ZEIGLER - Few people knew his real name or what brought him to the west Franklin County community of Zeigler.

Surdell rests on his walking stick while tending his herd south of Zeigler.

But more than 40 years after his death, Goat Man is still a part of the local folklore of Franklin County.

The elusive Goat Man - a Hungarian native whose real name was George Surdell - was one of scores of immigrants who came to Southern Illinois looking for work in the coal mines.

We know he lived alone in a small cabin on the banks of the Big Muddy River. We know he spent much of his time tending a herd of goats. However, the circumstances surrounding his reclusive lifestyle remain mostly a mystery.

Ray Null of Herrin, who grew up in Zeigler, said he vividly remembers Goat Man and the mystery that shrouded his history.

The story that was told most often said Surdell came to Southern Illinois from Hungary to work in the coal mines.

"When war broke out in his native country, he went back to fight," Null said. "When he came back to work here, he was blackballed by all the coal companies because he didn't fight for this country. That's why he supposedly turned his back on society and moved out in the woods. There's no verification for this, but that's the story that I always remember being told about ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^him."

Allan Patton, a lifelong Zeigler resident, heard that Surdell lost his money in the stock market crash of 1929.

"He just dropped out of society," said Patton. "I imagine he lived out in those woods for 30 or 40 years."

Patton said Surdell's cabin was on a high spot on the banks of the river only a few hundred yards past the Zeigler city limits.

"There was also an old junkyard down there, Patton said. "He would scavenge through the junk daily, looking for any item that he thought he might use. He used a lot of things he found there to build the little shack where he lived.

Null talked with Surdell several times, he said, and once looked inside his cabin. He said it couldn't have been much larger than 10 feet by 10 feet, and that it had no electricity or water.

"It was just a lean-to that had a clay floor," Null said. "Right in the middle, he dug a hole and lined the outside with some old broken bricks from the junkyard. That's where he kept a fire for heat and to cook.

"He lived off what fish he could catch out of the river and what animals he could trap and eat," he said. "And he always had that little herd of goats that he got milk and cheese from.

"He was an imposing figure … because of his long beard and tattered clothes," he said. "He didn't bathe very often, so sometimes he smelled like a goat."

Surdell knew where the deepest spot in the river was, Null said, and would tie a rope around a glass jar of goat's milk and lower it into the deep spot of the river to keep it cool.

"He was self-supporting," Null said. "He made fishnet that he would take to town and trade for cigarettes or booze or groceries. I mean, when you think about it now, he basically had nothing -no income of any kind - and yet he managed to live day to day down on the river for years."

Patton said it was also not uncommon for motorists during the 1950s to see Surdell walking with his goats on Zeigler's south side.

"I can remember him standing out along the highway while those goats grazed," Patton said. "His skin was always very dark, and he had a real ruddy complexion. I always suspected it was from being outside so much and from cooking in that little lean-to.

"He was not mentally ill, but still people were leery about going around him," he said. "If you didn't know him, obviously you were concerned, because what kind of person would live that lifestyle. But that's just what he chose to do. And to my knowledge, I never heard of him hurting anybody."

The Goat Man died on April 18, 1961, and was buried in the paupers' cemetery at the Anna State Hospital.

Even the details surrounding his death are shrouded in mystery, Patton said, but it just adds to the legend.

"We always heard that his teeth got bad, and he tried to pull them himself with a pair of pliers," Patton said. "Supposedly, it became infected. … He stayed on the river until he became very, very ill."

The sheriff's department was notified, and The Goat Man was taken to Anna where he died.

Null, a retired police detective, and Patton, a retired educator, recently worked together to create a pictorial history of Zeigler -a three volume compilation of 100 years - that includes the story of The Goat Man of Zeigler.

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