During the depths of the Great Depression, a shocking murder in the Deep South held a nation transfixed. In “Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South,” historian Karen L. Cox of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte recounts an infamous Natchez, Mississippi, murder, investigation and trial while giving deep insights into issues of race, class and justice in the Jim Crow South.
With a historian’s eye and a novelist’s prose, Cox weaves a story of Faulknerian protagonists — a reclusive, wealthy heiress, the scion a cotton fortune; her cousin/beau, also a member of the Natchez aristocracy; their bizarre neighbors “Goat Woman” and “Wild Man,” who live in a decrepit 19th century mansion; and two members of the city’s black community, descendants of slaves who are subjugated to the racial caste system of the early 20th century South.
In the tradition of iconic Southern writers such as Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and even John Grisham (who called “Goat Castle” “a terrific read”), Cox gives the reader a vivid sense of place. Natchez is not just the backdrop of the story; it is, in many ways, a character in its own right. The once-glorious center of the cotton kingdom, its crumbling mansions and landed gentry are a metaphor for the pre-World War II South — a region modernity passed by, still clinging to its past wealth and glory.
The murder of Jennie Merrill thrust sleepy Natchez into the national limelight, as newspapers and true-crime magazines reported the story for readers spellbound by not only the blue-blooded, reclusive victim, but even more so by two of her accused killers, Dick Dana and Olivia Dockery, who lived in Glenwood, one of the historic homes for which Natchez was famous. Glenwood had fallen into not just disrepair, but utter squalor. It was dubbed “Goat Castle” by local residents, for the animals that lived not just on the grounds but in the home itself.
Central to Cox’s retelling of the Goat Castle murder — one of the nation’s many “crimes of the century” — is the lack of justice in the Jim Crow South. While the eccentric Dana and Dockery became minor celebrities — even turning Goat Castle into a can’t-miss attraction on the tour of Natchez’s antebellum homes — and Merrill’s aristocratic cousin Duncan Minor received almost no scrutiny from the police, the hard hand of Jim Crow justice fell on the black suspects in the case — one of whom is killed by police, the other the only person to spend time in jail for the crime.
Meticulously researched and wonderfully written, “Goat Castle” is a brilliant insight into pre-New Deal, pre-WWII Southern society, when much of the region still remained remote and distinctive from the rest of the nation. The national fascination with the Goat Castle murder was due, in part, to a fascination with the romantic, and often tragic, vision of the Old South that still lingered in Natchez and was soon to go by the wayside.
Cox will be in Mobile on Wednesday, Oct. 25, to deliver the 37th annual Portier Lecture at Spring Hill College, 7:30 p.m. in Byrne Auditorium. The lecture — on her research for “Goat Castle” — is free and open to the public. A book sale and signing will follow.
“Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South”
Karen L. Cox
The University of North Carolina Press, 2017