These White People Profited Off Their Neighbor's Murder

After setting up a robbery that got a black woman wrongly imprisoned for murder, this duo opened their "Goat Castle" up to tourists in Jim Crow Mississippi.

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Oct 3 2017, 4:00am

Octavia Dockery and Dick Dana in Adams County Jail, 1932. Photo courtesy Historic Natchez Foundation

Dick Dana began losing his mental bearings when he was a young man. But it took until 1917, when he was in his mid 40s, for Dana to be declared unsound of mind after an official "lunacy hearing." Locals called him "Wild Man" in Natchez, Mississippi, where he was said to run around his estate wearing nothing more than a burlap sack with a hole cut out for the head, long hair and beard flapping in the wind.

He never seemed to bathe, preferring to hang in the trees rather than reside in the crumbling manor he shared with his caretaker, a woman named Octavia Dockery. When it became known around town that the pair kept a herd of goats in a pen inside their home, Octavia was nicknamed "Goat Woman."

From the moment the duo had moved next door to a descendent of Southern royalty, Jennie Merrill, a feud broke out, one that only got uglier with time. Merrill and Dockery regularly called the sheriff to resolve their disputes, most often over Dockery's trespassing hogs and goats; Merrill was said to have shot at the goats, even seizing hogs until she was paid for the damage they caused. Finally, in August 1932, the beef between neighbors became lethal when Dockery recruited a black man known as Lawrence Williams to rob Merrill. The caper went bad, and the 68-year-old woman was shot and killed.

Within days of the story making national headlines, voyeuristic tourists were driving to Natchez to have a look for themselves at the infamous duo implicated in it. Once Dana and Dockery were released from jail—with murder charges still pending—they wasted no time capitalizing on their newfound notoriety, charging admission to the grounds, and even tacking on extra fees for those who wanted to go inside the house, where piano recitals could be heard. The pair went so far as to tour towns across Mississippi and Louisiana, appearing on stage as the "Wild Man and Goat Woman of Goat Castle." Along the way, their place in Mississippi's macabre folklore of racially charged murder was assured.

In her new book, Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South, out October 9 from the University of North Carolina Press, historian Karen L. Cox recounts this strange tale in lurid detail. VICE spoke to her for insight on how this story offers insight into the daily injustices of the Jim Crow South, and the toxic stew of white privilege, racism, and rage that ruined a young woman's life.

Here's what she had to say.

Photo courtesy of Karen L. Cox/UNC Press

VICE: How did you catch wind of this saga, which is a story about racially tinged murder as cultural exhibit, rather than the racial terrorism people often associate with the era?
Karen L. Cox: I was interested in a tourist event in Mississippi known as the Natchez Pilgrimage [in which people toured] antebellum homes in this small town on the bluffs of the Mississippi River in the midst of the Great Depression. I met a historian and Natchez expert who said, "You should be looking at Goat Castle. Goat Castle put Natchez on the map.'" That day, I requested the vertical files of news clippings on this story and learned about the murder. It was clear to me that the press was far more interested in the alleged perpetrators—Dick Dana and Octavia Dockery, who lived in their crumbling down antebellum home, which they shared with goats. I knew there was a good story about the South here.

Class issues seem to have to undergirded this from the start—helping explain how Dick Dana and Octavia Dockery came to ask a man they barely knew to rob their neighbor.
Dockery had long feuded with Jennie Merrill over Dockery's trespassing livestock, mainly hogs and goats. Merrill appealed one case—of trespassing hogs—to the Mississippi Supreme Court. Merrill, who was 68, was descended from planter elite, and still had money. There was no love lost between the two women.

Which is where Lawrence Williams—a.k.a. George Pearls—came in.
Pearls, who was going by the name Lawrence Williams in Natchez, was looking for work. He got turned down by Jennie Merrill. [Then] he walked next door, where he met Dana and Dockery—likely [still] looking for work, but realized that wasn't going to happen given the condition of the estate. It is during this meeting that I surmise Dockery hatched the plan to rob Merrill, and involved Williams. Dick Dana, who was her ward after being declared non compos mentis, just went along with it. Dockery also understood that any robbery of Merrill would likely be pinned on a black man.

Right. And it's not exactly breaking news that the Jim Crow South had a horribly racist criminal justice system. But even before they dodged the charges, it seemed like the white duo at the center of this story were getting special treatment, right?
A fingerprint expert found the prints for both Dana and Dockery inside of the Merrill home, which did lead to charges of murder. [But] the pair was able to leave jail on their own recognizance. Conversely, Emily Burns, [a] black domestic [worker] who was arrested in the case and whose prints were not found at the crime scene, was held in jail without an attorney and was never allowed to go home.

It was clear that the sheriff believed Dana and Dockery were involved, however, and when the grand jury met, he believed they'd be indicted. [But] George Pearls/Lawrence Williams was killed by a police deputy in a completely different state, and in an unrelated incident, within days of leaving Natchez—he was convicted of the murder posthumously. This left Emily Burns, who had accompanied him the evening of the murder, not knowing what he had in mind. She was indicted as an accessory and, one week later, in a trial that lasted less than a day and a half, she was convicted and given a life sentence.

And somehow, Dana and Dockery were never convicted of the crime.
They were charged with murder, but never indicted by the grand jury. Or so people thought. The sheriff arrested them on those same murder charges a year later, and it came out in court that the previous grand jury had actually voted to indict Dana and Dockery—but the district attorney had refused to try the case. They were not exactly local heroes, but the community felt sympathy toward them because they had come from respected families and were now living like paupers in complete filth. It was their lineage and race that ultimately spared them.

What other evidence did you find of the criminal justice system being manipulated here on behalf of the whites ultimately responsible for this crime?
There were several occasions in various archives when I'd go to the file and find that someone had stolen the material that might reveal more details about the principals. The file that contained a petition from citizens in Natchez calling for Emily Burns's release from prison had been cleaned out of the governor's papers. The case file for Dick Dana's lunacy hearing had been removed from the Adams County Courthouse. But the one item that I still can't believe had been taken was the court ledger for the circuit court's grand jury hearings for November of 1932. Those ledgers are enormous, and heavy, so someone literally walked out of the Adams County Courthouse with that.

While there is something comically dark about Goat Castle and its residents—Wild Man and the Goat Woman—there is also a more poignant story of racial injustice in the life of Emily Burns, whose friends and family called her "Sister."

Context is crucial here—the murders took place at the height of the Jim Crow era, during the Great Depression, in the Deep South. But how local of a story was it, really?
This story offers us a window into how the criminalization of black lives emerged as a means of sustaining white supremacy and control over African Americans in the post-slavery period. It's why so many black southerners migrated out of the region to northern cities like Detroit and Chicago hoping for better—not that they found it. Racism followed African Americans wherever they went.

Learn more about Cox's book, out October 9, here.

Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.

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