez.
GM: Given that you’re a white woman writing about a black woman, you needed access to her community. How did you gain their trust to get them to open up to you and thus do Emily’s story justice?
KC: This is an important question, especially given the racial history of Natchez and Mississippi more broadly. As a white woman telling a black woman’s story, it was important to get the perspective of the black community and I could best do that by talking with people in person, in places where they felt most comfortable, and demonstrating my appreciation for the gift of the information they shared with thank you notes, phone calls, etc. Because the church is such an important institution in the black community, I also attended services at Emily’s home church in Natchez and spoke directly to the congregation about my efforts to bring justice to her story, promising to return and share the book with them when it is published—a promise I intend to keep.
GM: What happened to Goat Castle? Is it still standing?
KC After a public auction of what remained inside the house in the summer of 1948, Goat Castle was sold and the house was razed to make way for a mid-century development of ranch homes. The neighborhood is called “Glenwood,” after the actual name of the house that once stood on the property. One of the main arteries of the neighborhood is called “Dana Road.” The actual murder house, Glenburnie, still stands and is restored.
GM: How familiar are today’s Natchezeans with the Goat Castle story?
KC: That’s an interesting question. There’s something of a generational and a racial divide on how it is remembered. Older white Natchezeans recall Goat Castle as a story about the macabre details of its condition and its former residents, Dick Dana and Octavia Dockery. Their memory is less clear about the black principals, and several people speculate about “who did it?” Younger white Natchezeans are not as familiar with the story, unless it’s been passed down. Even then, they hardly recall anything beyond the house and its residents. Black Natchezeans appear to be even less familiar with the story. Even Emily’s second cousins, who were young girls when she died, weren’t told the details of the crime or her incarceration.
GM: Your previous book, Dreaming of Dixie, focused on the ways that our notions of, and nostalgia for, the Old South were created outside the region. Goat Castle features principals who grew up or spent time outside the South but then returned to it and became part of a plot that was widely characterized as Faulknerian. Could you talk a bit about the thematic parallels between your books?
KC: The only principal to grow up outside of the South was Jennie Merrill, the woman who was murdered. Others spent time outside of the South for their education or, in the case of George Pearls, migrated to Chicago with other black Mississippians. Regardless of how long they were away, all of the principals considered themselves southerners in one way or another. Jennie owned plantations and had family in Natchez. Dick Dana grew up in the house that became Goat Castle. Octavia Dockery always thought of herself as a southern belle. And, when the Depression hit, George Pearls (born Lawrence Williams in Adams County, MS) left Chicago for familiar surroundings. Given this, the thematic parallels are found in the way the press tried to spin the story. Despite the Faulknerian characterization, journalists still believed in the romantic South that Natchez represented. They invented stories of romance, described the white women in the story as “belles of the Old South,” described Duncan Minor as a “cavalier,” and even Dick Dana—crazy Dick Dana—was thought to be the “dashing gay blade” of Natchez in his youth.
GM: Goat Castle can be characterized as both Southern history and true crime. How did your training as a historian inform your work as a writer of true crime? Did you have to adapt your writing style in any way?
KC: I’ve long been fascinated by local stories, and so my training as a historian helped here because it meant digging into local records for even the tiniest bit of information that I could then piece together to understand more about the individuals involved. Census records, city directories, witness dockets, case files, maps, and the landscape itself all provide information. In fact, I think of a book, and particularly this story, as a puzzle. Once all of the pieces are put into place, an image emerges or, in this case, the story emerged. I absolutely adapted my writing style. While my training would suggest I should write a scholarly work, this simply would have ruined the story I was trying to tell. So, while I did the primary and secondary research one would expect a historian to do, I wrote a narrative with a more general audience in mind. A true crime story about a place named “Goat Castle” required this approach.
GM: Have there been any dramatic interpretations of the Goat Castle story? Now that you’ve told expanded the story to include the great injustice of Emily Burns’ sentence, do you see that as a possibility?
KC: There really haven’t been any dramatic interpretations of this story, but it begs for one. From the time I learned about Goat Castle and the real-life characters that inhabited it, I could see it as a film. Every person I’ve ever talked to about this book project has said, without fail, “This needs to be a movie.” The principals make for very rich characters and the setting—Goat Castle—is both shocking and surreal. There’s also the terribly sad saga of Emily Burns, caught in an unfortunate situation, who is dealt a terrible injustice because of her race and sent to one of the South’s most notorious prisons—Parchman. So yes, I see a dramatic interpretation as a real possibility.
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Karen L. Cox is professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Goat Castle is now available in bookstores. Follow the author on Twitter @SassyProf or visit her website, karenlcoxauthor.com.