Each time I travel by plane, I always bring a book to read with the expectation of starting and finishing in flight. Until recently, I had never enjoyed the books I’d tried to read while traveling, many of them are still sitting unfinished on the bookshelves in my apartment. Despite my best intentions, my reading was always interrupted by the glare of TV screens and smart phones, screaming children, conversations with strangers, and motion sickness, all of which I could count on to characterize my journey, long or short.
I had planned to drive down the East Coast of the United States to visit Savannah, Georgia from my home in Massachusetts, but breaking my driving-foot big toe weeks before departure caused a change of plans. After I’d admitted I was going to have to fly down, I decided I would read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. I’d seen the movie years ago, but couldn’t remember more than Kevin Spacey’s mustache and murder. I started reading while sitting in a wooden rocking chair in the airport terminal. I was hooked instantly, but wasn’t sure if it was just a consequence of my surroundings and anticipation of vacation.
When upon take-off the woman beside me assumed plane-crash position with her head hanging down between her knees and arms wrapped around her thighs, I knew I wouldn’t be interrupted by either conversation or her smart phone. After the ascent when she was still curled over in a fetal position I began to worry something was wrong, but I could see the slow rise and fall of her back with each breath, so I figured it was safe to return to reading.
The hours passed without my realizing it. The characters, the plot, the mystery and their foundation in reality craft the perfect tale, especially for a plane ride to the city where it takes place.
I spent a few days in Columbus, Georgia before driving to Savannah and nearly finished reading. For anyone going to Savannah, and even those who are not, I’d recommend reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
My last day in Savannah I wanted to take a tour of the city. I’d done so much walking in my giant plastic cast that I could find my way around without a map and felt like a local, but knew there was more history and culture than I could learn from reading the metal street-corner placards. After several tour groups were either booked or did not return my calls, I settled on a free walking tour that meets three times daily in Johnson Square (http://freesavannahtours.com/). My Australian-born tour guide wearing sandals and a pony-tail led our group along a 90 minute walking tour through the center of the city. He told tales of history, explained the meaning of monuments, and peppered the walk with much humor. Toward the end of the tour though as we approached Mercer House he said he was going to tell us a tale with the explicit purpose of making our hair raise and stomachs queasy. I figured he wouldn’t tell me anything I hadn’t already read in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
If you haven’t read the book, one of the central plots is around a murder that takes place within Mercer House. The accused, Jim Williams, a prominent member of Savannah society known for his extravagant and exclusive Christmas parties, shot Danny Hansford, a 21 year old known for drug abuse, reckless driving, and sleeping around with both men and women. While the truth of the murder was probably buried with Jim Williams, one key piece of information left out of Midnight is that Hansford was shot a total of nine times by Williams. Another interesting piece of the story my Australian tour guide shared was that on the night Williams died years after the murder, he returned home to find Minerva, the thickly-accented voodoo worker who helped him throughout the three trials, exiting his house. According to neighbors, Williams spent hours pacing around and sitting on benches in Monterey Square, just across from Mercer House, afraid to enter. He finally entered and the next morning he was found dead, purportedly in the same spot where Danny Hansford’s body had been years before. Whether this story is true or just another piece of Savannah legend is up for contention.
The story of Jim Williams and Danny Hansford though was not the one that was meant to raise hair and send stomachs turning.
Mercer House, like so many in Savannah, is surrounded by a black iron fence. The ornate, dagger-like, pointed tips of the posts add to the eerie uneasiness that pervades the property. On the West Gordon side of the house, in a row of rounded tips, one spear-head remains broken. Perhaps the only reason it has not been fixed is to make this unlikely story all the more real.
According to my tour guide, before Jim Williams lived in Mercer House, it was owned by the Shriners. One day, two boys were playing on the roof when one stopped short, turned wide-eyed and pale, and moved backward as if propelled by an invisible force. He was backed right off of the over-hanging roof, his skull impaled below on the blunt tip of the iron fence. If the story and still-broken spike aren’t disturbing enough, stand on the sidewalk beneath Mercer House and look up. You will see that the rooftop over-hangs several feet, making it nearly impossible to fall anywhere except the sidewalk, not four feet inward toward the house and the fence. The surviving boy is now a taxi driver in Savannah who refuses to drive by Mercer House, or so the story goes.
Savannah is thought to be the most haunted city in the United States– topping even Salem, Massachusetts. One will find numerous opportunities for ghost tours from riding in a hearse to midnight walking tours. It’s hard not to wonder whether these stories are just folklore meant to unsettle tourists or a secret dark-side to a city so abundant with southern hospitality.