Villisca Ax Murders

The original Moore house, site of the Villisca ax murders. Courtesy of the Villisca Ax Murder House Website

The original Moore house, site of the Villisca ax murders. Courtesy of the Villisca Ax Murder House Website

This is the stuff slumber party folklore is made of. You’ve probably heard the story, perhaps even at a slumber party. Evil incarnate once waited in the attic for a family to retire. Then it slunk down the stairs to murder them all.

It really happened once, in Villisca, Iowa in 1912, in an event called the Villisca ax murders. And it happened during a slumber party. Ten-year-old Mary Katherine Moore had invited her friends, Lena and Ina Stillinger, to spend the night. The next morning the family of six, along with the two young guests, were all found the bludgeoned in their beds. The killer was never caught. Yet the story lives on as a slumber-party myth, whispered in fear between children curled up in their sleeping bags.

Here’s what really happened. Cal Schoonover joins us today with a guest blog about the Villisca ax murders based entirely on witness testimony.

Sometime the truth is just as frightening as the legend.

Just a “normal” house

The wood framed white house sits on a quiet residential street in the small town of Villisca, Iowa. At a quick glance one may not see anything out of the ordinary, but as the sun sets, the house becomes dark. There are no lights on in the house, the absence of electricity makes this impossible. Upon a closer look one will see the house is not so ordinary after all, its curtained windows prevent anyone on the outside from seeing in and the outhouse in the backyard leaves the impression it belongs to another time. This was once an ordinary house, but this is no longer the case as this house has secrets. Dark secrets and to this day holds the identity of a murderer within its walls.

Villisca, Iowa in 1912 was flourishing with businesses and its 2,500 residents did not seem to have trouble finding employment if needed. Several dozen trains entered and left the town throughout the day, causing the only disturbance to the normal quiet town. There was also an armory, a first of its kind, built by the local townspeople and paid entirely by taxpayer money. Times were good in the tight knit community of Villisca; at least it was until June 10, 1912 when the town became forever known for the horrific Axe Murders of an entire family.

The Moore family, victims of the Villisca ax murders

Joe Moore, a victim in the Villisca ax murders

Joe Moore, courtesy of the Villisca Ax Murder House Website.

In 1912 Villisca, Josiah B. Moore was the town’s most successful businessmen. Born in 1868, Josiah or “Joe” as he was called by many, was a success in just about everything he did. He married Sarah Montgomery on a cold December day in 1899 at Sarah’s parents home. The couple went on to have four children; Herman, Katherine, Boyd and Paul. Together, Josiah and Sarah built a nice life for their family in the thriving town of Villisca.

Although Villisca could be buzzing with people who were attached to the railroads, overall crime was rather low. Residents were not afraid to leave their homes unlocked and windows open at anytime of day. Crime existed of course, but nothing like people see in larger cities and until the night of June 10, 1912 when the town was rocked by the murder of not one, but eight people.

The fateful day of June 9

Sara Moore, a victime in the Villisca ax murders

Sara Moore, courtesy of the Villisca Axe Murder House website.

Josiah and Sarah woke early on Sunday, June 9 to get the kids and themselves ready for church. It would be a busy day for the Moore’s at the town’s Presbyterian Church, with morning services and other events that included the annual Children’s Day Program. The Children’s Program was to begin at 8:00 p.m., which was, according to witnesses led by Sarah Moore. By 9:30 the exercises were finally over, and the exhausted towns people of Villisca headed home to settle down for the night. The Moore’s children, mainly Katherine was not ready to throw in the towel quite yet. She had such a great time with her friends, Lena and her younger sister Ina Stillinger, that Katherine asked her dad if the Stillingers could spend the night. Not wanting to spoil his daughter’s fun, Josiah called the Stillinger home to check to make sure Lena and her sister were able to stay.

A slumber party

After a few rings a voice on the other end was heard. It belonged to Blanche, the eldest daughter of Joseph and Sara Stillinger. Her parents “were outdoors now,” but she would pass on the message to her parents. Assuming everything would be okay, Josiah and Sarah gathered up all the kids and began the walk home. The Moore’s, like most people in Villisca did not own a car but the church was only three blocks away from their home. A short walk on the cool, but damp night made the walk somewhat enjoyable.

Given the distance from church to the Moore home, the family should have arrived between 9:45 and 10:00 p.m. What exactly happened upon arrival will never be known for sure. No one could imagine that when the Moore family left church that night, it would be the last time the family was ever seen alive.

An ominously quiet house

Mary Peckham rose out of bed around 5:00 a.m. on the morning of June 10; wanting to get a start on household chores so she stepped out to hang her laundry outside. The only noise was the sound of birds chirping in the dark sky, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Peckham lived next door to the Moore’s for many years and like many small- town residents, people’s routines did not go unnoticed. There was “absolutely no noise,” throughout the night Peckham later recalled. Although she had not seen the Moore family arrive home the night before since she had gone to bed around 8:00 p.m., she could not believe the family would have been out late.[i]

By 7:00 a.m. there was still no sign of activity around the Moore household. Concerned, Peckham walked over to the “unusually still” house and knocked on the door. No answer. She went around to the back of the house and saw none of the Moore’s livestock had been taken care of yet. Peckham let the chickens out of their cage but did not untie the other livestock. Concerned, Peckham went back home and called Josiah’s brother Ross. Maybe, she thought, something happened out of town and the Moore family had to attend to at the last minute? While on the phone with Jesse, Ross’s wife, movement near the Moore’s barn caught Peckham’s attention. From where Peckham stood in her home she could see it was Ed Selley, who worked for Josiah, enter the barn where the horses were.[ii]

A brother discovers the Villisca ax murders

After hanging up the phone, Peckham wondered over to the Moore’s barn to talk to Selley. Maybe he knew something. Within minutes, Ross arrived and found a spare key to his brother’s house. Peckham followed Ross up to the front door and waited on the front porch while Ross went inside to have a look around. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until he opened the bedroom door near the parlor. The scene was horrific and something Ross would never forget. The once white sheets on the bed were now stained red with the blood of two small kids. At a fast pace Ross came back to the porch and told Peckham to call the sheriff. “Something awful” has happened![iii]

No sign of forced entry

An article in The Day Book, Chicago, 14 June 1912, depicting five of the Villisca ax murder victims and the house.

An article in The Day Book, Chicago, 14 June 1912, depicting five of the victims and the house. Public domain, via Wikipedia Commons.

Sheriff Hank Horton arrived at the Moore home and was greeted by Ross and Mary Peckham. Moore led Horton to the first bedroom where the two Stillinger girls slept. Horrified at the sight, the two men then slowly made their way upstairs to look in the other bedrooms. All dead. All still in their beds, covered with blankets and lots of blood. Sheriff Horton and Ross looked around the house briefly, noting that all windows and doors remained locked. Mary Peckham, who entered the first floor of the home noticed the doors needed to be locked from the inside with a key. No key was noticed. There was no sign of forced entry either which is a strong indication the killer was already inside the house when the Moore’s arrived. But how?

Medical attention was not needed, Sheriff Horton knew this but went to get Dr. J. Clark Cooper anyway. “Come with me,” Horton said to Cooper after arriving at Cooper’s office. Wondering why Horton appeared so anxious, Dr. Cooper asked why? “Joe Moore and all his family were murdered in bed.” Shocked at what he heard, Cooper went along with Horton. Waiting for them were Dr. Hough and Mr. Ewing, the towns minister. [iv]

The lamp upstairs: a clue to where the murderer waited

Kerosene lamp

Kerosene lamp. Pixabay.

Noting seemed to be out of place, there was no sign of a struggle. Upon entering the first-floor bedroom “All we could see was an arm of someone sticking out from under the edge of the cover,” Cooper said. There were large amounts of “blood on the pillows.” Cooper slowly approached the bed and lifted the cover and saw what he “supposed was a body.” Cooper told the inquest he did not, along with the other men in the room know who the two children were except they were dead. They stepped out of the bedroom and went upstairs. At the top of the stairs sat a lamp on the floor. Horton reached down and moved the lamp out of the way and the men continued into Josiah and Sarah’s bedroom. Later Horton determined that the killer had used the lamp for light and left it where it was found.

“Here is Joe,” Horton said pulling the cover down. Both Josiah and Sarah were clearly dead, their faces “beaten in.” Cooper left the room and went to check the condition of the Moore’s kids. They also were dead, their blankets stiff with dried blood that was in the process of becoming a jelly like substance. When asked at the inquest, Cooper estimated the family had been dead for at least 5 to 6 hours.[v]

An unsolved case and a town changed forever

All in the house had been killed the same way, by an axe that was found in the room the Stillinger girls slept. Traces of blood were found on it although there was an attempt to wipe it clean. Investigators made note that none of the clothing the victims wore had any holes in it from the axe. The bodies had been covered after they were murdered, and gouge marks were found on the ceiling where the axe blade came into contact as the killer swung the weapon. It was also noted there was a pan of blood stained water on the kitchen table along with a plate of uneaten food. Had these murders been committed today, the killer would almost for certain been caught, but in 1912 this was not so. Finger printing was rather new and DNA testing was a long way off. While there were suspects in the case, no one was ever brought to justice for these crimes. There never will be either. The town of Villisca, once a small friendly town were people knew others business changed after June 10, 1912. Doors and windows were no longer left unlocked, people opened carried guns and feelings old friends had for one another changed.

Thank you, Cal Schoonover!

More on the Villisca Ax Murders

The Villisca Ax Murder House offers tours and overnight stays. Click on the link to find more information about the case, view photos, and make a booking. An extra thanks to the Villisca Ax Murder House for allowing me to publish some of its photographs.

For extra reading, a recent book covers the topic. Author Bill James suggests a solution to the Villisca ax murders were in his 2017 true crime book, The Man from the Train.

About Cal Schoonover

Cal Schoonover, author of the guest post on the Villisca ax murders

Cal Schoonover, with permission

Cal Schoonover holds a BA in 18th and 19th century Military History and is working on his MA in history with a concentration on the Civil War. He plans on pursuing his PhD by the fall of 2019. His articles have appeared in Crime Magazine, the Surratt Courier and Emerging Civil War. com. He lives in Wisconsin with his son James.

[i] Peckham testimony, June 11, 1912.

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Dr. J. Clark Cooper testimony, June 11, 1912.

[v] Ibid


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LeRoy Wiley Gresham, the Child Sage of Civil-War Georgia

LeRoy Wiley Gresham. Courtesy of Janet Elizabeth Croon.

LeRoy Wiley Gresham. Courtesy of Janet Elizabeth Croon.

In April 1865, more than just the Confederacy was dying in Macon, Georgia. LeRoy Wiley Gresham was dying too. Only 17, he succumbed to tuberculosis  a few months after the Civil War ended.

What made LeRoy Wiley Gresham different was his writing. Unable to work or fight due to a leg injury he received as a child when a chimney collapsed on him, he sought release in his diary. LeRoy wrote every day, describing his experiences of the war and summarizing the news. He offers the not only an adolescent’s viewpoint, but the poignant perspective of a dying child. The volumes he produced are now a prized acquisition at the Library of Congress and have been on display there.

LeRoy Wiley Gresham’s diary will appear in print for the first on June 1.  Janet Elizabeth Croon, who edited the volume and researched the diary entries, joins us today for an interview.

AMA: The Library of Congress describes LeRoy Wiley Gresham’s diary as one of its “premier holdings.” It acquired the diary in the 1980s but it hasn’t yet been published. Why?

JEC: I think there are a few reasons why.  One is that there are seven journals, and LeRoy wrote at least something every single day of the Civil War, with only a few exceptions.  They are a large collection to deal with!  Secondly, I think that some of the sleuthing that was required to really understand the entries might have been daunting.  It took the assistance of a pair of wonderful librarians at the University of Georgia and one at the local library in Macon to help me find out where exactly the family’s two plantation holdings were located.  I also had to figure out the complex family network that LeRoy had.  Of course, he knew who all the people he was writing about were, but I didn’t have much of a clue!  I ended up with a family tree on that has exactly 1700 people included – and I still cannot place the three Knox cousins!  Lastly, despite his gorgeous handwriting, there are places that are just hard to read.  I was able to use the digital pages and magnify them if I needed to in order to understand what was written.  Writing conventions, like with hyphenization at the end of a line, are different and didn’t always make sense.  It was a big job, and unfortunately, I had the time available due to a long-term disability issue.

LeRoy began writing at age 12, and his journals end at age 17.

How did you discover LeRoy Wiley Gresham?

Social media!  A post about the initial Washington Post article about the collection being on display for the sesquicentennial of the beginning of the Civil War was in my Facebook newsfeed.  With my career of teaching high school students LeRoy’s age, I was interested immediately.  I am friends with Ted Savas, who runs Savas-Beatie publishing, and he was entranced by LeRoy as well.

Janet Elizabeth Croon, with permission.

Janet Elizabeth Croon, with permission.

What makes LeRoy Wiley Gresham’s diary stand out among other Civil War diaries?

One of the initial things Ted asked me to do was to get familiar with diaries/memoirs of the Civil War and see what I could draw from that.  I’ve been working for four years on another project (the Civil War in Northern Virginia, where I live) and so I was already familiar with many, like the very well-known diary by Mary Chesnut, John Mosby’s memoirs, the memoirs of W.W. Blackford, and more.  But the thing was, they were ALL adults and ALL directly involved in the war.  Mary Chesnut, for example, was the wife of an influential former member of the U.S. Congress and close friends with Varina Davis.  W.W. Blackford and John Mosby were both combatants who rode with J.E.B. Stuart.  But LeRoy began writing at age 12, and his journals end at age 17.  He was neither a combatant, and although he knew plenty of influential people due to his family’s status, he was strictly an observer for the vast majority of the journals.  He read, listened, and reported everything – so you get the Civil War written with the perspective of a teenager who is eager to soak up as much information as he can about the war, society, politics, and more.

This ends up being one of the critical questions that I had at the end – to what extent did a lack of coherent economic policy lead to the demise of the Confederacy?

Did you make any surprising discoveries in the course of your research?

Yes!  When I began this project, I thought it would be simply transcribing his written work and fleshing out a few things in footnotes.  But it ended up being such a multi-layered work!  Not only did I learn about LeRoy’s life, but about how life in Macon changed during the war.  For example, to ensure that people could access finished cloth from the Macon Mills (which his father ran as principal partner), they would accept a pound of bacon to pay for a yard of cotton goods.  The Mill then sold the bacon to the Army of the Tennessee to feed the soldiers!  And they also provided about 1500 pounds of bacon free of charge to the poor.  So economically, the people were making things work on their own.  This ends up being one of the critical questions that I had at the end – to what extent did a lack of coherent economic policy lead to the demise of the Confederacy?

A page from LeRoy Wiley Gresham's diary. Courtesy of Janet Elizabeth Croon.

A page from LeRoy Wiley Gresham’s diary. Courtesy of Janet Elizabeth Croon.

You studied European history. Could you use your training in that area to research an adolescent during the American Civil War?

This is an excellent question.  The details are obviously different, but the story of people who are trying to survive vast change to their society, whether it is the time of the French Revolution, the Weimar Republic, or World War II, is much the same.  How are we going to get enough to eat?  What do we do if the war comes here?  What happens if our loved ones don’t come home?  Why are we not getting accurate information from the media?  Those are all common threads.  Since I have spent many years teaching teenagers, I know that they are interested in how people their age dealt with crises of a mass scale.  Watching their faces as they listen to BBC radio trying to link young Holocaust survivors of their own age with relatives thought to be living in England brought that message home to them.  Understanding these common threads made understanding LeRoy’s writing and his concerns easier, and he voices many of them himself as well.

LeRoy wrote at least something every single day of the Civil War, with only a few exceptions.

You mentioned to your editor that LeRoy Wiley Gresham’s diary bears a faint resemblance to The Diary of Anne Frank. In what ways are they similar?

They are both teenagers that are in one way or another viewing the destruction of the life they knew from a distance.  For Anne, this meant being literally hidden away in the attic in Amsterdam.  For LeRoy, it meant watching the war from his home, knowing his disability would not include him in the actual military conflict.  And they are both such eloquent, authentic writers!  They let you in to their most personal thoughts… and that is quite an unanticipated gift to the rest of us.

And both of them died after they wrote their diaries….

Yes, they both did die after they wrote their diaries.  Anne died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp with only her sister with her; she had to endure the horrors of the Holocaust.  LeRoy died at home, nine days after his last journal entry; he died of the illness he had been enduring all throughout his seven journals.  So their deaths were both from the situations that kept them observers.  Hers was the external threat of Nazi extermination, while his was the internal threat of active tuberculosis.

How do they differ?

Well, obviously, they are writing almost 100 years apart, so there are obvious differences there.  And the inner life of a boy and a girl in adolescence are different.  Anne wrote about her feelings with great depth when it came to boys; we only get a hint of a crush or two from LeRoy.  Anne is hiding due to her religion; LeRoy is excluded because of his medical status.  His most private feelings have to do with his health issues, which Anne did not have to deal with.

You worked together with a doctor to decipher LeRoy Wiley Gresham’s symptoms and come to a diagnosis of tuberculosis. How does an understanding of LeRoy’s illness shed light on his diary entries?

Both Ted and I assumed that LeRoy’s death was the result of something else.  We both knew that he was physically disabled due to the accident he had at age 8 when his leg became crushed under falling brick; he often says that that was the start of all his “troubles.”  We also both thought he had asthma, and I thought he died of dysentery, which was going around Macon at the time.  We could not have been more wrong!  Without giving it away, Dr. Rosbach is a surgeon who has an affinity for the Civil War and is an acquaintance of Ted’s.  He read through a transcript I created of LeRoy’s symptoms, complaints, medications, and came up with what the actual cause was, and it really had very little to do with his leg accident.  Having read some of the family letters from the Library of Congress prior to the war, I discovered that his parents knew the truth, but did not tell their son.  People may question their decision, but I think it was the right one. This lack of knowledge that he was dying of a terminal disease gave him hope and kept him going for as long as he could, and gave him a better and happier quality of life.  LeRoy always was hoping to be cured… and it makes reading the journal entries very powerful.

What does LeRoy Wiley Gresham’s diary add to the existing Civil War literature?

LeRoy provides us with a different kind of overview to the war, giving us a timeline based on events as they happened.  For people who are not Civil War aficionados, this is a great way to learn about the major battles, strategies, and personalities of the day.  What it also adds for those who already have an understanding of the battlefield is a detailed sketch about the home front in the Civil War South.  Through LeRoy’s writing, we get a much better understanding about how the people of the South felt about the war, how they got (or didn’t get) their information on the fighting, what changes they had to make in their daily lives, and what it was like to live in an occupied city at the end.  There is also a lot of information about the relationship between the Gresham family and the many slaves they owned, both at their Macon home and their two plantations in Houston County.  And there is the medical aspect: how a deadly disease of the 19th century approached by medical professionals at the time.

Thank you, Janet Elizabeth Croon!

The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham book cover, courtesy of Janet Elizabeth Croon.

Book cover courtesy of Janet Elizabeth Croon.

Janet Elizabeth Croon, ed., The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham (Savas Beatie, 2018), 432 pages, annotated.

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Felony Murder on Trial: An Interview with Prof. Karen L. Cox, Author of Goat Castle

Natchez, Mississippi, site of the Goat Castle murder.

Natchez, Mississippi, site of the Goat Castle murder. Photo from Pixabay.

Eighty-six years ago, in August 1932, a highly unusual crime put the felony murder rule, an old law in Mississippi case law, to the test. That night, Emily Burns accepted an invitation to take a walk with one of her boarders. The 37-year-old widow rented out rooms in her home to other members of the black community in Natchez, Mississippi. What she didn’t know was that her boarder, who went by the nickname “Pink,” had made plans to burglarize a home that night.

An unplanned murder

Pink led Emily through the woods and bayous to a dilapidated house known as “Goat Castle,” where he met his two white accomplices. When Emily overheard them talking and realized their plans, she wanted to leave, but Pink threatened to kill her if she did. They snuck over to the house of a neighboring white woman and Pink motioned to Emily she should keep a lookout.

While Emily Burns waited outside, Pink and his white companions did the unthinkable: they murdered the occupant of the house. Pink made her hold the lantern while he and his accomplices carried out the body and deposited it 100 yards behind the house. Then they went home. That was the extent of Emily’s involvement. The law’s out-of-proportion reaction to Emily Burns is the subject of a recently published book, Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South by history professor Karen L. Cox. She joins us for an interview below.

A case that made national headlines

The investigation into the murder of 68 year-old Jennie Merrill of Natchez, Mississippi, made national headlines. That she was born into the southern planter aristocracy and her father was once U.S. Ambassador to Belgium were enough to garner attention. Yet the story that emerged focused on those charged—her eccentric neighbors, Dick Dana, 61, and Octavia Dockery, 68, also born into elite southern families except that by 1932, they lived in squalor in a crumbling down antebellum mansion with all variety of animals, including goats. Their home was nicknamed “Goat Castle” and the pair became known as the “Wild Man” and the “Goat Woman.” Journalists compared their story to those of Edgar Allan Poe and William Faulkner—a southern gothic narrative come to life. And despite the collection of their fingerprints from inside Merrill’s home, the case never went to trial. Instead, as was typical of the Jim Crow era, the black community was targeted. In the end, the only person to be punished was an innocent African American woman named Emily Burns. She was convicted as an accessory to murder and sentenced to life in prison in the state penitentiary—Parchman—while Dana and Dockery profited from their notoriety. Burns’ sentence was eventually suspended in 1940, and she returned to Natchez. Previous accounts of the case are terribly brief, and focus exclusively on the white principals. This book offers the first extensively researched account of this Depression-era crime, including the national media coverage, while also recovering the story of racial injustice.

The felony murder rule

The legal doctrine that allowed Mississippi to convict Emily Burns of murder is the common-law felony murder rule. It holds a person responsible for murder if someone dies during the commission of a felony, even if that death wasn’t planned.

Felony murder definition: The unlawful killing of another human being while engaged in the commission of or attempted commission of one of several felonies specified according to the laws of a particular jurisdiction.  At common law, the “felony murder crimes” are burglary, arson, rape, robbery, and kidnapping.

The rule itself genders controversy. Not every U.S. state follows it. England, Wales, Ireland, and Northern Ireland have abolished it.

What makes the Goat Castle case different is the unbalanced punishment: Emily Burns took the legal blame for the murder while the white accomplices who were in the house when Jennie Merrill was murder got off scot-free. This gritty story is about what happens when the cogs in the wheels of justice run in the wrong direction.

Welcome Karen L. Cox! Dr. Cox is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

History professor Karen L. Cox, author of Goat Castle.

History professor Karen L. Cox, with permission.

Interview with Professor Karen L. Cox

AMA: What role did Emily Burns play in the murder?

KLC: Emily was caught in a terrible situation. She accompanied the actual trigger man–George Pearls a.k.a. Pinkney Williams–on a walk the evening of the murder.  Once he informed her of his plan to rob Jennie Merrill she tried to go home, but he threatened to kill her.  So her role in the robbery was to stand watch outside of Merrill’s home.  There she heard scuffling and shots–including those that killed Merrill. Later, she allegedly carried a lamp that lit the path for Williams to dispose of the body.

Did she ever enter Jennie Merrill’s house?

I don’t believe she ever entered the house.  Her fingerprints were not found inside of the house. I feel certain if they had been found, that evidence would have been used at her trial.

Do you think justice was served in this case? Why or why not? 

No, absolutely not.  Emily Burns was the only one charged and convicted as an accessory to murder with very little evidence.  Jennie Merrill’s neighbors, on the other hand, got off scot-free and their fingerprints were found inside of Merrill’s home. The fact that the fingerprint evidence was never discussed in court indicates that the DA did not want to try two white people; rather, he sought justice through the conviction of a “negro.”

Why do you think this story attracted national attention? 

 During the Depression, true crime sold newspapers and magazines and served as a cheap form of entertainment for Americans during desperate economic times. Such stories frequently involved the demise of prominent individuals and were fixated on the salacious details of family dysfunction. The murder of Jennie Merrill in Natchez, Mississippi, had all of this and then some. She was referred to as an “aristocratic recluse” and the way her neighbors lived led journalists to compare what was happening in Natchez as something that could have come from the pen of William Faulkner or Edgar Allen Poe—except it was all true. Thus, Natchez provided readers with two distinctive, and yet popular narratives, of Old South grandeur as well as southern gothic.

People have noticed similarities between Goat Castle and the more famous Grey Gardens. How do the two compare?

 Analogies have been made between Goat Castle and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and the film Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, too, but perhaps the best comparison is with Grey Gardens. Like Grey Gardens, Goat Castle is the name of a house and specifically a fine house that, by the time the public learned about it, was in shocking condition. Both homes had fallen into wrack and ruin, both were filthy and full of garbage and debris, and two people who were clearly not in their right mind occupied both houses. There is also the similarity that despite the years and the location that separate these two estates, Goat Castle, like Grey Gardens, is a story of the social and economic downfall of elites—in this case, people descended from the planter class of the Old South.

Goat Castle deals with injustice wrought by the felony murder rule.

Goat Castle book cover, courtesy of University of North Carolina Press.

Given that you’re a white woman writing about a black woman, you needed access to Emily Burns’s community. How did you gain their trust to get them to open up to you and thus do Emily’s story justice?

This is an important question, especially given the racial history of Natchez and Mississippi more broadly. As a white woman telling a black woman’s story, it was important to get the perspective of the black community and I could best do that by talking with people in person, in places where they felt most comfortable, and demonstrating my appreciation for the gift of the information they shared with thank you notes, phone calls, etc. Because the church is such an important institution in the black community, I also attended services at Emily’s home church in Natchez and spoke directly to the congregation about my efforts to bring justice to her story, promising to return and share the book with them when it is published—a promise I intend to keep.

Goat Castle can be characterized as both Southern history and true crime. How did your training as a historian inform your work as a writer of true crime? Did you have to adapt your writing style in any way?

 I’ve long been fascinated by local stories, and so my training as a historian helped here because it meant digging into local records for even the tiniest bit of information that I could then piece together to understand more about the individuals involved. Census records, city directories, witness dockets, case files, maps, and the landscape itself all provide information. In fact, I think of a book, and particularly this story, as a puzzle. Once all of the pieces are put into place, an image emerges or, in this case, the story emerged. I absolutely adapted my writing style. While my training would suggest I should write a scholarly work, this simply would have ruined the story I was trying to tell. So, while I did the primary and secondary research one would expect a historian to do, I wrote a narrative with a more general audience in mind. A true crime story about a place named “Goat Castle” required this approach.

Thank you, Karen L. Cox!

 What do you think of the felony murder rule? Was it justly applied in this case? Should it be abolished?


ISBN 978-1-4696-3503-3 $26.00 cloth

240 pp., 24 halftones, notes, bibl., index

Publication date: October 9, 2017

For more information:

Portions of this blog post were borrowed from “A conversation with Karen L. Cox, author of Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South” (University of North Carolina Press, Fall 2017). The text of this interview is available at

A brief youtube film about this case, posted the Natchez National Historical Park, shows pictures of many of the participants and places.

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