The Wild Man, The Goat Woman & the Mississippi Miser

Carroll Baker as Tennessee Williams's scandalous Baby Doll.

Carroll Baker as Tennessee Williams’s scandalous Baby Doll.

Southerners didn’t write the book on eccentricity, but we’ve certainly supplied literature with more than our share of audacious characters and plots. From the Lesters of Tobacco Road and Boo Radley, to Ignatius J. Reilly and the denizens of Yoknapatawpha County, Dixie has produced a bumper crop of picaresque folk. Fiction, however, rarely eclipses fact. The real-life 1932 Goat Castle Murder in Natchez, Mississippi, was the perfect paradigm, screwy and sensational enough to demand, for the first time in American history, two special tourist trains to a crime scene. It seemed few could resist murder mixed with madness, wealth, incest and dizzying falls from grace, not to mention the quirky charms of the Wild Man, the Goat Woman and the Mississippi Miser, plus a supporting cast including Queen Victoria, President Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and artist Charles Dana “Gibson Girl” Gibson. No, siree, Bob. You cannot make this stuff up.

Jennie Merrill, 1864-1932.

Jennie Merrill, 1864-1932.

The source of all the fuss was Jane “Jennie” Merrill. A rich, reclusive, elderly spinster who was shot to death on her vast estate, Glenburnie Manor, she left a trail of moonlit blood that was the bluest in Natchez and a host of enemies antagonized by her arrogance and superior attitude. Topping the list of foes were her impoverished next-door neighbors, Dick “Wild Man” Dana and Octavia “Goat Woman” Dockery whose long, very public feud with Jennie began when she shot one of their goats who had the audacity to nibble her azaleas. Because the goats were all that stood between them and starvation, Dick and Octavia were furious but ill-equipped to fight back. A musical prodigy who had pursued a career as a concert pianist in New York, Dick had long ago traded his immaculate white suits for a gunny sack and grown a waist-length beard, all the better for roaming the Mississippi bayous at night. Raised on a grand Arkansas plantation, Octavia was the daughter of Confederate General Thomas Dockery. A once-stunning beauty who wore gowns by Worth of Paris and danced with Ulysses S. Grant, she was a respected poetess and journalist who had been invited to be the only woman on America’s first expedition to the Antarctic.

By 1932, Glenwood had morphed into Goat Castle.

By 1932, gracious Glenwood had morphed into Goat Castle.

Because Octavia and Dick had fallen on cataclysmic times, their elegant pillared home, Glenwood, verged on collapse with toppled columns and broken doors and windows inviting their goats to gnaw on furniture belonging to no less than the Lees of Virginia. The fourth major player in this idiosyncratic sideshow was Jennie’s cousin and paramour, Duncan Minor, the notorious “Mississippi Miser.” Too cheap to buy a car, Duncan rode horseback to his nightly trysts at Glenburnie Manor, and when the bedroom ceiling in his lavish home, Oakland, began to leak, he blithely pushed his bed to a dry corner. Learning Dick and Octavia were unable to pay their property taxes, and hoping to please Jennie, Duncan campaigned to have the poor couple evicted. A sympathetic lawyer, apprised of Octavia’s plight, counseled her to have Dick declared incompetent and name herself his guardian. The attorney then invoked a Mississippi law protecting those judged insane from eviction for non-payment of taxes. Duncan and Jennie were livid.

Who triggered the murder weapon was up for grabs.

Definitely the murder weapon but who pulled the trigger?

Things between the feuding couples escalated still further, and when Jennie’s bloody corpse was found next-door, Dick and Octavia were, to no one’s surprise, promptly arrested. What followed was a media feeding frenzy in which their derelict mansion was dubbed Goat Castle and their trial gave new meaning to the term “circus.” In genuine Southern Gothic fashion, the bizarre saga continued with more twists and turns than Ole Man River himself. How this confluence of the rich, infamous and downright wacky ultimately played out was a tale I couldn’t resist re-imagining.



  1. Celeste Berteau
    Dec 22, 2016

    This is a page turner, Michael. I am loving it. Congratulations. Now, I’m ready to drive to Natchez . I’m overdue for a visit.

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