Charles McCartney – Encyclopedia of New Georgia
A traveling preacher, Charles “Ches” McCartney was an important folk and religious figure in Georgia for more than four decades, and a likely influence on the works of writer Flannery O’Connor. He traveled across the United States driving an iron-wheeled caravan of twelve to thirty goats and was known as the “Goat Man”.
McCartney was born July 6, 1901 in Sigourney, Iowa. He married three times, once to a Spanish knife thrower ten years his senior, and he had a son, Albert Gene, and possibly two to four others.
In 1935, McCartney was injured while working for the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program, and experienced a religious revival. He then hitched his team of goats to a wagon and set off with his first wife and son. His wife made goatskin clothes for him and his son to wear as a gadget on their travels, but she quickly grew tired of the journey and returned to Iowa, taking their son with her. Later in life, McCartney claimed to have visited all of the lower forty-eight states as well as Alaska and Canada. His fascination with wandering was fueled by reading Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe (1719) and the Bible.
Eventually settling in Jeffersonville, Twiggs County, he founded the Free Thinking Christian Mission. It is not known why he moved to Georgia. From the mission, he traveled in his goat-drawn wagon to preach his message of imminent and eternal damnation for sinners. His path through the countryside was easily traceable thanks to the distinctive wooden signs he placed on the trees by the roadside, signs bearing such harsh messages as “Prepare to meet your God” with the lights of the painted below.
McCartney camped in many small towns in Georgia and was the object of both interest and fear. As his fame grew, he dressed in goatskins and sold postcards of himself and his family. He lived on goat’s milk and rarely bathed. News of his fiery sermons caught the attention of writer Flannery O’Connor, who lived in Milledgeville. She mentions him in her letters and she sees in him the Protestant expression of her Catholic religious passion. Although she resisted revealing the sources of her characters, the goatman’s notoriety and her remarks about him, as well as her comments about prophetic characters like Mason Tarwater in her novel The Violent Bear It Away (1960), suggest that he had an influence on his writing.
At times, McCartney was attacked and assaulted during his cross-country travels. In one such attack in 1969, three young men assaulted him as he slept in his cart. He had three broken ribs and two of his favorite goats were killed. Following this incident, McCartney retired to his Jeffersonville mission and sold his remaining goats. In 1978 his house burned down, after which he bought and lived on a bus.
In 1985, on one of his last trips away from Georgia, McCartney set off on foot for California, hoping to meet actress Morgan Fairchild, whom he wanted to marry. En route to California, he was again assaulted and hospitalized for his injuries. After returning to Georgia, he left the road for good in 1987. He spent his last years as a local celebrity in a retirement home in Macon, where he died at the age of ninety-seven on 15 November 1998.