Octavia Dockery and Dick Dana in the Adams County Jail, August 1932. Earl Norman Photograph Collection, Historic Natchez Foundation, Natchez, Mississippi. Courtesy of the Historic Natchez Foundation.
Her neighbor Octavia Dockery, on the other hand, was less fortunate. Born in Arkansas in 1865, her father, a Confederate general, was financially ruined by the war. His primary investment had been in slaves so that once the war ended, he kicked around trying to make ends meet for the next thirty years only to die penniless in a rooming house in New York. Octavia and her sister Nydia were initially sent with their mother to live with a paternal uncle. When their mother died, they followed their father to New York, where they lived for a dozen years until Nydia married a man her father’s age, a Mississippian named Richard Forman. Octavia returned to the South with her sister and brother-in-law, both of whom would precede her in death. Unmarried and without an income, Octavia had nowhere to turn, except to the man who had long boarded with the Formans, Richard “Dick” Dana. The son of an Episcopal rector, he had become increasingly mentally unstable, yet his inheritance included an estate in Natchez that adjoined Jennie Merrill’s. Dick and Octavia never married, but she did eventually become his legal guardian.
Unlike Merrill’s home Glenburnie and the surrounding property, which was planted with lespedeza and roses and maintained by black servants, Dick and Octavia’s home and estate were dilapidated. Once one of the nicer suburban villas on the outskirts of Natchez, it had long ago descended into shocking condition. The roof leaked, the porches on both the first and second floors were rotting, and the filth of decades of neglect was evident everywhere. Dirty pots and pans were scattered throughout what had been the imposing library of the rector. Cobwebs wafted down from the ceiling and netted the furniture. Chickens and geese made their nests on bookcases and inside an old piano. And then there were the goats. They roamed the house at will, chewing up the wallpaper as far as they could crane their necks. The waste of this menagerie of animals covered the floors.
Dick was of no help to Octavia either. Although described in newspapers as his housekeeper, in truth she was his legal guardian. He’d been declared non compos mentis in 1917 and was difficult to manage. He rarely bathed, let his hair and beard grow long, and he romped around outdoors in a burlap sack with a hole cut out for the head. Men who logged the estate for timber recollected that he hid behind trees when called and that he spent most of his time in the woods surrounding his home, roosting on high tree limbs and swinging from grapevines—an activity he enjoyed well into his fifties.
None of it would have been exposed to the world had it not been for Jennie Merrill’s murder.
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From the time Octavia became Jennie’s neighbor in 1916, the two women feuded constantly over trespassing hogs and goats who escaped their deteriorating environs at Glenwood with their sight set on truffles around Merrill’s ponds, as well as her lespedeza and roses. Sheriff’s deputies dealt with the complaints of both women so many times they’d lost count and, only days before her murder, Jennie had a particularly vicious argument with Octavia over the damage the goats had done to her property.
The two women feuded constantly over trespassing hogs and goats who escaped their deteriorating environs at Glenwood.
Then, on the evening of August 4, 1932, Jennie’s cousin Duncan Minor sent a young African American man named Willie Boyd to call the sheriff to Glenburnie. Minor had discovered blood on the floor and walls of Merrill’s home, which had also been ransacked. A posse of deputies formed a search party and, not long after, the sheriff went to interview the neighbors. The feuding between the two women had become so bitter that he believed either Dick or Octavia to be likely suspects.
When he arrived at the ramshackle mansion, it was nearly midnight and the sky was pitch-black. He called out for Dick Dana. There was no answer. He called again. Finally, Dick descended the rickety stairs from the second floor and, before the sheriff had an opportunity to explain why he was there, Dick blurted out, “I know nothing of the murder.” Jennie Merrill’s body had yet to be found. Octavia’s comments were suspicious, too, and the pair was arrested and taken to the Adams County Jail.
Within hours, news of the crime circulated regionally, and then nationally. But the story the media found itself drawn to was not so much the murder of a scion of the Old South, but of the quirky pair who had been arrested and whose home defied belief. The press dubbed him the “Wild Man” and her the “Goat Woman,” and Glenwood “Goat Castle.”5