Book Review – Goat Castle

“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.”

“In telling this strange, fascinating story, Karen Cox highlights the larger ideas that made the tale so irresistible to the popular press and provides a unique lens through which to view the transformation of the plantation South into the fallen, gothic South.” ~via Goodreads

Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South
Karen L. Cox
University of North Carolina Press
Publication Date: October 9th 2017

Anyone who has a fascination with the history of the deep South, Jim Crow South, and class relations will certainly welcome the well-researched Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South. The historical detail surrounding the families of influence, the city of Natchez and the Civil War era sets the stage dramatically for this true crime story. Immediately, the reader is immersed in a time where they can “feel” the tension between the central figures and the pains of the vile ways POC were treated.

Karen L.Cox does spend a lot of time providing in-depth backgrounds of our main figures and their families, which can feel a bit drawn at times, out but I can appreciate how this may be necessary in order to capture the essence and attitude of how class (and race) plays a significant part in the actions, response and those unanswered concerns in this story. For instance, Jennie Merrill was a woman with a very affluent background and saw herself as such. A woman like Octavia Dockery was below her in class and Jennie Merrill had no use in speaking with her, thus having servants or the sheriff to deal with her disputes – and disputes she had! In her Merrill’s own words, “I have never spoken to Miss Dockery in my life,” probing the question – Why were the fingerprints of the strange couple Octavia Dockery and Dick Dana’s in the Merrill home at the time of her death when she loathed them so much? If Jennie Merrill had no use in speaking with Octavia Dockery, she certainly would not invite the couple into her home for tea. So, why were they there?

When Jennie Merrill ends up murdered, someone must be held accountable. This being the Jim Crow South and Jennie Merrill being a white woman, it’s no surprise that the crime and punishment is handed to a black person(s). George Pearls had no chance to defend himself or share his whole truth, being shot and killed by a police officer before he could ever go to trial for the Merrill murder. Emily Burns, however, did live with 8 years in jail for a murder that she did not commit – once again, showcasing the injustices of the South towards black women and men. It wouldn’t have gone any other way.

This fascinating book is necessary and fair – giving a voice to the truth. The historical detail, along with the many photographs throughout, went a long way for this reader!

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Thank you to NetGalley and University of North Carolina Press for providing me with a copy of this book for my honest review.

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