The Ghosts of Savannah

Author: Alecia Pirulis

Bonaventure Cemetery Entrance -- Savannah (GA)...

Bonaventure Cemetery Entrance — Savannah (GA) 2012 (Photo credit: Ron Cogswell)

Thick, sturdy oaks stand sentry along a quiet dirt road, their limbs intersecting in a wide arch overhead as they form a twisted canopy of moss and wood. Azaleas cascade along the pathway, a tumble of cheery pink flowers that charm visitors and urge them to venture farther down the path. The unsuspecting who accept the invitation find themselves standing before a black, wrought-iron gate. Beyond the gate, an elegantly macabre sight unfolds … hundreds of granite headstones, eerily beautiful statues, and ivy-covered mausoleums.

Soon, the visitor finds himself trapped between the gothic metal bars of the gate and the wide, quiet river running along the opposite end. All around him are the tombs of hundreds … and the wind off the river carries the distant echoes of long-gone laughter. First lured, now trapped, the visitor searches for a way out as the lifelike statues that surround him appear to be smirking at him, silently waiting for dusk to fall …Welcome to the “City of the Dead.”

The Bonaventure Cemetery has become an iconic symbol of Savannah, Georgia. But long before it was highlighted in the novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Bonaventure held a certain fascination for residents and visitors alike. Bonaventure’s story begins in 1771, when two men decided to build a family plantation on 600 acres of their property. John Mullryne chose to name his plantation home Bonaventure – French for “good fortune.” He set aside part of the grounds as a family burial plot, and the first person buried in the Bonaventure Cemetery was Harriet Fenwick Tattnall in 1802.

Soon, however, “good fortune” turned sour. Mullryne and his son-in-law, Josiah Tattnall, chose the wrong side during the American Revolution. After declaring their loyalties to King George III, they were banished from Georgia and the state seized their property.

During the Revolutionary War’s Siege of Savannah, the French used Bonaventure as their landing and camp site. The American-French siege failed, and after the battle it is believed the French buried some of the dead soldiers on the property. As the bloodiest battle of the war, it is estimated that the Franco-American losses were somewhere around 1,200.

Bonaventure Cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is just one of the locations in Savannah that are reportedly haunted. This is, after all, one of the most haunted cities in America. Savannah has a history that includes pirates, bloody battles, fires, disease, and hurricanes (nearly 2,000 people died in the 1893 Sea Islands hurricane, the fourth deadliest hurricane in US history).

The Sorrel Weed House was one of the first houses in the state to become a National Historic Landmark. It is a beautiful museum filled with amazing antiques, and it is one of the best examples of antebellum architecture in the nation. It is said to be haunted by either a slave or Francis Sorrel’s wife, who jumped off the second-floor porch, killing herself. The house even caught the attention of the Ghost Hunters television show, and the investigation aired in 2005 as the Halloween episode.

The Pirates’ House was built in 1753 and is one of the oldest buildings in the state. It currently serves as a restaurant and is a popular tourist attraction. It began as an herb house and later became an inn and tavern. It attracted some seedy travelers, including pirates. Supposedly, pirates would haul drunken sailors through the tunnels and out to their awaiting ships, making them unwilling members of their crew.

The Marshall House was built in 1851 and was used as a hospital for Civil War Soldiers. Civil War relics – and even human remains – have turned up during renovations. It was also used as a hospital during yellow fever outbreaks. Some hotel guests report objects moving on their own and some have even spotted apparitions.

Of course, no visit to Savannah is complete without a visit to the Mercer-Williams House. Made famous by the novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the house’s history has a dark side. Jim Williams, a man responsible for saving and restoring about 50 historic buildings in Savannah, was tried four times – and eventually acquitted — for the murder of his assistant, Danny Lewis Hansford, who was shot and killed in the house in 1981. Jim Williams was famous for his lavish parties, and some claim they’re still going on.

Savannah’s Historic District is a National Historic Landmark – one of the largest in the country. With the original layout of the city remarkably preserved (22 of the original 24 squares remain), a stroll through Savannah is like stepping back in time. And if you decide to stay in a historic bed and breakfast, tour a historic home, walk beneath the oak trees on the winding, narrow road leading to Wormsloe Plantation, or marvel at the beauty of Bonaventure Cemetery, you just may hear the long-gone voices of those who refuse to leave their city behind.