Roots in Goat Castle: Book signing offers opportunity to reflect on history, murder

Published 1:29 am Sunday, November 19, 2017


NATCHEZ — Karen Cox found deep roots — and a sellout crowd — at the reception for her recent book on the murder and mystery of Goat Castle.

“Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race and the Gothic South,” which sold out Saturday during a book signing at the Historic Natchez Foundation tells the story of the killing of Jennie Merrill in Natchez and national coverage it drew in 1932.

Email newsletter signup

The case became known as the goat castle murder because two of the alleged murders, Dick Dana and Octavia Dockery, shared the decaying antebellum mansion with goats.

Though the plot of the book is set more than 85 years ago, some people in Natchez may still remember some of the main characters.

Linda Griffin, Phyliss Morris, Alfred Smith and Birdia Green, for example, who attended the reception, are second cousin to the woman falsely imprisoned for Merrill’s murder, Emily Burns.

Griffin and her family provided the only known photo of Emily Burns to Cox for the book.

“I have learned so much,” Griffin said. “I had heard bits and pieces my whole life. I know more about this now than I’ve ever known.”

Griffin said she was 11 when her family began helping Burns, who had a stroke in the 1960s.

Back then, when she was young, Griffin said she did not know what to believe about the aging woman.

“My mom used to say, ‘I know (Burns) didn’t do that,’ but I thought she did it,” Griffin said. “I never heard anybody that confirmed she didn’t.”

Griffin said the book exonerates the woman she used to know, proving Burns was not the murderer some people still perceive her to be.

“(Cox) hit the nail on the head, I think,” Griffin said.

Cox said meeting family members of Burns made the book stronger, too.

“I finally got to feel like I ‘knew’ Emily,” Cox said.

The current landowners where Goat Castle once stood, Charlie and Corky Vess, said they are particularly excited to read the book.

“We keep looking for ghosts,” Charlie Vess said. “We can’t find any. It’s a wonderful place to live.”

Charlie Vess said he and Corky have done a fair amount of research themselves in the 37 years they have lived on the old Goat Castle property, and that they are excited to read Cox’s work.

Cox brought her own roots to the party, in the form of friends Alecia Long, a professor at Louisiana State University, and Shannon Frystak, an associate professor at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania.

Long and Frystak wandered along the hallway of the Historic Natchez Foundation, picking up a morsel or two from the hors d’oeuvres table — which featured goat cheese — and ogling the collection of photos hung along the walls.

Long and Frystak said they were just there as moral support for their friend — a friendly face among the crowd of 60 or so fans.

Frystak said they had been supporting Cox since she first visited Natchez in 2012.

“It’s fun and satisfying,” Frystack said, “watching your friend finish a book.”

“We’re very proud of her,” Long said.

For Natchezians, however, the book is almost an answer to a question that has hung over the Merrill murder for too long.

“I’ve been hearing about this all my life,” said Robert Madison, who worked in the Natchez Police Department Jail for 53 years and grew up in Adams County. “My parents talked about it every day. Now I know what happened.”