21 min read

This Way to the Goatman (Goatman’s Bridge Series)

This Way to the Goatman (Goatman’s Bridge Series)

One of the most famous urban legends about the Goatman’s Bridge (aka the Old Alton Bridge) has roots in a hidden, unpleasant part of the county’s history. This episode looks at the legend of the Goatman and the history underpinning the story.

CONTENT NOTE: This episode contains discussions of racially motivated murders and white supremacist hate groups.

 

Episode Script for This Way to the Goatman (Goatman’s Bridge Series)

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

Intro to This Way to the Goatman (Goatman’s Bridge Series)

  • In this episode, I’ll get into one of the most popular stories related by urban legends about the bridge.
    • The story goes that the bridge is nicknamed the Goat Man’s Bridge because of a pretty horrific story that involves a Black man being lynched by the KKK. So, content warning for the rest of this episode. 
    • Honestly, the history of this area is very rough.
    • Also, I mentioned this in the first episode of this series, but just a reminder that I grew up in Denton County, where all of the things I’m going to be talking about took place. This episode will be exploring a lot of stuff that I learned about where I’m from, which I had no idea about until doing this research. While I’ve lived in NYC for my entire adult life, I even went back to Denton to get married: my wife and I got married at a converted grocery warehouse just off Denton Square, where the county courthouse is, and very close to where some of the stuff I’ll be talking about takes place. 
    • I mention all of this just to say that I get that this history is hard to hear and grapple with, especially if you’re learning about somewhere you’re from. But I think it’s really important to better understand local history. Also, I believe that knowing an area’s history is vital to researching the paranormal there.

 

“Never confuse the facts of a story with the truth of a tale”  – Dr. Shaun Treat, former professor at the University of North Texas and founder of the Denton Haunts historical ghost tour, quoted in Hauntology Man, a thesis by UNT student  Adam Michael Wright

https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc1157557/m1/13/?q=%22old%20alton%20bridge%22 

The Murder of Oscar Washburn

  • Let’s talk about the most famous story related to the bridge’s history, the murder of Oscar Washburn.
  • The story goes that a Black man named Oscar Washburn, who was a goat farmer who lived nearby, was lynched by the KKK in 1938. (Or some sources say 1937.)
    • People have tried to find records confirming that someone named Oscar Washburn lived there, but researchers haven’t been successful yet.
    • The legend says that Washburn and his family moved into a home a bit north of the bridge. He was well respected by everyone in the area, and was seen as a dependable and honest businessman. People nicknamed him the Goatman. On the bridge, he hung a sign that said “This way to the Goatman.”
    • However, local Klansmen saw his success and didn’t like that a Black businessman was doing well.
    • So in August 1938, Klansmen who held positions in the local government crossed the bridge, driving with their headlights off I assume to surprise him. They then kidnapped Washburn from his home and hanged him from the Old Alton Bridge.
    • The story goes that when they looked down to make sure he had died, the noose was empty.
    • They panicked, thinking he had survived and get revenge. So they went back to his home and murdered his wife and children. 
    • Some stories say that the KKK burned down his house with his wife and children inside to try to “bait” Washburn into emerging from hiding, if he was hiding.
    • No one ever saw Washburn again. 
    • There’s an implication that maybe something paranormal happened that made him disappear from the noose, but it’s always phrased kind of vaguely.
    • The local legend also says that if you are descended from Klan members and go to the bridge at night and honk your horn three times, the Goatman will appear and get his revenge.
  • Now, like I mentioned in the first episode, there is a trickster element at work in the stories of the Old Alton Bridge hauntings, so you shouldn’t believe everything you hear about the bridge. If I had to make a guess based on some stuff that I’ll get into a few episodes from now, when I really dig into the veracity of the urban legends, I would say that I probably don’t think that Oscar Washburn existed.
  • But, before you discount this legend, it’s important to understand that Washburn’s story isn’t the only story of a lynching that happened in the area, which I’ll talk about more in the next episode. 
  • Whether or not Washburn existed, the KKK had a huge presence in Denton and worked to terrorize and destroy Black communities in the area. 
  • And, as the KKK often was, they were, unfortunately, effective and brutal.

 

The KKK in Denton

    • For a long time, there has been a narrative that racial violence didn’t happen in Denton county. I came across that assertion in several things that I read. However, recently, some additional information has been unearthed.
      • For this part of the episode, one of my main sources will be a 150-page paper called The Tall Grass West Of Town: Racial Violence In Denton County During The Rise Of The Second Ku Klux Klan by Micah Carlson Crittenden, which was a University of North Texas masters thesis published in May 2020.
      • I wanted to read a bit of the paper that talks about the myths about there not being racial violence in the area: 
        • “For six months I was told that Denton County was not racially violent and had internalized that belief by fellow students who grew up in the area, Denton County officials, and residents. I believed them when they told me that Denton had both very little slavery and subsequently, very little racial strife, because the narrative was so widespread.”
      • She would go on to find that there was a nearly one-in-nine chance of Black Dentonites being arrested, facing violence, or being murdered during 1909-1925. So obviously racial violence was extremely common in Denton at the time.
      • According to her research, between 1860-1880, people in Denton County lunched at least 17 men and one boy, and apparently there are accounts alluding to others without naming the victim’s names..
    • The Dallas Morning News published an article about four students (including Crittenden) at the University of North Texas (which is in Denton) who discovered a horrific part of the area’s history.
      • These students wanted to research the St. John’s community of Pilot Point, which was a place where freed enslaved people and their families from Alabama and Missouri moved after the Civil War. 
      • However, when they were looking at the census records, they saw that between 1910 and 1930, there was a huge decrease in the number of Black people living there. So they set off to find out what had decimated the Black community.
      • They spent months researching it, and determined that Black people in the area were intentionally driven away. Some people were scared off, whereas others were likely abducted and lynched.
      • In 1922, Texas had more racial lynchings than any other state. On the other hand, in many other states, the number of lynchings was thought to have declined somewhat after 1919.
      • The KKK was extremely active in Denton, Fort Worth, and Dallas. 
      • Let’s pause for some brief background on the KKK in the early 20th century.
        • So, the first version of the KKK came about after the Civil War, during reconstruction. Its goal was to overthrow Republican state governments, and they did that through violence against Black people and voter intimidation. That version of the KKK was eventually suppressed by the federal government.
        • The second Klan started in Georgia in 1915.
          • If you, like me, have taken many film classes, you might remember that The Birth of a Nation came out in 1915. The film, which you learn about in film classes because it pioneered a lot of film techniques, is notoriously racist in its depiction of Black people, and portrays the KKK as heroic and noble.
  • The Birth of a Nation had a huge impact on fanning the flames of white supremacy. To read from wikipedia, the KKK:
          • “grew after 1920 and flourished nationwide in the early and mid-1920s, including urban areas of the Midwest and West. Taking inspiration from D. W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation, which mythologized the founding of the first Klan, it employed marketing techniques and a popular fraternal organization structure. ”
        • The second version of the KKK was a white supremacist organization, so they hated Black people, and they also disliked Jewish people, Catholics, and southern and eastern European immigrants like Italians, Russians, and Lithuanians.
        • They introduced some news ways of intimidating people such as mass parades, like the one in Denton. They also burned crosses and wore the robes and pointed hoods, which came from The Birth of a Nation and the book that the film was based on.
        • Supposedly, by the mid-1920s, the Klan had between 3 and 8 million members.
    • Anyway, back to the research that the UNT students did. They found some awful news articles. 
      • One 1922 article entitled “Prisoners Spirited from Unguarded Jail” and printed in The Dallas Express said that two Black men, who were accused of stealing horses and put into the jail, were kidnapped. 
      • Someone left an unsigned note on the door of the local newspaper office that said “Both Negroes got what they had coming. Let this be a warning to all Negro loafers. Negroes get a job or leave town.” 
      • The article went on to say that two additional Black people had disappeared from the jail and hadn’t been heard from since.
    • The students noticed a pattern, which was when Black people were accused of crimes, while there would often be intense and sensational articles at the beginning, the coverage would suddenly just stop. No coverage of the trial, and often the accused people’s names weren’t mentioned. Black people were being disappeared. They would be accused of a crime, put into jail, kidnapped from jail, and then murdered by the KKK. 
      • Crittenden, who wrote her thesis about this, found that in the 1920s, the KKK and Denton law enforcement formed a partnership to enact racial violence and cover it up.
      • Sheriff, City Marshall, County Attorney, and District Judge were all members of Klavern 136
      • Also, in case you’re wondering, the alleged crimes would be things like stealing a silver pencil, borrowing a coat, or vagrancy. So incredibly minor crimes that certainly shouldn’t carry a death sentence.
    • This was a pretty common occurrence during the Jim Crow era. 
      • Someone would be accused of a crime, brought to jail, and then the jailer would “just happen” to not be around when the KKK came to abduct and murder the Black victim. 
      • There were never any witnesses to these abductions. And of course there was no damage to the doors or cells, which means that someone entered with a key. 
    • So to be clear, the Klan wasn’t breaking into jails, overpowering jailers, and kidnapping people who had been accused (but not convicted) of crimes. 
      • They were being allowed in, with authorities knowing full well what would happen to the KKK’s victims. 
      • The KKK was just a part of the system of “Jim Crow justice.” 
      • There was usually no investigation, no attempt to solve the murders.
    • Like I said, the KKK was a huge force in Denton. Around Christmas 1921, the Klan made its first major public appearance in Denton. This was the first major action by Klavern 136, the Denton chapter of the Klan.
    • The researchers did a review of all mentions of the KKK in Denton newspapers and records between 1917 and 1928. 
      • They were mentioned 303 times. 
      • They also reviewed all reports of a Black person being arrested in Denton county from 1909 and 1925, and they cross-referenced the two lists. 
      • Unsurprisingly, they found that Klan violence got worse whenever any kind of crime allegedly involving Black people happened, which seems to indicate a close relationship between the KKK and the cops.
    • If you want to know more about this, I’ll include links with additional information in the shownotes: 

 

Quakertown

  • There’s another bit of Denton history that I wanted to cover here as well, the story of Quakertown. 
  • Back in the early 20th century, there was a bustling community in Denton called Quakertown, which was made up of 80 middle-class Black families. 
    • There were a few other Black neighborhood, including Peach Orchard Hill, which was a mile and a half northeast of Denton Square, and another community on Egan and Congress Streets northwest of downtown. 
    • But Quakertown was the largest Black neighborhood in the area. It had an especially good location, pretty near Denton Square, which is where the businesses and jobs were.
      • There was also a good school there, the Frederick Douglass Colored School (or Fred Douglass School), which had been established in 1878. The school would later be burned to the ground, in 1913. 
        • It is believed that white arsonists did it; the building didn’t have gas or electricity, and there was no reason for it to burn the way it did.
        • The school was later rebuilt, but at a different location several miles away.
      • The North Texas region in general also had great soil for agriculture, and the land was cheap.
      • However, one of the most important things about Quakertown’s location was that it was near Pecan Creek (one of the creeks off of the Trinity River’s Elm Fork). White people probably didn’t want to live there because the area tended to flood, so it was acceptable for Black people to live there.
    • It was called Quakertown as an homage to Quakers, who were abolitionists.
  • Quakertown became the Black community’s business district. The population was middle class and doing well financially; many residents owned their own homes, had jobs, and many of them owned their own businesses. 
    • Fifteen residents had been enslaved, and by 1920, they owned their own homes. 
    • A number of residents owned cars.
    • A lot of the streets and sidewalks in the area were paved, and the neighborhood had telephone and electric lines.
    • Folks who lived there wore the latest fashions and had beautiful gardens. 
    • As of 1918, Quakertown had a doctor’s office, restaurants, a general store, funeral home, school, barbershop, churches, community organizations and lodges, etc. 
    • The residents of Quakertown were affluent and doing well.
  • But this is the south in the 1920s, and white people were not happy to see prosperous Black people in their midst. 
    • To read from Stallings’ thesis: 
      • “This type of black self-sufficiency existed outside of the white vision, and was most likely the exact reason white Denton began vocalizing disapproval of the black community in 1920. Among other things, the white vision in the early twentieth century stipulated black dependency on whites. These race relations were tightly controlled with fear and violence in the Jim Crow South.”
    • The point of Jim Crow was to make Black people second-class citizens. This was accomplished through things like ensuring that Black people couldn’t participate in politics, stealing Black people’s land, setting up the sharecropping system (which left people in debt and unable to be self-sufficient), and hate crimes and lynchings, etc.
      • Hate crimes and lynchings were extremely common back then. Stallings writes:
        • “Recorded numbers indicate that between 1882 and 1968, 3,446 lynchings of African Americans occurred, almost three times as many lynchings of whites. An overwhelming majority of the total lynchings, 74%, occurred in states of the former Confederacy, and of those, 86% were black. Also of the total lynchings, 59% occurred in the seven states that make up the Deep South. Of those, 87% were black.”
        • She also writes about how the racial violence against Black people was because Black people were successful. The goal was to keep Black people down.
    • No one in Quakertown was a sharecropper, but it’s likely that many of the Black people in the county, outside of Denton, were sharecroppers.
  • If you know a lot about American history, then when you think of the 1920s, you likely immediately think of white supremacy, the resurgence of the KKK, and hate crimes, particularly hate crimes targeting middle-class Black people.
    • For example, in recent years, the Tulsa massacre has become pretty well known. In 1921, in one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in American history white terrorists burned down 35 blocks of a Black neighborhood called the Greenwood District in Tulsa, destroying one of the wealthiest Black communities in the US, which had been nicknamed “Black Wall Street.” Between 75-300 people were killed, with 800 people injured. After the attack, 10,000 residents were homeless, and many of the survivors left Tulsa.
    • Of course, this tide of violence wasn’t unique to the 1920s. In 1898, there was a white supremacist coup in Wilmington, North Carolina, which displaced the biracial government in Wilmington. At the time, Wilmington had been a majority-Black city, and many of the Black residents were middle class professionals. If you want to know more about that, there’s an excellent book by David Zucchino called Wilmington’s Lie that tells the story.
  • So, what happened right before the 1920s that might have whipped up some white supremacist fervor?
    • Like I mentioned earlier, the second iteration of the KKK was formed in the 19teens and 20s. 
    • And it’s not coincidence that at the same time, local people were doing additional things to further enshrine white supremacist ideaology. 
    • For example, in 1918, the Daughters of the Confederacy put up a monument at Denton Square, by the courthouse, in honor of the Confederate States of America.
    • Also, the Denton Record-Chronicle, the main newspaper in the area, was operated by one Will C. Edwards, who, according to Crittenden, was a Klan candidate for the Texas State House of Representatives in 1922 and Lieutenant Governor in 1924. So, as Crittenden points out, because the newspaper was run by a Klan member, it’s safe to say that the DRC’s reporting around this time period should be considered propaganda.
      • The paper repeatedly printed articles mentioning The Birth of a Nation, literally for years after it was released. In 1917, two years after the film’s release, Denton’s all-white, female College of Industrial Arts (or CIA), which was a block away from Quakertown, screened The Birth of a Nation. At the time, the DRC reprinted a quote from the Beaumont Enterprise: “This is a time when a glimpse of the past will help us solve the problems of the future. The Birth of a Nation will inspire noble thoughts and patriotic deeds.”  The DRC also breathlessly covered the 1919 race riots.
      • To quote Stallings:
        • “The most accessible news source for Dentonites in 1919 painted a picture of violent, aggressive African Americans. These continuous portrayals in the news of victimized white men and militant black men, combined with the glowing editorial reviews of The Birth of a Nation, contributed to white Denton’s perceptions of their own black communities and created racial tension, despite the absence of any actual riots [in Denton].”
  • By 1920, against the backdrop of the resurgence of the KKK, the white residents of Denton had had enough: the residents of Quakertown were doing too well socially and economically, which was unacceptable to them.
    • So they very explicitly and directly employed a number of tactics to intimidate and drive out the Black residents of Quakertown. 
    • Stallings’ thesis describes a “white coalition” made up of local politicians and their wives, prominent citizens, and members of city clubs and organizations, who “came together to construct a reason to remove the black community out of fear because of its proximity to the white women’s college, the College of Industrial Arts.”
  • In 1920, the president of the College of Industrial Arts, started telling people that they should “rid the college of the menace of the negro quarters in close proximity.” He proposed the idea at a rotary club meeting, and Denton’s white leaders decided that they wanted to build a city park there. The entire plan had also been advanced and aided by the local Women’s Club, who had also been involved in the erection of the confederate monument in Denton Square.
    • The idea was that they had always wanted a park to hold the county fair, but they just hadn’t found the perfect place for it. 
    • Also, Dallas had embraced the “City Beautiful” urban planning movement, and had several parks, so Denton wanted this park so they could better compete with Dallas.
    • In reality, the most important thing about this desire for a park was just that white people in power didn’t like that a bunch of young white women, who were living away from home for the first time, would be living near a Black neighborhood.
  • To be clear: Quakertown had been around for 40 years; the College of Industrial Arts had only existed for 20 years. They decided to build the college near Quakertown and then take the residents’ land, not the other way around.
  • In 1921, the government and voters held a bond election to pay for the park project. People who lived in Quakertown weren’t allowed to vote in that election.
  • To read from Stallings’ paper:
    • “This time the white coalition was not limited to Denton’s powerful and elite. Everyday white citizens banded together, ensuring the black community was relocated to the outskirts of town. Participation from the enlarged white front ranged from simply signing a petition to carrying out KKK violence against the black community.”
  • Here’s what the KKK had to say about Quakertown. They contributed $50 to a city charity and left a note for the Denton Record-Chronicle, saying: “The KKK stands for law and order. It stands for the protection of the sanctity of the home and the purity of young girls–college girls who are without the immediate parental guidance.”
    • Per Stallings: “The language of their note–specifically the line of the “purity of young girls”–evoked the aforementioned racist rhetoric of The Birth of a Nation and hinted that white womanhood at CIA was compromised by the neighboring black community.”
  • Again, the KKK was very active around this time, and did a lot to threaten and intimidate Black residents. Stallings’ paper goes into great detail about all of that.
  • The white Dentonites used the bond money to buy property in Quakertown, move people’s home and businesses, or just seize them, in order to build the park.
  • Following the seizure of their homes and businesses, the residents of Quakertown were evicted and forcibly moved to Solomon Hill.
    • Per Stallings:
      • “This area, which was near an open sewage pit, has been described by local historians as “a converted cow pasture with no utilities and a severe mosquito problem.””
  • Some former Quakertown residents left Denton altogether. 
  • The Civic Center Park opened in the late 1920s in Denton
  • While Black residents weren’t officially banned from the new park that was built where they used to live, they certainly didn’t feel welcome to do so.
  • The story of Quakertown was actually lost for a time. 
    • It sounds like the story of Quakertown wasn’t really told among the residents of Solomon Hill, I assume because it was too painful.
    • And of course the white population of the area forgot about it too.
  • However, in 1989, a cistern containing old bottles and aluminum cans was discovered in Civic Center Park. People wondered what the story was behind the artifacts, and who lived there previously. Local historians and students started researching and the story of Quakertown emerged.
  • Since then, there have been a number of efforts to memorialize Quakertown, from plaques to renaming Civic Center Park to be called Quakertown Park.
  • If you’re from the area and this whole story sounds vaguely familiar, you might be thinking of a book called White Lilacs by Carolyn Meyer. The book calls Denton “Dillon” and Quakertown “Freedomtown,” but it’s based on what happened in Quakertown. The book was added to middle school curriculum at Denton middle schools in 2001. I can’t for the life of me remember if I read it when I was younger, but I recognize its old cover from the 1990s so I’ve definitely seen it around.
  • Additional source about Quakertown: http://www.dentonhistory.net/page32/Quaker.html 

Outro to This Way to the Goatman (Goatman’s Bridge Series)

  • And that’s the story of Quakertown and the KKK in Denton. 
  • Let’s loop back to the legends of the Old Alton Bridge. 
    • You can see why the story about the Klansmen murdering a successful black man and his family became such a core part of this site’s lore.
    • Whether or not that specific story is true, we know that Black men were kidnapped and murdered by Klansmen, and we know that white residents of the area worked to destroy a thriving black community precisely because the community was thriving.
  • I’ve read through many, many comment sections, threads, and reviews of the Old Alton Bridge, and there are always trolls saying that the Oscar Washburn story is made up, and there’s often this implication that people shouldn’t be telling this tale of racist violence. 
    • But the thing is, racist violence did happen in Denton and the surrounding area.
    • While it might be more pleasant for some people to pretend that it didn’t happen, trolls’ feelings about the matter won’t change the facts.
  • So, whether or not Oscar Washburn was a real historical figure, his basic story happened to many people in the area around the Old Alton Bridge.
    • Also, I think it’s important to note that, as Crittenden points out in her paper, local newspapers went out of their way to obscure the names of Black people who were kidnapped and lynched during the 1920s, so to me, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine that could happen in the 1930s. 
      • In fact, Crittenden talks about her search for records about the people who were lynched in Denton County. To give you a taste of how incomplete records were, here’s what she went through:
        • She requested law enforcement records from the city of Pilot Point, but they’d been kept in a room underneath a weather tower and were destroyed by water
        • She requested all records from 1865-1930 from the Denton County Sheriff’s Department. They said that all of the records prior to 1950 had been destroyed, because the county wasn’t required to keep them.
        • She then asked them for records relating to the records’ destruction, and got nothing.
        • She contacted the Pilot Point Post-Signal for issues of the newspaper from the 1920s, but they said they had no copies of their own newspaper prior to the 1970s.
        • She contacted the Library of Pilot Point and asked for the newspapers from their archives, but the City of Pilot Point said that they had no copies of it from before 1964.
        • She contacted the City of Pilot Point and asked for legal records, and they said that the city might have some copies of tickets from the 20s in a vault, but the rest of their judicial records were destroyed. She never received any records from the city of Pilot Point.
        • She drew a parallel between how there were a number of fires on Denton Square in the county’s early days, and in the 1920s, the buildings that held the Denton KKK chapter’s records were burned down.
        • So, yeah, there’s record loss, and it’s not a coincidence that this part of the area’s history conveniently vanished for so long.
        • And all of this is why I’m going into such detail here, but, again, if you want to know more I strongly recommend that you read Crittenden’s paper for a much more robust account of all of this.
  • So, to get back to the Old Alton Bridge story: 
    • To quote Crittenden once more: “Despite the best efforts of white supremacist sympathizers at containment, the truth leaks out through folklore. Stories like that of the Goatman signal to a violent past without direct indictment of the participants.”
  • Oscar Washburn isn’t the only Black person who was said to be murdered at the site of the Old Alton Bridge. Next time, I’ll talk about another legendary death, as well as a recent death that happened under somewhat suspicious circumstances.

Sources consulted RE: This Way to the Goatman (Goatman’s Bridge Series)

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Sources consulted for This Way to the Goatman (Goatman’s Bridge Series):

 

 

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