Saturday, March 15, 2014

THE "RAPHAEL ROUTE" TO NATCHEZ

Raphael building, Natchez, MS
This week we took a short road trip with Helen and Roseanne Raphael, wife and daughter of Morris Raphael, (now deceased) to Natchez, Mississippi where Morris, a well-known southern author, spent his early life. Roseanne and I were also on a mission to find the site of the "Goat Castle" that I had written about in a mystery novel several years ago. Rosanne recently wrote an adaptation of my book, Goat Man Murder, for the theatre, so we had a mutual interest in locating the site.

Unfortunately, all that remains of the renowned Goat Castle, home of the famous couple accused (but not convicted) of the murder that rocked Natchez in the 1930's, is a street sign and a handsome brick home that had been built on the property where the Goat Castle stood for over 100 years. We viewed several thickets, one of which may have hidden the bullet-riddled body of the murdered Natchez woman on a humid August day in 1932.  This thicket is mentioned several times in my book and in Roseanne's play based on the much-publicized murder.

The Goat Castle case was a bizarre one, and the couple accused of the murder was just as bizarre. The eccentric pair had been prominent members of Natchez society but their social prominence and lifestyle had deteriorated during Reconstruction days. They lived together in a decaying mansion with a herd of goats that wandered in and out of the home and fed on antique furniture and books once treasured by the prominent antecedents of the "Goat Man." The couple lived near the murdered woman and aggravated her because of their decadent style of living, the goats often wandering onto her property. The murdered woman had also been an eccentric recluse who received "no visitors at her gate," and her stinginess had frequently been gossiped about in Natchez circles. This famous murder case was solved to the satisfaction of local authorities, and the Goat Castle couple was cleared but the story about them continues to shock visitors who come from throughout the world to enjoy the annual Natchez Pilgrimage or Tour of Homes. 

We traveled from the street site of the Goat Castle to a more pleasant site, the former home of Roseanne Raphael's grandparents, a white brick structure built by the Spanish government in 1786 and occupied by the parents of Roseanne's father, Morris, during his childhood and teen years. Morris's father, Khalil Monsour Rafoul (who later changed the family name to Raphael), migrated to the U.S. from Lebanon and sold general merchandise out of a Model T Ford, traveling to rural areas and to many of the old plantation homes in Natchez, selling wares from door-to-door. He was also a correspondent for the Arab newspaper, Al Hoda, published a book in Arabic, as well as articles that the Raphael family has never translated. "Monsour," as he was sometimes called, influenced Morris's love of books and writing and inspired his son to become a newspaper editor and author of many colorful books about Louisiana culture and history. The Raphael family story is chronicled in Morris's book, My Natchez Years, available at many bookstores throughout the South. 

We also visited historic Jefferson College in Washington, Mississippi, nine miles north of Natchez. The college has the distinction of being the oldest institution of learning in Mississippi (chartered in 1809) and was a prep school from 1866-1964, but it's now owned by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Washington is the site where Aaron Burr was arraigned for treason in 1807, as the village was the capital of Mississippi Territory from 1802-1817. In the small gift shop at Jefferson College, Roseanne discovered a copy of her father's book, My Natchez Years, and her delight at the discovery exonerated me because I had insisted that we visit the old site before we left the area. I had visited it years ago and had been impressed with the peaceful ambience of the old school surrounded by stately oaks. We talked about how the peacefulness seemed strangely antithetical to the fact that the site had been a military boarding school from the beginning of the 20th century until 1964—military drills and tactics had been part of the daily routine there.

Fig tree in winter
We also toured the "Oriental Villa," Longwood, which is the largest octagonal house in the U.S.; dined at Monmouth Historic Inn; and ate southern fried chicken and biscuits at the Carriage House in downtown Natchez. But the highlight of the trip was the walk around the old Raphael property, which led to the discovery of a huge fig tree, its bare, gray branches devoid of sweet fruit, that Khalil Monsour Rafoul had planted in memory of his beloved Lebanon during Morris's childhood.


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