goat castle

the house once known as the “most haunted place in natchez”

goat castle.jpg

Located in the southern city of Natchez, Mississippi is a charming subdivision of elegant homes called Glenwood. It is a quiet neighborhood, nestled close to an antebellum home called Glenburnie, the only remaining structure from a time now since past. Years ago, Glenburnie was separated from the land where the subdivision now stands by the same thick stand of forest that still darkens the nearby landscape. It is in these woods where legends say the spirits of the past still linger.

More than five decades ago, the land now occupied by the neat homes of the Glenwood subdivision was the location of a plantation house from which the neighborhood now takes its name. The main house was surrounded by outbuildings and a sprawling piece of land and as time passed, and bloody events unfolded, it was no longer called Glenwood but known as "Goat Castle" instead. The murderous events that took place here were tinged with insanity, terror, eccentric wealth and wretched squalor. These dark happenings of the past have created a legend at Goat Castle -- one that still lingers today.

Jane Surget Merrill and Duncan Minor were only children, living in Natchez, when Reverend Dana came to town in 1866. He came to minister to the Trinity Episcopal Church, having just completed a long position as the rector of the Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia. Such a distinguished appointment allowed him to enter Natchez society as a celebrated member and when his son Richard was born in 1871, he too was accepted into the most elite company in the city. His father died two years later and Dick was raised comfortably by his mother. When she passed away in 1885, Dick attended Vanderbilt and then returned home to become the master of Glenwood. His dream was to become a concert pianist, as he had always shown a great musical talent.

As a young man, Dick became friends with Jane, or Jennie as she preferred to be called, and Duncan. Jennie Merrill had been born in 1864 and was a beautiful young woman. She was raised by her wealthy father and enjoyed all of the conveniences that money could offer. She was also well-liked in Natchez, despite the fact that her father had been a staunch supporter of the Union during the Civil War. He befriended General Ulysses S. Grant and thanks to this, was able to preserve his vast holdings during the war. When Grant became president, he appointed Merrill to the position of Minster to Belgium. Jennie accompanied her father to Europe and mingled with both aristocrats and royalty, including Queen Victoria. When Jennie’s father became ill, he resigned his ministry and the family returned to Natchez.

Duncan Minor was born in 1862 and like Jennie, who was his cousin, he was raised by a wealthy family that somehow also escaped the ravages of the war. He and Jennie were childhood friends whose romance was rekindled after Jennie returned home from Europe.

Romance came for Dick in the form of a young woman named Octavia Dockery. She had been born in Arkansas in 1865 at the Lamartine Plantation but like many other southern families, the Dockery’s had suffered greatly as a result of the Civil War. In 1877, Octavia’s father moved his entire family to New York, where he did quite well in business. Octavia attended the fashionable Comstock School for Young Ladies and remained in New York until the death of her mother in the 1880’s. Shortly after, her older sister, Nydia, married a Mississippi planter and she accompanied the couple to Natchez, where she entered the city’s society.

Octavia was remembered as a dashing redhead, who defied local convention. She was the first woman in Natchez to ride astride a horse instead of the proper sidesaddle. She also became a well-known poet and writer, who was widely published, and enjoyed a full and active social life.

During the 1890’s, new and renewed friendships blossomed between Dick, Octavia, Jennie and Duncan. They four of them became the best of friends. They were wealthy and attractive members of the new southern aristocracy, admired and envied by many. Jennie and Duncan became the city’s most beloved couple, while Dick and Octavia became renowned for their poetry readings and piano recitals. It seemed as though nothing could go wrong, however strange circumstances awaited them.

For reasons unknown, the friendship between the four "golden" members of Natchez society fell apart. The two couples were never seen together again. It also remains a mystery as to when marriage plans dissolved between Jennie and Duncan as well. The stories say that a wedding was forbidden to them by Duncan’s mother, who would not approve of the two cousins getting married, but no one knows for sure.

After the death of her father in 1883, Jennie was left with a great inheritance. Her family home, called Elms Court, was burdened with a heavy mortgage however and for some reason, Jennie neglected to make the payments. The house was seized by the bank, even though Jennie had enough money to pay off the debt. She left Elms Court and for an extended period lived at Glenwood with Dick. For years afterward, she moved from house to house in Natchez, before buying Glenburnie in 1904.

Octavia and her now widowed sister were already living in reduced circumstances when Nydia died in 1893. Before she died, Nydia made arrangements with Dick for Octavia to reside at Glenwood and some have wondered if perhaps the visits by the two women may have overlapped. Could they have argued, leading to the destruction of their friendship? Whatever occurred, Jennie soon moved to Glenburnie, but Octavia remained at Glenwood for the rest of her life.

Soon after taking up residence in her new home, Jennie became increasingly odd. She soon developed a taste for seclusion and isolation and her doors were closed to everyone but Duncan. Each night at dusk, he would ride to Glenburnie and stay with Jennie until dawn. Then he would ride back home and have breakfast with his mother, who had objected to his marrying Jennie. Some believed that the couple had secretly married anyway, but there remains no record of it. In time, Duncan began to share Jennie’s eccentricities. He became very withdrawn as he grew older, speaking to no one, apparently satisfied with the life that Jennie had chosen for him. As for Jennie, she became odder still, as well as very domineering and aggressive. She forced her way to the front of waiting lines and refused to yield the right of way when driving her carriage and later, her Packard automobile.

A few hundred yards away from Glenburnie was Glenwood, where Dick and Octavia lived. A tragic accident had brought about a premature end to Dick’s promising career as a concert pianist. One day, a window sash fell on his fingers, causing a permanent injury. It was now impossible for him to play without missing certain notes. This did not prevent him from playing though and he often sat at the piano until late in the night, tinkering endlessly with melancholy melodies that never sounded quite right.

Like Duncan and Jennie, Dick also began to become quite strange. He began to fall into states of depression that would last for days at a time. His hair and beard began to grow long and tangled and he wandered the woods for hours as Octavia stood by and watched helplessly. He was often the victim of practical jokes by young local boys and one story recalls how they pursued him through the woods until he finally climbed a tall tree to escape. Octavia had to chase them away and spent more than an hour trying to coax him down. Another prank frightened Dick onto the roof of an outbuilding, where he crouched in terror for several days.

The farm at Glenwood began to fall apart and with no income, Dick’s inheritance dwindled and then ran out. The house itself crumbled into a state of disrepair. The herd of goats that had been purchased for their milk soon began to wander in and out of the mansion, joined by the chickens and the other animals. A heavy layer of dust coated everything in Glenwood and birds nested in chairs and on the furniture that had not been stripped and devoured by the goats. Curtains and drapes hung in shreds and priceless books became water-stained and ruined. Only Dick’s piano managed to remain untouched by the devastation.

Years passed and the two houses continued to exist both near and far away from one another. Glenwood continued to deteriorate while Glenburnie became a house of secrets. In an age of electric lights and automobiles, the owners of both mansions shunned electricity and the coming of the modern era.

In 1917, Jennie became disgusted with the ruins of Glenwood. She prodded Duncan into buying the property, which was now burdened with delinquent taxes, so that she could evict her former friends. She didn’t count on Octavia being clever enough to outwit her though. She managed to convince the local authorities to declare Dick mentally incompetent and had herself appointed as his guardian. This was all that managed to keep Glenwood’s leaky roof over their heads, as an insane person could not be deprived of his home because of tax debts. One can imagine that it didn’t take much for the authorities to find Dick mentally ill by that time.

By the end of the 1920’s, Glenwood remained a shadow of its former self, while Glenburnie had actually started to show improvement. Jennie had invested her money shrewdly over the years and had managed to pull most of her money out of the banks before the great stock market crash in 1929.

Then an incident occurred, which would be considered minor by most, but which had a bizarre impact on Dick Dana’s fragile sanity. On afternoon, Jennie shot and killed one of Dick’s goats. The animal had been making regular forays into Jennie’s yard and eating her rose bushes. Dick pressed charges against her and the case actually went to trial. The charges against Jennie were dropped, much to Dick’s dismay, and the entire town learned of the squalid conditions at Glenwood. They began calling the place "Goat Castle". Some believe that Dick swore revenge on the woman who had once been one of his closest friends.

The incident had been largely forgotten by 1932. Duncan continued to ride out to the house each night, even though his mother had died years before. Each morning, he rode back into town, avoiding an automobile in favor of his horse. On August 4, as he was approaching the drive leading to Glenburnie, he had a premonition that something was wrong. When he arrived at the house, a horrific scene awaited him.

The front room was in shambles. Broken glass and overturned furniture covered the floors. Blood was spattered on the walls and a thick trail of gore led out of the house and to the driveway. After searching the house and grounds and finding nothing, Duncan summoned the sheriff. A posse spent the night combing the woods around the house and near dawn, someone discovered Jennie’s body hidden behind some bushes. She was barefoot and wore a bloodstained blue dress. She had been shot several times in the chest and in the head by a .32 caliber weapon.

The authorities immediately suspected Dick and Octavia for the murder, believing that perhaps the incident with the goat and Dick’s mental instability may have combined as the motive. Octavia was questioned but was eventually released. Dick was held however because a deformed and bloody handprint was found in Jennie’s living room. It could not be proven, but it was thought to be a print from the hand that Dick had injured years before.

Newspapers all over the country carried the murder story, thanks to the prominence and the eccentricity of the principals. The nation was shocked by its first real glimpse into the conditions at Glenwood. Numerous photographs portrayed the poverty of the plantation’s inhabitants and revealed a once grand home that had been turned into a veritable barn where farm animals freely roamed.

The mansion had fallen into shambles. A column that once supported the verandah across the front of the house had collapsed and now the ceiling sagged dramatically. Broken windows looked out at the lawn like blackened eyes and holes dotted the porch where the wood had rotted through. Inside, the house was hung with dust and cobwebs. Sections of peeling paper dangled from the walls. Chickens and geese nestled in the velvet and rosewood furniture. The upholstery was alive with fleas and mites, while cockroaches and water bugs skittered across the floor. Animal droppings coated the floorboards and filth shrouded expensive antiques that had once belonged to Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. Dick and Octavia slept on water-stained mattresses that had been stretched between wooden chairs. And always present were the home’s new namesake, the goats. The dirty animals wandered freely, munching carelessly on the books and damask draperies.

Horrified and fascinated, tourists and curiosity-seekers flocked to Natchez. While Dick and Octavia were still in jail, souvenir hunters picked through the rubbish at Glenwood and carried off relics and antiques. Public sympathy arose for the bizarre pair and after Octavia was released, an unbiased jury could not be found to hear the case against Dick.

Luckily, the case was dropped when the Police Chief of Pine Bluff, Arkansas notified the authorities in Natchez about a man who had been shot down in his city. George Pearls had been killed after pulling a .32 caliber revolver on a Pine Bluff policeman. Papers found on Pearl’s body indicated that he had recently been in Natchez. As Jennie Merrill had been killed with a .32, the Chief offered an examination of the weapon.

The papers would lead detectives to an Emily Burns, who owned a boarding house in Natchez. After being questioned, she admitted that she and Pearls had attempted to rob Glenburnie. They were confronted there by Jennie, who attempted to take the gun away from Pearls. In the struggle, Jennie was shot. A ballistics test confirmed most of the story, or at least the part that had Jennie being killed by the gun found on Pearls. In addition, Pearls’ fingerprints were found at the crime scene. He also had a deformed hand that matched the bloody print found in the living room. At that point, the case was closed and the charges against Dick were dropped.

But was there more to this story than meets the eye? There were many who questioned the veracity of Emily Burns’ story and still wondered what role the residents of Glenwood had played in Jennie’s death. Some of those who wondered must have been in positions of authority for the governor of Mississippi pardoned Emily Burns for her role in the crime in 1940.

As for Dick and Octavia, they achieved fame overnight. People continued to come from all over the country to see Goat Castle and so, like a carnival sideshow, Octavia began distributing leaflets and conducting tours of the house and property, charging fifty cents per person. Octavia crept about the property, carrying a goat in her arms, spinning tales of the plantation’s heyday. Dick provided accompaniment for the tours, playing off-kilter classical music on his piano.

Each day at dusk, when the last tourist had departed, Dick would return to the piano and play strange melodies that grew louder as the night wore on. The nocturnal music was explosive and powerful and some would remark that it "was loud enough to wake the dead". And perhaps it did, because after nightfall, 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.

Dick and Octavia outlived Duncan, who passed away in 1940. The small amount of money earned by Goat Castle tours sustained the owners of Glenwood for the next sixteen years. Finally, in 1948, Dick died from pneumonia and heart disease, leaving Octavia to care for Glenwood alone. She followed her lover to the grave a few months later, dying in 1949. The few belongings that they had left were auctioned off and in 1950, Glenwood was torn down.

After Dick and Octavia died, the sinister tales of the haunted woods intensified. The empty and overgrown plantation fell into even greater decay and 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.