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Moonlight, Magnolias & Murder

Glenburnie today. Photo: Jim Steinhart

Glenburnie today. Photo: Jim Steinhart

One of Natchez’s smaller architectural gems, Glenburnie Manor was built in 1833. A handsomely proportioned, one-story raised cottage with a gracious, columned veranda, it was enhanced in the classic colonial style in 1904, just in time to welcome its most celebrated—and infamous—owner: Jane “Jennie” Merrill (1864-1932). As the daughter of cotton baron Ayres Merrill, Jennie boasted blood that was among the bluest in Mississippi. She was a newborn when her Unionist father took the family to New York to wait out the Civil War. Jennie was raised in luxury on Washington Square, and when her father was named Ambassador to Belgium by his friend President Ulysses S. Grant, Jennie was presented to Queen Victoria at the Court of St. James. It was said that the tiny monarch took a moment to give the equally diminutive Jennie “a kindly aside.”

At the height of her glory, Jennie was presented to Queen Victoria

Jennie was one of the few Natchezians to be presented to Queen Victoria.

When she returned to Natchez around 1890, a well-educated, international sophisticate, Jennie moved back into the Merrill home, Elms Court, and embraced a busy social life until family discord drove her from the house. Unhappy and restless in rented mansions, she began a slow but steady withdrawal from society, and by the time she bought Glenburnie Manor, she was so fiercely reclusive that she posted a prominent “No Trespassing!” sign at the entrance to the estate. Jennie’s lone caller was her cousin, Duncan Minor, and the unmarried couple’s unconventional liaison provided endless fodder for the town gossips. Jennie didn’t give a damn what people said, nor was she content to alienate only family and friends. On her trips to town, she angered and annoyed most everyone she encountered. Her driving was a serious menace as she ran stop signs and traffic lights and parked wherever she liked. Instead of going inside to shop, she honked her car horn until someone came out to wait on her. When that rude tactic failed at the Court House, where she enjoyed checking her tax records, she promptly marched to the head of the line and demanded service. Her list of detractors and enemies steadily grew.

A studio portrait of Jennie Merrill.

A studio portrait of Jennie.

Jennie’s closest neighbors, Richard Dana and Octavia Dockery, lived in a collapsing manse called Glenwood, but with 300 yards separating their houses, she rarely saw her impoverished, equally antisocial neighbors. When one of their goats feasted on her prized flower beds, Jennie, a crack shot, grabbed her gun and dispatched the animal on the spot. Thus began an ever-escalating feud involving complaints to the sheriff, lawsuits and eviction threats. The hostilities ceased only when Jennie was shot to death in her dining room and her body dumped in thickets on the periphery of Glenburnie Manor. Because Jennie had irritated so many people, speculation ran wild as to her killer’s identity. Their long-standing feud catapulted Dick and Octavia to the top of the suspect list, and the crime came to be known as the Goat Castle murder. Jennie’s generous will left everything to Duncan, including the house. Following his death seven years later, Glenburnie Manor passed through a number of owners, and in 1978 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Houses. Attractively restored and maintained, it remains in private hands but occasionally welcomes visitors. According to one of the owners, the irascible, ill-fated Miss Jennie occasionally visits too!

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8 Comments

  1. Carol Kistler-Seymore
    Aug 31, 2016

    Loved this. Will be buying the book when I can get out again.

  2. Liz
    Aug 31, 2016

    Thanks for this terrific piece, Michael. And the photos are wonderful – that portrait of Jennie is stunning!

  3. Ciji Ware
    Aug 31, 2016

    I read Goat Castle in a much earlier incarnation and cannot WAIT to read the final version…this blog post with juicy details about Jennie and Glenburnie only whets my appetite!

  4. Joel Fletcher
    Aug 31, 2016

    Wonderful story well told!

  5. Roger
    Aug 31, 2016

    With all the advantages she enjoyed early in her life, why did Jennie become such a harridan?

    • Michael Lewallen
      Aug 31, 2016

      Jennie’s complicated metamorphosis was due to a number of factors, not the least of which was her loss of Elms Court. It’s all explained in the book.

    • carolyn pursell
      Sep 4, 2016

      the
      loss of love from her family.

  6. Anne P. Tarzier
    Sep 2, 2016

    I always enjoy your blog but have especially enjoyed these about the houses. It gives new meaning to the expression “if wall could talk.” I am so anxious to read GOATCASTLE . The Suth’un women in your books all seem so SULTRY. I can just see her in a dusty gold summer dress with daring decolletage–maybe waltzing into church looking quite innocent.

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