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Tragedy In Spades

Glenwood (1840-1952)

Glenwood a.k.a. Goat Castle (1841-1952)

Of all Natchez, Mississippi’s grand suburban villas, Glenwood surely suffered the longest, fell furthest from grace and died the most shameful death. The poor, unwelcome bastard had finally left the family reunion. –The Goat Castle Murder

Built in 1841 and surrounded by 45 forested acres, Glenwood was a capacious, columned affair with a two-storied veranda and graceful parapets. Not one of Natchez’s more grandiose suburban villas, its simple charms nevertheless convinced the Reverend Charles Bacchus Dana to purchase the house in 1866. A Northerner with imposing bloodlines, he was related to Charles A. Dana, Editor of the New York Sun, and Richard Henry Dana, famed maritime attorney and author of the best-selling Two Years Before the Mast. Dana and his wife furnished the house primarily with family antiques donated by no less than Robert E. Lee, a parishioner and close friend from Dana’s years as rector at Christ Church Episcopal in Alexandria, Virginia. Lee also contributed a number of valuable first editions to the reverend’s extensive personal library. The Danas welcomed a son, Richard Henry Clay Dana, in 1871, and rocked him in General Lee’s cradle. Reverend Dana died two years later, followed by his wife in 1883, orphaning Richard at age fourteen. Something of a musical prodigy, he attended Vanderbilt University before settling in New York where he studied piano and sang in a church choir. When a freak accident crushed his right hand, destroying a budding career as a concert pianist, Richard, now called Dick, returned to Glenwood where he began to mentally unravel.

Robert E. Lee's crib was only one of many priceless antiques in Glenwood.

Robert E. Lee’s canopied crib was only one of many priceless antiques in Glenwood.

Dick was eventually joined by Octavia Dockery, a family friend who boasted an equally prestigious pedigree but had also fallen on hard times. Six years Dick’s senior, Octavia was the great-granddaughter of Cato West, a Mississippi Territorial Governor, and the daughter of Confederate Brigadier General Thomas Paine Dockery. Beautiful and privileged, she was born on Lamartine Plantation in Arkansas but raised in New York City where she attended the esteemed Comstock School for girls, wore gowns designed by Worth of Paris and attended a ball on the arm of her father’s close friend, President Ulysses S. Grant. Octavia was a journalist and sometime poetess, but her father’s death left her penniless. Suffering severe financial reversals of his own, Dick wasn’t in much better shape when Octavia moved into Glenwood. To the manor born and ill-equipped to survive in the real world, they managed for a few years but eventually acknowledged that they were running out of money. Dick coped by growing a beard to his waist, donning a gunny sack and taking to the woods, becoming known as the “Wild Man of Natchez.” Octavia was left to face life alone. Smart and resourceful, like Scarlett O’Hara, she took off the white gloves and looked to the land. She taught herself how to grow fruits and vegetables and to raise chickens, pigs and goats for meat and eggs. Without electricity or water, which had to be hauled from a public park, it was back-breaking labor, but somehow Octavia survived and cared for Dick as well. With no money for maintenance, Glenwood suffered too. Floors cracked and sagged, porch columns rotted and fell away, and broken windows and French doors went unrepaired. With nothing to keep them out, chickens nested where they liked, and the ever-ravenous goats devoured everything from Reverend Dana’s priceless library to upholstery, draperies and carpets. The Great Depression descended in 1929, and, as if that weren’t bad enough, Octavia and Dick found themselves suspects in the 1932 murder of their next-door neighbor, Jennie Merrill, with whom they had publicly feuded for years. Arriving to question the elderly couple, the sheriff and his deputies were horrified by the crumbling, unimaginably filthy house. News of once-wealthy Southern aristocrats living in squalor quickly drew national attention, prompting one reporter to compare Glenwood to the mythical Augean Stables; another nicknamed it Goat Castle.

By 1932, once-gracious Glenwood had morphed into Goat Castle.

The unwanted spotlight had a silver lining. Shamed by ignoring the impoverished couple for decades, Natchez rushed to donate food and money and helped clean and repair the place, enabling Octavia and Dick to soldier on. In 1948, he was felled by pneumonia; Octavia followed six months later, feisty to the end. With no one to tend them, Goat Castle’s eponymous denizens dispersed, and the fabled Lee furnishings were auctioned off for a paltry $13,000. The benighted house repeatedly changed hands until 1952 when it was demolished and a suburban development carved from its vast acreage. It was named Glenwood.

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5 Comments

  1. clarissa peale
    Sep 22, 2016

    My husband, Wayne Peale, and I grew up in Natchez and now live
    in Ga. There is nothing here to compare to Natchez. We enjoy
    all of your posts.

    • Michael Lewallen
      Sep 22, 2016

      Thanks, Clarissa. I love Natchez too which is why I was driven to write about it. I hope these posts will intrigue you to read the book.

  2. Liz
    Sep 22, 2016

    Once again I am struck with awe by your beautiful evocation of the life of a BUILDING and the incredible and strange HUMANS who inhabited it. You breathe life into animate and inanimate beings in such a way that your readers FEEL them as well as seeing them through your words. Thank you so much for sharing your love and understanding of the South so that I and my fellow Yankees can come to appreciate it beyond the dry descriptions we may have read in our history books.

  3. Robert Lowe
    Sep 23, 2016

    This is a wonderful article. Cato West is a ( so many great uncle) of mine that married into the Green and Baker family of Church Hill. Mr. Llewelyn’ s research in almost beyond belief. His knowledge abounds and his writing of it delights. He is a treasure to Natchez and The South!

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