Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Q&A with Karen L. Cox

Karen L. Cox is the author of Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South, which focuses on a 1932 murder case in Mississippi, when an African American woman ended up in prison for a crime she didn't commit. Cox's other books include Dreaming of Dixie and Dixie's Daughters, and her work has appeared in various publications, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. She is professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Q: You write that you first learned about the events involving Goat Castle many years ago. How did this discovery eventually lead to your new book?

A: I was working in the archives, finishing another book, when I learned about this story. I looked at clippings from the case—it was just so odd, it piqued my curiosity.

I was drawn to it—I had an instinct it was going to be my next book…Sometimes I’m drawn to a quirky story, but the more I delved into it, I learned it was more than that.

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprise you?

A: There were two things I did at the beginning. I visited Natchez. I went to see it, I wasn’t there to do any research, just get the feel of the town, its geography, its landscape, which I got more and more each time I went.

And the other thing—I started doing basic newspaper research and writing down all the names in the story—the principals, the attorneys, law enforcement, and witnesses. When I really started doing research, I could figure out who they are.

That’s how it began, with newspaper research. Then I began on-the-ground research in Natchez—fire insurance maps to get a sense of where the people lived, court records related to the case of Emily Burns, [the woman who was convicted,] but also records relating to Dick Dana and Octavia Dockery, [eccentric neighbors of the murder victim, who were involved in the case].

One of the places I did research was in an abandoned pie factory in Natchez. Court ledgers were kept in what had been a freezer for pie crusts. I had to have a mask on my face and gloves. It was not [the right] conditions to keep records, but I got lucky—I found the witness docket. It had the case number of The State vs. Emily Burns. I needed the case number to find the other material—and then I found it!

They didn’t keep a transcript of that trial---this was a swift trial with people coming up and going off the stand very quickly. It lasted less than 36 hours—it started at 8 in the morning on a Friday, and by noon the next day she was convicted. The trial went on, and the jury deliberations were all of 30 minutes. She didn’t have a chance.

Q: What do the events you describe say about race relations in Natchez in 1932? 

A: What it tells us is that not much had changed since slavery. This was the Jim Crow period and they were no longer slaves, but the criminalization of African Americans that is still with us today was there.

The idea with African Americans was that they were no longer slaves and under total control of white men, but this was another way of controlling them. They were still being treated as second-class citizens.

Parchman prison, where she was sent, was intended to replicate slavery, including men on horseback with guns. When you see a movie like Cool Hand Luke, those are white guys, and the vast majority would have [been African American].

Q: How famous was this case at the time, and what do you see as its legacy today?

A: True crime stories about murders and robberies—it was real popular reading, so this case, within a couple of days, showed up in The New York Times. Then it was in papers throughout the country, throughout the fall of 1932.

Natchez already was on people’s radar because of the Natchez Pilgrimage of antebellum homes. It was already being covered by The New York Times too—everybody should go see a town that presents itself as the Old South.

The crime revealed itself as the underbelly of the Old South. People descended not only into poverty but they were mentally unstable. It was covered in a series in Master Detective, a popular crime magazine. It continued to be discussed for several years.

When Dana and Dockery died, both had obituaries in The New York Times. It certainly was popular when it was going on, and when the photo of the two of them from the jail cell circulated. The newspapers would get it and embellish it, suggesting they’d been sweethearts.

Its legacy is not necessarily a national memory of [the events], but the legacy is very evident in Natchez today. They still tell the story. There’s an annual event, Angels on the Bluff, where people reenact those characters.

In a broader sense, its legacy is one of injustice against African Americans in the South—these things are resonant in our culture today. George Pearls, [an African American man involved in the case,] was harassed in Arkansas, and allegedly reached for a gun and was shot six times. It reminded me of the guy who was shot in Baton Rouge.

I wrote an article for Time magazine about women’s incarceration and the way there are similarities between then and now. Women of color form the vast majority of incarcerated women…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My mind needs to rest—it’s so full of Goat Castle, and it just came out! I’ve batted around a few things—I’d thought about a history of Mary Kay Cosmetics. My aunt was in it for 28 years. But they are very protective of their legacy, and I don’t know how far I could get into it.

I found another case when I was digging around. A man was appealing his murder conviction—he killed a woman because he thought she was messing with his wife. It was around 1929-1930.

His appeal was if this were a man, this would be considered a crime of passion, but because it was a woman, it wasn’t. It’s from the black community in the Delta. It could be an interesting microhistory...The woman he killed was married. The two couples hung out together.

One of the things about doing Goat Castle, and it would be if I were to do this, is my use of Ancestry.com. That has been a really valuable tool. When someone doesn’t leave letters behind, it is a way of putting a little meat on the bones.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Buy the book! It makes a great Christmas gift!

And why Natchez matters—Natchez matters for a number of reasons. It’s one of the oldest cities in the country—it just celebrated 300 years in 2016. It was a center of great wealth before the Civil War. Northerners moved there and were involved in the domestic slave trade.

Natchez is an important part of American history. Local history can tell you a lot about the country. The place is idealized as an example of the Old South, and so much so that David Selznick sent photographers to Natchez for Gone With the Wind. A lot of movies were made in and around there that deal with the Old South—and Goat Castle is the ugly side.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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