[CW: racial violence, lynching]
In the 1930s there was a Black goat-farmer named Oscar Washburn who lived in the Denton, Texas area, near Old Alton Bridge. Washburn was an incredibly successful and popular farmer who was known for miles around for the quality of the meat, milk, cheese, and hides that his farm produced. Washburn became so well known, in fact, that he hung a sign near the bridge that said “This way to the Goatman,” the better to direct people to his farm.
At this time, the Ku Klux Klan was very active, this being North Texas in the ’30s, and they were offended by the simple fact of a successful Black man living and working in their county. One night they decided to teach Oscar a lesson. They drove to his house–turning off their lights as they crossed Old Alton Bridge so as to not warn anyone of their approach–and took him from his screaming family. The Klan members drove Oscar back to the bridge to a noose that was already prepared and waiting. Once there, they placed the noose around his neck and threw him over the bridge.
When the Klansmen went down to the Hickory Creek bank to view their handiwork, they found that the noose was empty and Oscar was nowhere to be seen. Enraged, they drove back to his farm, where they assumed they would find him. Not seeing Oscar anywhere, they instead set fire to his house, with his family trapped inside, hoping to draw him out. Oscar never appeared and the Klansmen returned to their lives after these horrific acts of violence.
Sometime after these events, reports began to crop up about strange lights and activity near the bridge at night, including sightings of a goat-headed creature with glowing demonic eyes, which is how the Old Alton Bridge came to be known as Goatman’s Bridge by the locals. This was believed to be either the ghost of Washburn, seeking vengeance for his family, or Washburn’s wife, searching for her children.
The story says that if you knock three times on Goatman’s Bridge, or drive across it in the dark with your lights off, you’ll be met by him at the other side. and if you happen to share blood with a past Klansmen and you do this, you’ll be met with a much worse fate.
There is no historical record that proves that a Black man named Oscar Washburn ever owned a farm here or even lived in Denton County. There’s also another version of the story dating back to the 1860s that claims the Goatman was a Creole slave and goat herd named Jack Kendall. Kendall was said to have been hung by slavers from a tree near where the bridge would eventually be built. The specifics of the Kendall variation are much more gratuitously violent so I won’t recount them here but you can read it yourself, if you wish, however, like Washburn, Kendall does not appear in the historical records.
Having said that, there are several things that need to be considered about this story, the first of which is that a lack of appearance in the historical record does not definitively mean that neither man existed. Archives can be spotty places for anyone who isn’t a white man. Many, many people in history have been lost simply because no records were ever kept of their lives. In the case of Jack Kendall, a supposed slave and goat herd in the 1860s , it’s unlikely that any records COULD be found and only his name survived.
Washburn, however, is a different matter. Given that the story is said to take place in the late 1930s, and given that he was supposed to have been a very successful local businessman, there would be more than just a story with no record. Even if no record was kept of the murder of Washburn and his family, and there likely wouldn’t be, the facts of his life and his thriving business would have survived, somewhere, even if only in the remembrances of local people. The story indicates that he was exceptionally popular so it stands to reason that he would have had many customers who would have stories about him; real, actual stories of the life of this man. So why would we, as Denton residents in 2021, still be telling this story? Why are we still creeped out by the Old Alton Bridge? Because honestly, y’all, it is very creepy.
The simple fact of the matter is that, while Washburn may or may not have existed, racial injustice, up to and including lynching, did exist in Denton county, for a very long time. And we all know this, even if many of Denton’s white residents choose to ignore and deny these very real facts. But certain facts can’t be ignored or denied, like the fact that things were so bad in Texas that it was named the #1 state for lynchings in 1922. And the Klan was very much a presence here in Denton, with over 300 hooded figures showing up in the streets of this town a few days before Christmas in 1921 for a torchlit parade.
And even when straight murder wasn’t on the table, Denton had other ways of asserting white racial dominance, including the 1922 “removal” of a thriving community of Black freedmen and women called Quakertown, in order to make way for the Texas Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Girls of the State of Texas in the Arts and Sciences, later to be known as Texas Woman’s University.
The real horror of the Goatman lies in the fact that he stands as a cutout for the racial violence that Denton county has exacted on its Black residents. The actual person of Oscar Washburn may not have existed, but so many more men like him did exist. They struggled to create lives in a community that didn’t welcome them and they were killed for base and meaningless reasons.
By taking this Black man, who was said to have been murdered in this way, and giving him the “demonic” visage of a goat, he is dehumanized, the fact of his race removed, so that he can be considered scary, something for ghost hunters to search for so they can get a good story, all while giving only the vaguest pass to the acts of violence that precipitated his demonic nature. The terror of his death matters less than the terror that he causes in his afterlife. And that should tell us something about the ghost stories we create.
**Full disclosure: I have been a Denton resident for 12 years, and a student at Texas Woman’s University for 7 years**
Crittenden, Micah Carlson. “In the Tall Grass West of Town: Racial Violence in Denton County During the Rise of the Second Ku Klux Klan.” University of North Texas, 2020, https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc1703339/m2/1/high_res_d/CRITTENDEN-THESIS-2020.pdf. Accessed 21 Oct. 2021.
“How Secrets of the Old Denton County Klan Were Discovered by Four UNT History Students.” Dallas News, 23 Aug. 2019, https://www.dallasnews.com/news/watchdog/2019/01/10/how-secrets-of-the-old-denton-county-klan-were-discovered-by-four-unt-history-students/.
“Old Alton Bridge.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 5 Oct. 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Alton_Bridge.
Stevenson, Alyssa. “The True History behind Goatman’s Bridge.” We Denton Do It, We Denton Do It, 28 Oct. 2016, https://wedentondoit.com/blog/2013/10/18/back-in-the-day-goatmans-bridge.
Ugc. “Goatman’s Bridge.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 11 June 2018, https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/goatmans-bridge.