I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. My opinions, however, remain my own.
Title: Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South
Author: Karen L. Cox
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.
This was a great book to read this month. It reminded me that no matter how much I push the boundaries of probability with writing, TRUTH IS STILL STRANGER THAN FICTION! Seriously, I could not make this stuff up.
A faded Southern belle murdered during a home invasion, planned by a couple who live in a house full of goat crap?? Who would imagine that? And then to have them get away with the crime, but a random Black woman have it pinned on her? OK, actually, that sounds completely believable. Sad, but true.
As crazy as the plot is, the writer was constrained by what actually happened. I think where she excels is in building a picture of the characters involved. I felt so angry and sad for Emily Burns, the woman chosen to be the scapegoat for the crime. The sheriff never believed she had done it, but after the local police forced a confession from her, his hands were tied. Even then, she had to go to trial, but of course she couldn’t afford a strong defense, so she was found guilty by a local jury. The sheriff figured he was lucky to avoid a lynch mob, but Burns served 8 years for a crime she didn’t commit.
I really enjoyed this one. It reminds me a lot of The Devil in the Grove, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. I read an ARC edition of this one, and there were some formatting issues, but the story was visceral and real.