The Goatman of Old Alton Bridge: A tale rooted in Texas’ historical racial tensions

The lore surrounding Denton’s cryptid delves into the legacy of lynching in the Lone Star State.

By Sean SaldanaOctober 31, 2023 10:00 am, , ,

DENTON — Out at the foot of the Old Alton Bridge, Shaun Treat tells me a ghost story. 

It revolves around a man named Oscar Washburn.

“He was a successful goat farmer,” explains Treat. “He was known for quality meats and cheeses and milk, but also purses and waistcoats and things like that.”

Treat is a former professor at the University of North Texas, a local historian, and a ghost tour guide in Denton. 

He tells me that according to legend, Washburn supposedly lived right off the Old Alton Bridge in the late-1930s, during a time when the iron truss bridge served as a key connection point in rural North Texas.

“The main passage to Dallas came through here,” says Treat. “There was a big bunch of nothing between here and downtown Denton Square. This was darkness, my man.”

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The Old Alton Bridge stretches over Hickory Creek in Denton, Texas, on Oct. 13, 2023.

First built in 1884, the Old Alton Bridge is the oldest of its kind in Denton County, something that helped earn it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. 

Legend has it that the historic bridge was so important to Washburn’s business model, the goat farmer put up a sign to help customers find him.

“When you came across,” explains Treat. “You would see a sign that says ‘This way to the Goat Man.’”

Oscar Washburn was a successful farmer building a life for himself in Denton. But he was also a Black man, something that caught the attention of the wrong white folks in town.

“They couldn’t believe the audacity for this African American entrepreneur to be hanging his pseudonym right up on the bridge,” Treat tells me. “And so that’s what prompted them to come engage in the killing, to make an example of him.”

It’s been said that one night, the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan marched out to Washburn’s home, kidnapped him and lynched him over the side of the Old Alton Bridge. 

When the Klan members made their way down to the creek under the bridge to take a look at their work, Washburn’s body was gone. 

Figuring that he had somehow managed to escape, the outraged mob made its way over to Washburn’s farm and burned his home down with his wife and children inside. 

The lore says that as revenge, Washburn haunts the Old Alton Bridge as a half-goat, half-man creature, kidnapping those foolish enough to summon him with three knocks on the bridge’s frame.

“There are old-timers who told me that he doesn’t take everybody, he never does,” Treat explains. “Who he does take usually have the blood of Klansmen in them.”

The Goatman of Old Alton Bridge is a revenge story, one in which the children pay for the sins of their fathers.

“An ignorance of your past is no protection from its everlasting consequences,” Treat tells me. “We have un-atoned debts.”

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Ollie Asser, dressed head-to-toe in his Goatman costume, stands in front of the Old Alton Bridge in Denton, Texas, on Oct. 13, 2023. A native Dentonite, Asser grew up with the story of Goatman.

Lynching in the Lone Star State

There’s little evidence to verify the existence of a Black farmer named Oscar Washburn in 1930s Denton, but when it comes to lynching, the truth is often more terrifying than fiction.

“Lynchings were attended by thousands of people,” explains Dr. Karlos Hill. 

An inset graphic reads "In December 1940, officials from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL) met at Tuskegee Institute to discuss lynching. Together, they established the following definition of the crime. 1. There must be legal evidence that a person was killed. 2. That person must have met death illegally. 3. A group of 3 or more persons must have participated in the killing. 4. The group must have acted under the pretext of service to justice, race or tradition."Hill teaches History and Black Studies at the University of Oklahoma and is the author of “Beyond the Rope: The Impact of Lynching on Black Culture and Memory,” a book analyzing the dynamics of extrajudicial killings in the 20th century.

He points to the lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, as, “one of the most spectacular lynchings in American history.”

In 1916, the body of Lucy Fryer, a white woman, was found dead on her property. Her skull had been crushed and almost immediately, law enforcement zeroed its suspicion on Washington, a 17-year-old laborer who worked for Fryer and her husband.

Arresting officers claim to have found Washington with blood on his clothes and after he was detained, Washington supposedly told Waco law enforcement where to find a bloodied-hammer used for Fryer’s murder.

Washington’s proximity to the scene of the crime, his allegedly bloody clothes, and the discovery of a hammer in the area Washington described was enough evidence to get a confession.

Jesse Washington was mentally disabled and illiterate, so he signed his confession with an X. Within a week of his admission of guilt, a trial was held. After closing arguments, the jury deliberated for four minutes before finding Washington guilty.

Almost immediately after the verdict was delivered, Washington was pulled out of the courtroom by a mob that ripped his clothes off, wrapped a chain around his neck, and dragged him out to the Waco town square. Then they set him on fire as they hoisted him up to a tree.

“There were estimated 10,000 people as spectators at the Waco, Texas, lynching in 1916,” Hill said. “That gives you a sense of not only how popular and how common lynchings had become, but also how accepted they had become.”

Some of Jesse Washington’s charred remains were eventually kept or sold as souvenirs, something that exemplifies lynching as a cultural phenomenon. 

“Individuals who participated in lynchings did not have to fear accountability, even though they were breaking state and local laws in terms of taking someone’s life,” Hill explains. “Nothing ever happened to those individuals.”

From the period of 1882 to 1968, Tuskegee University documents 4,743 lynchings in the United States — 3,446 African Americans and 1,297 white Americans. 

Figuring out how many lynchings have taken place in Texas is an imprecise exercise for historians. 

“The problem with documenting lynching is that most of the documentation comes from the white community,” explains Dr. Jeff Littlejohn. “[A lot of documentation] is to explain what happened, but also to defend, in most cases, the white mobs that participated in the violence.”

Littlejohn is a professor of history at Sam Houston State University who studies racial discrimination, violence and civil rights activism. 

He and a team of researchers run Lynching In Texas, a website that documents the victims of lynchings in the Lone Star State between 1882 and 1942. They’ve counted over seven hundred so far.

“Lynchings happened constantly in the late 19th and early 20th century,” Littlejohn said. “[Lynchings] were included in newspapers as if they were everyday affairs. It would be very hard for us today to get in the mindset that these things were just regular occurrences.”

Lynchings were acts of vigilantism carried out against people who allegedly committed crimes like rape and murder, but the extrajudicial nature of mob violence often made justice impossible to serve.

“That’s what’s so horrific about lynching. It was a total violation of due process of law,” explained Littlejohn. “There’s no way to know, in many cases, if individuals were actually committing crimes or if they simply were targeted by whites or because they challenged racial authority or because they operated a successful business.”

The story of Oscar Washburn isn’t verifiably true. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

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Rowan Fagile, 10, stands next to Ollie Asser, who is dressed as Goatman on the Old Alton Bridge in Denton, Texas, on Oct. 13, 2023.

The Cult of Goatman

Out on the Old Alton Bridge, Treat and I are joined by local Goatman enthusiast Ollie Asser. 

He lumbers his way through the white gravel trail leading up to the bridge in brown fur pants, a pair of stilts that make him seven feet tall, and a custom goat skull.

“I just made this mask in the last couple of days,” he explains.

Asser was born and raised in Denton, is active in the city’s nightlife scene, and is an enthusiast for Goatman. In addition to running a Facebook page dedicated to the Goatman for the past decade, Asser will occasionally dress up as the North Texas cryptid and scare his fellow Dentonites out at the Old Alton Bridge.

“The last time I was here at night,” Asser tells me, “I had one guy pull a knife on me.”

Growing up in Denton, the story of Goatman was always familiar to Asser. The older he got, the more his interest grew, something that’s in a feature-length film he’s written about the Goatman. He plans to release it sometime in the 2030s.

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“People come here from all over the U.S. to visit the bridge, trying to conjure up Goatman,” says Ollie Asser. “It's become way more popular than what it used to be when I was growing up.”

Asser has worked closely with Dr. Treat to marry the legend – the story of Oscar Washburn and a haunted bridge – with the historical reality Black Texans faced in the Jim Crow Era.

“[Treat] actually gave me a lot of really good ideas of what the Klan would’ve looked like in Denton and who would’ve been a part of it,” he explains. “We’re going to make the Klan’s members police officers and people who were part of the City who would’ve wanted Washburn gone.”

Asser is a fan of theatrics and spooky tales, but he also views his dedication to the Goatman lore as somebody carrying on an important but uncomfortable part of local tradition in North Texas.

“It’s why stories like this are important,” Asser explains. “It brings up the conversation of the racial atrocities that happened back then. So to me and to a lot of people in the Denton area, it’s very important to keep that story alive, whether true or not.”

Over the years, the Goatman has become a popular figure amongst occultists, horror fans and local historians. Teenagers scare their friends out at the Old Alton Bridge, paranormal investigators give tours, and a BuzzFeed video on the subject has more than twenty-three million views over the past five years.

There’s hardly evidence to suggest that Oscar Washburn ever existed and even less to confirm that the Old Alton Bridge is haunted, but for better or worse, the Goatman has become part of Denton’s cultural history.

“People come here from all over the U.S. to visit the bridge, trying to conjure up Goatman,” Asser says. “It’s become way more popular than what it used to be when I was growing up.”

The story of lynching in Texas is lengthy, tragic, and impossible to know the full extent of. Countless victims of racial violence have been forgotten by history and the majority of people who participated in lynch mobs never faced any repercussions.

Not in the fable of Oscar Washburn, a goat farmer who spends his time in the afterlife kidnapping the descendants of Klan members foolish enough to summon him for judgment.

Sooner or later, the Goatman gets his revenge. 

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