Iron Maiden

The house today remains one of the jewels in Natchez's antebellum crown.

The house remains one of the brightest jewels in Natchez’s antebellum crown.

The splendid Natchez home called Elms Court began life in 1837 as a simple two-story frame house with a central portico. Nestled amid 29 forested acres south of town, it was purchased 16 years later by wealthy cotton baron, Frank Surget, who offered it to his daughter Jane and her husband, Ayres Merrill, a Harvard-educated lawyer with money of his own. Once ensconced, the pair set about making their new home more reflective of their lofty social station. Accustomed to the best, the Merrills engaged celebrated architect Thomas Rose and assigned him the task of making Elms Court one of the brightest stars in Natchez’s galaxy of early-19th-century homes. Because the town had more millionaires per capita than any city except New York, men who had peppered the landscape with dozens of majestic, mostly pillared “suburban villas,” it was a tall order indeed, but Rose was up to the task. He was aware that, by 1853, the craze for Greek Revival homes had waned and he also knew that the Merrills eschewed trendy new styles, preferring a house that would remain classic through the years. Toward that end, he opted for plans to not merely enlarge and embellish Elms Court, but to distinguish it from its neighbors.

Elms Court re-imagined by architect Thomas Rose.

Elms Court re-imagined by architect Thomas Rose.

He began by designing two side wings to expand the house horizontally, then added twelve feet to the rear. The number of rooms was increased to twenty-two, including a central hall which boasted, with a nod to the passé Greek Revival style, handsome Ionic columns. By far the most dramatic change was replacing the portico with two-story Italianate cast-iron galleries of intertwined grape vines. The gracefully arched metalwork softened the façade with a frothy illusion the architect continued across the new wings. It is arguably the most extravagant use of cast-iron in the state of Mississippi, and the resultant image, reminiscent of a wedding cake, never fails to awe first-time visitors. The Merrills then turned their sights outdoors. To provide the perfect setting for their new home, the front grounds were groomed and a series of landscaped terraces created behind the house. Mimicking the filigreed façade, another iron gallery led to lavish rose beds. The Merrills were social creatures with no intention of keeping such beauty to themselves. Jane’s elegant teas and smart soirees became legendary among the elite of Natchez, but her nocturnal balls were even more memorable. Not content with mere candlelight, the Merrills installed coal-burning gasworks to fuel their relatively new-fangled gasoliers. The glow from those gilded bronze fixtures made for a dazzling spectacle indeed, but some say Jane extended her ball magic onto the galleries where real vines were intertwined with the iron ones along with dozens of roses from her gardens. Apocryphal? Perhaps. But such claims nonetheless conjure a fabulous moment from times past.

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The fanciful, elegant shadows thrown by this New Orleans tracery reveal why cast-iron galleries were so fashionable.

Elms Court came perilously close to destruction during the Civil War. Along with many of Natchez’s wealthier citizens, Ayres Merrill made no secret of his opposition to secession. Most likely, his sympathies were not so much rooted in preserving the Union as in fear that the South’s cotton-based economy would be wrecked, along with the family fortune. Natchez fell without a fight in 1863, but when resentment from Confederate neighbors turned to outright hostility, the Merrills chose to wait out the remainder of the war in New York. In their absence, Confederate General Wirt Adams issued an order to burn Elms Court, but happily the detail was repulsed. Jane died up north, and Ayres followed in 1882. Their daughter Jennie returned to her beloved Elms Court, but familial convulsions eventually forced her out. Jennie would occupy three more famed Natchez mansions before her tragic murder in 1932. The house remains in the family, meticulously restored and open to visitors on special occasions.

Elms Court plays a major role in my book, The Goat Castle Murder.

Goat Castle Murder

 

4 Comments

  1. Laura Johnson
    Jul 22, 2016

    So glad to find out all this information that I never knew! What was the reason for the murder? Did they ever catch the whoever behind the murders?

    • Michael Lewallen
      Jul 22, 2016

      Hi, Laura. The murder occurred during a supposed home invasion. The gunman was long gone by the time Jennie’s body was found in the woods, but the man who was believed to be the killer was himself shot and killed by a policeman in another town. A female accomplice went to prison but was later released by the Governor of Mississippi. Many believed they got the wrong accomplice, which is a major subject in my novel. I hope you’ll be intrigued enough to take a look.

  2. Nancie Grim
    Jul 23, 2016

    Quite interesting information. I look forward to your book , The Goat Castle Murder, and to catching up on your previous books.

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