What You Didn’t Learn about Mercer House in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil



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.

DSCN0337I 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.

DSCN0306 (2)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.

DSCN0380Mercer 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.


17 thoughts on “What You Didn’t Learn about Mercer House in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

  1. Jim Mathews

    I lived on Gaston Street when I worked as the sports information director at SCAD. I had heard the story of the young boy too. And you are right, ghost stories in Savannah and the Spanish moss make it a ghost hunter’s dreams come true. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Rose Jennings

    We just did a ghost tour last night. The tour guide mentioned the little boy but he also mentioned that not only was the death was strange but how also how they found the little boy folded in half in between the house and drainage .

  3. Sedeana woody

    Thank you for the extra knowledge and insight into the stories of Savannah. We were down this summer for a week and walked the streets on just about every tour, and we actually had our on experience with a sprit on the way to our first ghost tour….it was awesome.

  4. Angela Hartley

    You stated the boy was now a taxi driver refusing to drive by the home and other reports state he died. It shows two spikes gone, not one. I have been trying to find out the boys name but no luck so far.

    1. Carmela Caruso Post author

      Hi Angela,
      Sorry for the confusion in my writing. According to the tour guide who told me the story, there were two boys playing on the roof one day and one fell off and was killed in the fall. The other boy, who did not fall, is the one who is still a taxi driver today, so the story goes. In the photo that I took (that appears in this article) I only see the missing tip of the sixth-from-the-left spike. Tommy Downs might be the name you’re looking for.
      Thanks for reading and commenting,

  5. Lyndsey Bailey

    Yes I have seen this little boy!! I was pregnant with my first child doing a tour with my family. I know alot of paranormal activity is captured in camera so I was snapping pics (with my phone) left and right. Later when I reviewed my pics from the trip, I found a pic of the mercer-williams house and saw (very clearly) this little boy in the window looking directly at me! When I showed all my friends from the trip, they too could see him clear as day. Very cool and creepy!

  6. Phoebe Weston

    Thank you for all the info!! I was just at the house yesterday!! I was walking around it (on the outside of the fence) and it felt kinda creepy !! around the back side…. such a beautiful home!11 Thank you again for sharing=)

  7. Grace Reyed

    I recently went to Savannah and the Thirteen Ghosts tour that I took had the Mercer Williams House as it’s first stop. I knew about Jim Williams and Danny Hansford because of The Book. I reread it before my trip. Our guide told us the story of Tommy Downs and of course, the Jim and Danny’s one. But she also told us about a married couple that lived in the house before Jim Williams did who died in strange circumstances. I haven’t been able to find that story anywhere! I snapped pictures of the windows, the fence where Tommy fell on, and the roof the way our guide told us but the ghosts had the day off, I guess. There were some reflections in the windows but there were just the trees that line the sidewalk. I hope to be luckier next time I visit.

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