When I first saw this simple tombstone in the Natchez City Cemetery, I was struck by the epitaph "Mistress of Goat Castle." Now what could that mean? Was the woman in question a gentile southern lady who had fallen on hard times and had been compelled to take grumpy, senile, ancient Confederate veterans ("old goats") into her decaying antebellum mansion and care for them in their twilight years as her only means of support? Did she run a roadside tourist trap that featured trick goats?
It turns out that the truth is stranger than fiction, and it involved a scandel in Natchez, Mississippi that captured the attention of the whole United States and reached as far away as London, Paris, Rome, and Brussels.
Octavia Dockery had been the beautiful daughter of Confederate General Thomas Dockery. She never married. Though once rich, the wealth of her family had gradually petered out, and she went to live with her widowed sister, Nydia, in reduced circumstances. Before Nydia died in 1893, she made arrangements for Octavia to go live with her old friend Dick Dana at his family mansion, Glenwood. Nydia's theory was that since both Octavia and Dick were all alone in the world, they could take care of each other.
Like Octavia, Dick's family had once been wealthy but had fallen on hard times. A former bon vivant and classically trained pianist, he became an eccentric recluse after a heavy window had fallen on his right hand, shattering not only his fingers, but his dreams of a concert career as well. After reading about some of his strange behaviors, I think it is highly possible that he suffered from schitzophrenia as well.
It turns out that Dick was not much help, so it fell upon Octavia to do the providing and all of the work around the huge house and grounds. She published poems, which brought in a little money, and she raised chickens and goats for income.
Poor Octavia! What with trying to take care of Dick, manage the livestock, and take care of the mansion, it all became just too much. The house fell into an alarming state of squalid decay, and the goats and chickens wondered freely in and out. The goats ate the draperies, the upholstery, and the leather-bound books, and of course they crapped all over everything. The beautiful furnishings and priceless antiques (including Robert E. Lee's cradle) moldered away as the house went to wrack and ruin.
The other two people involed in the scandel were Jennie Merrill, the murder victim, and her lover and 2nd cousin, Duncan Minor. The families of Jennie and Duncan were wealthy and socially prominent and had managed to retain their wealth in spite of hard times. Like Octavia and Dick, neither Jennie nor Duncan ever married, despite the fact that they had been lovers for many years. Because of a long-standing feud over divided loyalties in the family during the Civil War, Duncan had been threatened with disinheritance by his mother if he married his cousin Jennie.
Like Octavia, Jennie had been beautiful. But unlike Octavia, Jennie was haughty and obnoxious. In his younger days, handsome Duncan Minor could have passed for a Clark Gable look-alike. And although they were rich, both Jennie and Duncan became recluses and exhibited strange behaviors.
Jennie wrapped her entire Model T Ford in paper and burlap and string and stored it. Duncan bought shingles to repair the leaking roof of Oakland (his family mansion) but then let them rot on the ground because nails cost too much.
Although Jennie and Duncan remained apart during the day, every evening for more than 30 years he would ride his horse over to her mansion (Glenburnie) and stay until the wee small hours of the morning.
In their earlier lives, Octavia, Dick, Jennie, and Duncan had all been friends, but over the years they grew apart. Jennie's mansion was next door to that of Octavia and Dick, and Jennie, who was a crack shot, dispatched several of Octavia's goats that were devastating her flower garden. Lawsuits were filed and animosities grew.
Then in 1917, Duncan acquired the Dana mansion at a tax sale and tried unsuccessfully to evict Octavia and Dick. Octavia went to court and had Dick declared insane, and the two were saved from eviction because the law stated that "infants and persons judged insane" could not be deprived of their property for failure to pay taxes.
There was definitely bad blood between the two couples.
On the night of August 4th, 1932, Duncan rode over for his evening tryst with Jennie. Jennie, however, was nowhere to be found, and there was a trail of blood leading out of the house. About 8 pm that evening, the local jail received a call: "You better come quick. I'm afraid something terrible has happened." It was thought that Duncan was the caller.
A party of law enforcement officers and prominent citizens formed and conducted an all-night search for Jennie. No trace of her was found except for her bedroom slippers spattered with blood and her bloody hair combs. There was a .32 caliber pistol ball in the window facing of the dining room and strange bloody handprints on the wall that looked like they had been made by someone with a crippled right hand. Finally at 5:30 am with the first rays of dawn, Jennie's bullet-riddled body was found in a thicket about one hundred yards from her house.
While the search was going on, Sheriff C.P. "Book" Roberts, who like everyone else was aware of the animosity between the two couples, went over to Glenwood to question Octavia and Dick. They acknowledged to the sheriff that they had heard noises over at Glenburnie, but protested their innocence.
However, the sheriff thought that Octavia seemed too blasè about the whole affair. And as if to further seal their guilt, Roberts found Dick upstairs washing a bloody shirt by the light of a kerosene lamp. Dick protested that the blood on the shirt was from a pig that had been slaughtered earlier. Roberts loaded the pair up and took them both to the Adams County jail for further interrogation. [NOTE: After the shirt was sent off for analysis, it was found that the blood was indeed from an animal and not human.]
Jennie's funeral was on August 6th 1932, and when her will was probated within that week, it was learned that she had left her lover, Duncan, with all her worldly goods - $250,000 in cash, her mansion Glenburnie, and two large plantations in Louisiana. Duncan became a suspect, but he was not charged.
Headlines about this high-society murder and its shocking cast of characters splashed across newspapers and magazines around the world. Readers were aghast at the "lifestyles of the rich and famous" eccentric recluses of Natchez.
The Chief of Police at Pine Bluff, Arkansas had read the headlines, and on Sunday night, August 7th he made a dramatic phone call to the Natchez sheriff. He informed the sheriff that on the night of August 6th, a policeman in Pine Bluff had shot and killed a man named George Pearl when Pearl had pulled a gun.
The pistol Pearl was carrying at the time of his death was a .32 caliber one, and according to papers found on his body, he had been in Natchez recently.
Two deptuties were dispatched to Pine Bluff to pick up the pistol, and the gun along with bullets recovered from the crime were turned over to Maurice B. O'Neill, a widely recognized crimonologist from New Orleans.
After the gun and bullets had been sent off, attempts were made to bring Octavia and Dick to trial. However, the pitiful pair elicited a swelling wave of sympathy, and although 600 jurors were called, prosecuting attorneys could not get a jury to hear the case. Finally, Ed Ratcliff, a prominent Natchez attorney, was able to secure their release from jail.
By this time, the criminolgist's lab verified that the gun in Pearl's possession was indeed the murder weapon. Additionally Emily Burns, owner of a rooming house in Natchez finally admitted after a grueling interrogation that she had accompanied Pearl (who was rooming at her establishment at the time) over to Jennie's to "ask" her for money.
Jennie went for her pistol, and Pearl shot her.
Pearl's body was held for burial until fingerprints cold be obtained, and lo and behold, it was discovered that not only did his fingerprints match those found inside Glenburnie, he also had a crippled right hand like Dick Dana. Authorities were now satisfied that the strange bloody handprints on the wall had been made by Pearl and not Dick.
The case was closed in November of 1932.
And now, "the rest of the story":
Emily Burns was convicted as an accomplice to murder and sentenced to the Mississipppi State Penitentiary. In 1940, she was pardoned by Governor Paul B. Johnson, and she returned to Natchez to live.
Duncan Minor emerged from his shell and used his inheritance from Jennie Merrill to purchase a new car to travel about for pleasure, going at least once to the Kentucky Derby. At his death in 1939, he returned the remainder of his inheritance to Jennie's side of the family.
Octavia Dockery and Dick Dana put their notoriety to good use. For 25¢ per person, the hundreds of curious visitors that came to gawk at them could get inside the Glenwood grounds. For 25¢ more, they could get inside the house. Octavia read her poetry to the crowds, Dick gave off-kilter classical piano concerts, and "special souvenirs" could be purchased.
Dick Dana died in 1948 as a result of pneumonia and asthma, and Octavia Dockery lived on alone at Goat Castle until her death in April of 1949.
Even before the deaths of Dick and Octavia, people in the area began to avoid the thicket of woods between Glenburnie and Glenwood. It was believed that the area was haunted by Jennie Merrill’s ghost, still seeking vengeance for her murder. Numerous reports of her apparition stated that she was seen barefoot, wearing a bloody blue dress and darting among the trees. Sometimes her moans and wails could be heard above the sounds of Dick’s disturbing music. It was said that his piano grew louder as he tried to drown out the sounds of his former friend’s mournful cries.
In October of 1949, Octavia's out-of-town cousins auctioned off the contents of the ruined mansion and took in about $15,000. Finally in 1955, Goat Castle, abandoned and horribly neglected, was torn down to make way for a subdivision.
After Dick and Octavia died, the sinister tales of the haunted woods intensified. Those who trespassed there claimed to often see the ghost of Octavia wandering about the place. She was sometimes described as wearing a calico dress and a straw hat and at other times, as a young beauty in a fine Paris gown. The ghostly sightings were sometimes followed by the strains of piano music, clumsy sounds like notes being played by a crippled hand.
As time passed, the stories of the ghosts died with the legends, and Goat Castle was all but forgotten. The tales of Jennie’s spirit persisted however. In the 1980’s, an owner of Glenburnie reported hearing a disembodied voice call to her repeatedly. She also told of unseen hands that continuously undid electrical work that was being performed during the restoration of the house. Some believe that perhaps Jennie’s aversion to electricity and modern life manifested itself from beyond the grave!
Jennie Merrill's home, Glenburnie, still stands today. Privately owned and beautifully restored and lovingly cared for, it can be toured during the Natchez Spring and Fall Pilgrimages.
See this website for information on touring Glenburnie and other historic antebellum homes as well as other information on the Natchez Spring and Fall Pilgrimages:
For more information on the infamous "Goat Castle Murder" visit this website: