Starting in the midst of the Great Depression in the summer of 1932, the nation became obsessed with the Natchez murder of 68-year-old aristocrat Jane Surget Merrill and the people connected with the murder – the Goat Woman and the Wild Man – and their home, labeled by the scores of journalists who ascended into southwest Mississippi to cover the story as Goat Castle.
While 67-year Octavia Dockery (the Goat Woman) and 61-year-old Dick Dana (the Wild Man) and the squalor of their home Glenwood (Goat Castle) became the subject of countless newspaper and magazine articles, another key character in this bizarre tragedy, Emily Burns, known as Sister, received far less attention. Sister was a 37-year-old African American laundress, who spent eight years in Parchman Penitentiary for the murder.
In “Goat Castle: A true story of murder race and the gothic South,” Karen L. Cox, a University of North Carolina historian and author of several books on the South, details the sensation of Goat Castle and its inhabitants while also telling the tragic story of Sister who was punished for the murder while more overwhelming evidence against others, namely Dockery and Dana, was ignored.
Cox extensively researches and tells the story of the principals in the drama and also tells, as best she can through court documents and newspaper accounts, the details of the actual murder.
The crime captured the fascination with the pre-Civil War planter class and the hard times that had beset many of its members. The crime also is a stark example of the lack of rights afforded to the state’s black population.
Merrill – descendant of two of the nation’s most prominent planter families, never married, despite numerous suitors – still owned and operated large Louisiana farms from her Natchez home, Glenburnie at the time of her death. Through the years, she had been engaged in countless legal battles with Dana and Dockery, whose livestock routinely wandered onto and destroyed her property.
Dockery, the daughter of a Confederate general/planter who encountered difficult financial times after the war, relied on the livestock to generate meager earnings to take care of herself and Dana. Dana, who at times appeared to have breaks with reality, inherited Glenwood from his father, a prominent Episcopal priest. The dilapidated mansion was pegged Goat Castle because of the herd of goats who roamed freely in and out of the home, even eating the wallpaper and wandering upstairs where from the landing they would look down on visitors who poured in after the murder became a sensation.
An African American who had moved from Natchez to Chicago, but had returned home in the summer of 1932, is believed to have conspired with the moneyless Goat Castle residents to rob Merrill. It is believed that the man – known as Pink – pulled the trigger when the robbery went bad. He later was killed under suspicious circumstances in Pine Bluff, Ark., by a law enforcement officer.
The bottom line is despite the bloody fingerprints of the Goat Castle residents being found at the murder scene, they never were convicted of the crime. They were viewed as sympatric figures by white locals who still wanted someone to pay for the crime.
Burns who might have been an unsuspecting accomplish was convicted and later spent eight years in Parchman. She finally was pardoned by Gov. Paul B. Johnson, who routinely heard “mercy courts” at Parchman and heard directly from Burns.
For years after the murder, Dockery and Dana continued to live in Glenwood and continued to collect money for admission to view the squalor.
Natchez tourism officials, now running a successful pilgrimage of the many grand pre-Civil War era Natchez homes, tried to ignore Goat Castle and the shameful story.
Burns after her pardon, returned home and eventually remarried (her first husband died before the Goat Castle incident) and died a respected member of her church.
Despite the notoriety of the Goat Castle murder and her connection to the events, her death went unreported in the Natchez newspaper in 1969.
Karen L. Cox will appear on the True Crime panel at 4 p.m. in room 201-H of the state Capitol. Others on the panel are Charlie Spillers, Radley Balko, Miriam Davis and George Malvaney.