Historian Karen L. Cox and UNC Press offer an overview and timeline of Cox’s gripping account of murder, media, and racial injustice in Depression-era Mississippi.
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.
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