"Murder, aristocracy, recluses, and goats"--The goats only have walk-on roles, but everything and everyone else is there in Karen L. Cox's book Goat Castle. Cox is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
A brief synopsis of the book: Jennie Merrill, a wealthy woman who lived outside of Natchez, Mississippi, was murdered in 1932. Suspicion quickly turned to Dick Dana and Octavia Dockery, her two white neighbors, with whom she often squabbled over property issues, including the pair's trespassing goats (ah, yes--the goats). Indeed, they and an African American man named George Pearls planned a robbery that went awry, ending in Merrill's murder. Brought along at the last minute was a black woman, Emily Burns. Pearls fled Natchez and was shot by a policeman in an unrelated incident in Arkansas. That left Richard, Octavia, and Emily as the primary, surviving suspects. Guess who was convicted and who was not?
The book reads like a true crime story (which it is) and also like a careful history (which it also is). At the time, the crime and ensuing trials were front-page news, and Cox made great use of the court documents, press accounts, and other materials. Amazingly enough, Dick and Octavia turned their house into a tourist attraction--here is where the title "goat castle" comes in (too tempting a term not to headline it, I assume). The photos in the book show how awful the place was.
Cox connected with members of Emily's family, something that the 1930s media did not do much of. Emily was in the wrong place at the wrong time--an evening walk with Pearls ended up with the charge of accessory to murder. Through the family, in fact, Cox could see, and share with us, a photograph of Emily. Photographs of the white protagonists and even George Pearls were already in circulation.
The criminal justice system in 1930s Mississippi does not shine in this book. Nor does it seem much of an anomaly.
A few weeks ago, in a Facebook group for "nonfiction fans" to which I belong, the author participated in a book chat with Theresa Kaminski, one of the group's moderators. I asked Cox how she decided to write this book with its more lurid and storytelling elements. She responded that she came upon the topic while doing other research for another project. As she learned about the crime, and its implications, she decided it would be a "disservice" to write about it for academia, even though, she said, her historian skills were at work. (Full disclosure: the chat included a giveaway of a copy of the book, which I won.)
You can read an interview with Cox on the UNC Press blog.
Alexandria has a tenuous connection to one of the characters--DIck, or Richard, Dana, who was at the scene of the murder and lived in the squalid Goat Castle. According to Octavia, he was "in ill health of body and mind," as she petitioned to take care of his affairs, perhaps as much to guarantee a roof over her own head, as rotted as that roof was.
Yet, Dick came from promising stock, as the expression goes, and was headed for a brighter future than where he ended up.
His father Charles was the long-time minister at Alexandria's Christ Church (known as the church frequented earlier by George Washington and during Dana's time, by Robert E. Lee). He was rector between 1834 and 1860, after a series of spiritual leaders who spent only a few years or so as head of the church. As Cox points out, Rev. Dana would have been quite an influential figure in the community. But at age 54, he married a 27-year-old parishioner and the couple moved to Mississippi. Their younger son Dick floundered after the rest of his family (besides his parents, an older brother who was a New York journalist) died. And the rest is history--or goats, as the case might be.