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Writer searching for Goat Castle details

Karen Cox examines court records Tuesday morning pertaining to a lawsuit filed by Octavia Dockery against the Adams County Sheriff regarding her arrest in the Goat Castle murder case. (Mary Kathryn Carpenter/The Natchez Democrat)
Karen Cox examines court records Tuesday morning pertaining to a lawsuit filed by Octavia Dockery against the Adams County Sheriff regarding her arrest in the Goat Castle murder case. (Mary Kathryn Carpenter/The Natchez Democrat)

By Mary Kathryn Carpenter

The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — A college history professor has turned Natchez upside down in her pursuit of clues to an unsolved mystery.

Karen Cox, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has spent the last two years digging up facts relating to the Goat Castle Murder to be used in a book she is writing about the case.

Cox faces one major issue in working to reveal the details behind this case and giving a face to the people involved. The murder happened more than 80 years ago.

Cox has turned to archives to extract clues that might explain what happened on Aug. 4, 1932, the day Jennie Merrill was shot and killed.

“I’ve had to do all sorts of local digging,” Cox said. “I’ve been through court records, city directories, photographic evidence and census records. Each time I find more information. Jennie, for example, didn’t really leave letters or anything, so I’m trying to piece together her story based on census records, deeds and newspaper articles she was in.”

What happened that night was determined through Emily Burns’ confession.

Burns was convicted of murder, and served eight years in the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, but was later pardoned.

Burns’ confession did not state that she committed the murder of Merrill; she was an unwilling witness and accomplice.

“I think it was a robbery gone wrong,” Cox said. “Emily Burns was forced to keep watch while George Pearls shot Jennie after trying to get money from her. Then George threatened her to keep quiet.”

Cox is not entirely concerned with what happened the night of the murder, but with the people involved.

Cox’s goal in writing her book is to shed light on the people allegedly present on the night of the crime.

“I am trying to place this case, these people, Natchez, in the context of the time,” Cox said. “I want to move beyond the sensationalism that this story caused originally to telling who these people really were. The book is about their personal histories as people and about the real facts of the case.”

The story of the murder made national headlines and was a popular topic for years after the crime was committed, Cox said.

Cox has most of the sources and information she needs for her book, but she has one more item to find on her historical scavenger hunt.

“It is really important to me that I find a photograph of Emily Burns,” Cox said. “Even if it is of her as an older woman. I just want a sense of who she was as a person.”

Mimi Miller, the executive director of the Historic Natchez Foundation, has been working closely with Cox as she gathers sources and clues for her book and is happy that Cox took on the task.

“I think the important thing is that it’s not an isolated story about four eccentrics and a murder,” Miller said. “It’s a story about a time and a town. I’m very pleased that (Cox) undertook the project to tell this story. I think the right person is tackling the subject.”

Cox plans to have all of the facts together in time for her book to be published in two years.

“I’m a historian,” Cox said. “I can’t deal in conjecture. I have to dig into the records and get the actual facts. I am writing based on factual evidence.”

If anyone has any information leading Emily Burns, please contact Karen Cox at 704-258-6830 or kcox@uncc.edu.