American Folk Hero: Charles McCartney–The Goat Man

By James Calemine

Reading through Webster’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable today, I realized everyone loves a folk hero. I thought of Georgia folk legends. And for some unknown reason, Charles ‘Ches’ McCartney–known by many as The Goat Man–came to mind. McCartney earned folk hero status before he died in a Macon, Georgia, nursing home at ninety-two in 1998.

A native of Iowa, McCartney ran off to New York City at fourteen where he sold newspapers. He married a Spanish woman ten years older than him. He served as her target in their knife-throwing routine.

McCartney returned to Iowa after he lost everything in the Depression. Inspired by Robinson Crusoe, McCartney set out with his wife and son in a rickety iron-wheeled wagon pulled by nine goats. Eventually, he owned forty goats.

McCartney suffered many beatings on the road. One night in Chattanooga, Tennessee, McCartney was mugged. The marauders killed eight of his goats and left him bleeding with a gash in his head that took twenty seven stitches to close. Some legends maintained bad luck befell anyone who harmed the legendary “Goat Man”. Another rumor drifted around that he sold his wife for $1000.

McCartney sold postcards, trinkets and other novelties to earn cash. On Sundays, he preached. He gathered crowds in whatever town he visited, and was known to be quite friendly. He could be seen reading his Bible by a kerosene lamp at his campsite.

In 1960, The Goat Man aspired to run for president. He claimed he would not play golf and take extravagant vacations, but he would work for the American people. The goat man married three times. He fathered three more children.

McCartney established his homebase in Twiggs County Georgia, in a little town called Jeffersonville. He loved to travel on Highway 80 from Macon to Savannah. He searched for anything to sell along the way. Another favorite route of McCartney’s counted as roads connecting Waycross, Georgia, to Jacksonville, Florida. In forty years, he never slept in a bed or a house. He never had running water. He never owned a TV. They say he smelled worse than his goats. His diet consisted mostly of goat’s milk.

Darryl Patton wrote a book about McCartney titled America’s Goat Man. In Cormac McCarthy’s classic novel, Suttree, a character resembling McCartney passes through the story. McCartney made an impression on Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor who mentioned The Goat Man in a couple of her letters.

In the 1980s, McCartney became enamored with the actress Morgan Fairchild. He walked to California to marry her. In Los Angeles, he suffered another terrible beating that ended his travels. By the time McCartney moved into a Macon nursing home in 1987, he attained cult hero status.

Before his death, McCartney told a writer from a Middle Georgia publication what he learned on the road: “They are worldly goods. And worldly goods don’t amount to nothing. The body and mind go back to dust. But the spirit–it goes on forever.”

Old timers in almost in all 50 states remembered the Goat Man traveling through their town. But, not many.

Here’s to Charlie McCartney– an American folk hero.

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