Savannah, GA

Six Sites from a Famous Savannah Story

Rene Cizio

Before the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” few people went to Savannah, Georgia. After, everybody went.

In 1993, the year before John Berendt published the book, about five million people visited Savannah. In 1995, that number increased by 50%, and by 2022 they received about 14.8 million visitors yearly. Much of it, like me, is still from the book or the subsequent movie. Even those that have never read “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” or watched the movie probably know about Savannah because of them.

Since I spent five weeks in Savannah, I decided to find out what all the hoodoo was about. There are five places and one statue in the book and movie that you can still go to or see today, so I did. Have you read the book or seen the movie?

MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL

The story is creative non-fiction (he changed names and altered the timeline of events) true crime event that happened in Savannah just before or as the author was visiting. He stayed for some time, met a cast of colorful Savannah characters (including a voodoo priestess, a con artist, a prostitute and a drag queen, to name just a few), and created a lively narrative of the city, its people, and the scandalous murder trial. His book details the trial of antique dealer Jim Williams for the shooting death of Danny Hansford. It follows the story from the pre-death of Danny to the post-death of Jim with several ironic and intriguing twists. It enthralled millions, including me. I’ve read the book and watched the movie multiple times and it never gets dull.

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Fun fact: The book and movie title refers to something voodoo priestess Minerva says about good and evil magic and why they must go to the cemetery at midnight.

“The half hour before midnight is for doin’ good. The half hour after midnight is for doin’ evil.”
Minerva

Here are the places I visited and things I saw related to the books you can see. But even if you’ve never read the book or watched the movie, you’ll still like to visit these places.

JONES STREET

They say it’s the prettiest street in Savannah, so it makes sense that it’s where the book’s fictional reporter John Kelso stayed too. If you can’t live in one of the big mansions on a famous Savannah square, Jones Street may be the next best thing. It’s just blocks from the famed Forsyth Park and Monterey Square – the scene of the murder.

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Kelso stayed in a carriage house on Jones Street and you’ll see there are several of them still in active use as apartments or rentals today. In the book and movie, Mandy Nichols knocked on his door late one night to borrow ice and invited him to a party down the street. That party is where he met Joe Odom. Joe is an ex-lawyer-man and piano bar performer. He is one of many of the strange and intriguing cast of characters that intersects with Kelso while he’s in Savannah.

I would have loved to have stayed on Jones Street myself. Alas, the increase in tourism brought a rise in rents and I had to settle for a lovely little carriage house on the outskirts of downtown.

FORSYTH PARK

Modeled after the Place de la Concorde in Paris, this fountain is the centerpiece of the 30-acre park and Savannah’s most recognizable icon. It was installed in 1858 and the area around it is always bustling with activity. In the park, there are events, activities and endless streams of people strolling by to enjoy the slightly cooler breezes under the giant southern live oaks draped in Spanish moss.

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Many scenes in the book and movie take place in the backdrop of Forsyth Park. Kelso comes across a man walking an “invisible dog” on a leash, and Williams tells him the man is paid via a will by his former employer as long as his favorite dog gets walked daily. He didn’t stipulate that the dog needed to be alive.

For me, Forsyth Park was just a place I cut through to get somewhere else because it was a beautiful path to take. Some days I walked its perimeter, admiring the historic Victorian houses that border it, stopping for coffee one the cafes inside or along the edges or sitting on a bench to people watch. There are still a lot of characters in Savannah, so it’s always a worthwhile pursuit.

CLARY’S CAFE

At the corner of Jones and Abercorn streets, this old neighborhood southern-style diner is the nostalgic kind of place you rarely find anymore. Stepping inside is like going back in time. Clary’s Café was a drugstore built in 1903 but has been a diner for many years, gauging by the 1950s décor.

Inside, there’s a grill with a window for the short-order cooks to push plates of southern food to waitresses. There are tables and a counter with stools. Kelso, staying just down the block, frequently stops at Clary’s for breakfast. He describes it as a place for locals to come and spread the day’s gossip.

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It’s here that Luther Driggers sits with flies strung on his lapel. Kelso stares at him in awe. The staff says he isn’t eating and they’re worried he might poison the water system. He never does, but it’s a fun storyline to follow.

I sidled up to the counter myself more than one morning. The waitresses always called me “hon” and “sweetie” and brought my biscuits and coffee as quickly as I could order them. My only regret is not ordering one of the homemade desserts in the pie refrigerator.

Find it at 404 Abercorn Street.

MERCER-WILLIAMS HOUSE

A few blocks away on Monterey Square stands the Mercer-Williams House, aka the scene of the crime.

In the 1970s, many of the glorious old mansions in Savannah had become delipidated and Jim Williams was one of many who worked tirelessly to restore them. He did so with the Mercer House and moved into it. There, he ran a lucrative antique business out of the carriage house. He employed Danny Hansford, a local young man, to help him with restoration work. Hansford was also said to be a part-time prostitute and both men were bisexual or gay.

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The truth is murky, but apparently, one night, there was a quarrel and Williams said Hansford attempted to shoot him while he sat at his desk in the front office of the house. Luckily, the trigger on the gun jammed, giving Williams time to grab another gun and shoot and kill Hansford. Williams was tried for first-degree murder. He said it was self-defense. After multiple trials, he was acquitted.

Ironically, not long after, Williams died of a heart attack in nearly the exact spot where he might have if he had been shot by Hansford that day. In the end, they both died at the front of the house, one in the office and the other in the hall.

Despite the passage of time, house tours commence every half hour and still sell out regularly. Unfortunately, they don’t allow interior photos, so I have none to show. However, they used the interior of the home to film the movie and it still looks exactly the same.

Find it at 429 Bull Street.

BONAVENTURE CEMETERY

This glorious old southern cemetery features prominently for two reasons.

1: It’s depicted on the book’s cover

2: There is a scene in the book and movie that takes place in the cemetery

In the story, Kelso and voodoo priestess Minerva, who is helping Williams conduct voodoo to win his court case, go to Bonaventure Cemetery at night by boat. They do this because the cemetery closes at dusk, but you can still reach it by water. Here, Minerva routinely performed voodoo over Hansford’s grave to vindicate Williams.

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Today, the cemetery is a popular place. Groups walk amid the southern camellia, jasmine, and crepe myrtle that bloom in their season amid a drapery of Spanish moss and live oak trees. The place borders a river down a lonely stretch of road on the far side. As a taphophile, I often visit old cemeteries and I’m usually the only person around. Not so at Bonaventure. In this cemetery, guides offer tours of the old graves and magnificent statuary.

Sadly, the one statue that everyone wants to see is no longer there.

Find the cemetery at 330 Bonaventure Rd, Thunderbolt, GA.

THE BIRD GIRL STATUE

The cover of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” is one of the most iconic and recognizable covers of its time. Bird Girl is a sculpture made in 1936 by Sylvia Shaw Judson and Jack Leigh took the book’s iconic cover photograph in Bonaventure Cemetery.

After the book’s success and the movie, directed by Clint Eastwood in 1997 and starring Kevin Spacey and John Cusack, so many people went to the cemetery to see the statue that they virtually trampled the grave. They also chipped away stone from the base she rests upon. It’s a shame because it sure would have been cool to see her where she belongs.

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Still, I found her at the Telfair Museum, where she’s been for the last 25 years. She occupies a room upstairs in the far corner of the house. They designed the wallpaper to look like her old stomping grounds, but she isn’t fooled. Instead of the scent of warm jasmine and wild wisteria in a magical garden of delights, she has controlled air, buffed floors, and fluorescent lights. For all this, she looks supremely bored.

Find it at 207 W. York Street.

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