Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South

Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South

Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South

Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South


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.


Like most late summer evenings in Natchez, it was hot and steamy that Thursday when sixty-eight-year-old Jane Surget Merrill settled in her home, Glenburnie, to wait for her cousin Duncan Minor to arrive. Known by locals as “Miss Jennie,” she had become increasingly reclusive, rarely leaving her estate except to run errands in town. One of the few guests she welcomed was Duncan, also sixty-eight, who would saddle his horse every night at his nearby estate, Oakland, and ride the short distance to see Jennie, returning home just before dawn broke. Their ritual was decades old, but on that night in August 1932, it would come to an abrupt end.

On his ride to Glenburnie, two local black citizens, Willie Boyd and M. C. Hacher, waved Minor down. Boyd reported that while he was on his way to church, he heard what sounded like gunshots and screaming coming from Glenburnie. Alarmed, Duncan urged his horse to gallop the rest of the way, arriving at a house cloaked in darkness. He called out for Jennie, but no one replied. He fumbled for a lantern, only for the light to reveal that her home had been ransacked. Furniture lay askew. There was evidence of a struggle and the walls were smeared with blood, but there was no sign of his cousin. One of her hired hands rushed to a nearby store to phone the sheriff of Adams County, and in a matter of hours Duncan’s worst fears were confirmed: Jennie had been murdered. Within days, the crime would make headlines nationwide.

Natchez had once been a fine jewel in the crown of the region’s Cotton Kingdom, and the writers covering the story of Jennie Merrill’s murder couldn’t help but remark on her connection to the town’s planter aristocracy. They wrote about her life of privilege as a belle of the Old South, but also about her . . .

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