A hearse ghost tour could only be pulled off in one city in America, maybe the world, Savannah. No place else has the hutzpah or the ghosts.
I was sitting on my balcony on Oglethorpe Square at dusk, watching the tourists stroll by with ice cream cones in hand from Leopold’s Ice Cream around the corner. The scent of jasmine wafted on the summer breeze as the sky began darkening to a deep blue. I was admiring the drape of moss over the southern live oak branches that bowed low over the square when something caught my attention.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a vehicle my mind couldn’t comprehend. At first, I thought, “station wagon,” but those are rare now, and there was something else that didn’t add up. Where the roof should be, eight people were sitting with this torso over the roofline and a roof over their heads. The vehicle was black, and on the side in red letters, I saw the words, “hearse ghost tours.”
As they passed, the group laughed at something the driver had said, raised their plastic cups in salute, and took a sip. What in the world? Only in Savannah would you see such a thing, I thought. Of course, I immediately grabbed my phone and booked a hearse ghost tour for the following night.
I’M IN A HEARSE, NOT A “HERCE”
The word hearse itself is strange. Merriam-Webster says medieval French used the word “herce” for a farm tool to break up and smooth soil, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves there. A herce was also a triangular frame for holding candles. It might be raised over the coffin to bestow honor. Modern English evolved into a “hearse” being a platform for a corpse or coffin into a vehicle to carry the dead. Which is what I currently find myself inside. Except I wasn’t dead and not planning on it anytime soon.
Hearse Ghost Tours in Savannah offers a 75-minute tour of downtown Savannah’s haunted places and spaces. The hearses hold up to eight people and cost about $25 per person to participate in the “viewing.” It’s a novel idea and a lot more economical than a trip to your final resting place, I can assure you.
I was the first person the hearse picked up, so I was in there alone, which wasn’t a reassuring proposition, but it gave me a choice of seats.
“Which is best?” I asked the driver/tour guide.
“You won’t be there for all eternity, so it realllly doesn’t matter,” she said. As I headed for one of the front seats she added, “But people who sit in the front have complained about feelin’ someone grabbin’ their ankles.”
I shifted to the back seat and prepared to have my funny bone tickled instead.
ADDING MORE BODIES TO THE HEARSE
As we drove across town to collect our other guests, the guide told me all the companies’ hearses were once owned by funeral homes and used to transport bodies, though I’d assumed as much. What else would a hearse ever be for?
Hearses were originally hand-drawn carts, then horse-drawn wagons. They began as basic modes of transportation to hold bodies, then became more elaborate for the wealthy, eventually trickling down to the masses who wanted to honor their deceased as well. The motorized hearses we know today didn’t become widely accepted until the 1920s.
Fun fact: A First Call vehicle, not a hearse, picks up the bodies of a recently deceased person for morgue or funeral home transport. In the U.S., it’s usually an unmarked white van if they know the person is dead. An ambulance may transport the body if death isn’t apparent during the call.
I was the only passenger for a few blocks, and I waved at onlookers who pointed and laughed as we drove by. This is the only time I’m comfortable with people doing that at my expense. Part of the fun of the hearse is the onlookers. Seeing a hearse filled with people is such a rare sight people can’t help but point and stare. It was like being queen in a bizarre parade of one. They say everyone gets their fifteen minutes of fame and I think spent five of mine on that hearse ghost tour.
THE GHOST HUNT
We picked up four women from Tennessee celebrating a birthday – Savannah is the most popular girl’s weekend place you’ll ever see – and our “viewing” official began. Being Savannah, nothing starts until you have a drink in your hand, so our next stop was a bar.
We got our “go cups” filled at McDonough’s Restaurant & Lounge on Chippewa Square across from the Savannah Theatre. It’s a little Irish dive bar filled with locals and character. We took our beverages and piled back in our death mobile for a night haunting the town.
Nearly every corner in Savannah has a ghost story. These buildings pre-date the Civil War and even Revolutionary War, and many doubled as hospitals. Even if they weren’t, back then, without medical advancements, modern technology, and equal and civil rights we have today, life was short and often tragic. That’s a recipe for ghosts. Here are a few of the places we slowly crept past.
These are stories our guide told on the tour. Take them with a grain of salt, as I've learned tour guides each tend to have their own versions of stories.
Many consider it the most haunted house in the country. “Ghost Hunters,” HGTV’s “If Walls Could Talk,” “Ghost Adventures,” and the Travel Channel’s “The Most Terrifying Places in America,” among others, have investigated, and all have found paranormal activity of some sort.
Two of the most prominent stories involve Sorrel’s wife Matilda, who committed suicide by jumping from the third-story balcony, and his enslaved “mistress” Molly, who killed herself, or was murdered when hung from her carriage house bedroom. It gives you chills just to sit outside at night.
If you’re incredibly brave, they offer a midnight “lock-in” where you can do some ghost hunting yourself.
THE HAMILTON-TURNER INN
We stopped by the Hamilton-Turner Inn, which has several scary tales. Just looking at it, while lovely in the daytime, at night, it seems like it was made to be the set of a horror movie. Many say it was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion.
The ghosts include a cigar-smoking man on the rooftop where a guard was murdered and a little girl who fell to her death down the basement stairs, among others. Several guests have reported ghosts getting into bed with them and unexplainable sounds at night. The good news is anyone can stay there and find out! Most guests report only a lovely time.
OLD CHATHAM COUNTY JAIL
The Old Chatham County Jail was built in 1887 and was destroyed by fire in 1898. Many gruesome things happened and many died in the building when laws and regulations were not what they are now. I’ll leave it at that. Still, they rebuilt it and used it until 1978. It sat empty for some seriously haunted years before being donated to SCAD, who renamed it Habersham Hall. In 2015 the Savannah Ghost Research Society reported more than 50 incidents of ghostly activity during their stay. Not a dorm I’d be interested in living. Have fun, SCAD students.
THE PIRATES HOUSE
The 250-year-old Pirates House is the city’s most well-known haunt. There, pirates brutally shanghaied men in its underground tunnels and forced them to serve on boats. People say they’ve seen a lady in white at the top of the staircase and other ghosts drop bottles, play tricks on staff and loom over visitors. It sounds like a fun place to get dinner! I’ve eaten there and survived, so you probably will too. The food was good and nobody tried to nab my teenage daughter or me and I'd have happily given her away. Just kidding!
17HUNDRED90 INN AND RESTAURANT
Midway through the hearse ghost tour, we stopped at the inn. There are a few ghosts here, but Anna is the haint that’s made herself known. It’s said that she was a bride of an arranged marriage. Her angry husband probably pushed her from her window to her death. He was angry after watching her weep at the window as the sailor she loved to set sail down the Savannah River. Ah, young love.
Now, guests staying in her former room say their things are mysteriously moved, they are nudged when nobody is around, and their bedcovers a pulled by ghostly hands. The food in the restaurant is exceptional, so maybe a little haunting is worth it.
THE OLDE PINK HOUSE
The spirits of the once enslaved children are believed to haunt the basement. It’s said they knock down cutlery and lock the bathroom doors. The children also play pranks on patrons who use the basement bathroom, locking the stalls and bathroom doors with guests still inside. Ghostly hands knock bottles of alcohol out of the staff’s hands and their holders.
THE CANDLER OAK TREE
The massive tree across from Forsyth Park is distinct for a few reasons. It’s been alive since the 1700s and has a spread covering over 100 feet. People stopped to stare at its magnificence, and we pulled up to do the same, but for a different reason. Our guide said it’s also known as “a hanging tree.” It wouldn’t be hard to believe since it’s across from a public square, but I couldn’t find any history to support it. We should always be leery of what tour guides and bloggers tell us. Still, it’s a great, historic tree in a city filled with great trees. If only trees could talk.
THE MERCER-WILLIAMS HOUSE
The book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” was based on the true-crime story that took place inside this house. Antique dealer Jim Williams shot and killed his workman/lover of Danny Hansford in the front office of the home. Williams was later tried for murder three or four times and eventually found not guilty. Williams later died in the front parlor of the house. It’s not hard to think either one or both men still hang about.
EXITING THE HEARSE BUT STILL ALIVE
The guide dropped us back off, where she picked us up, and I continued my night with a stroll through the neighborhood. It wasn’t the scariest night I’ve ever spent, but it was a lot of fun. In what other city can you ride around in hearse hearing ghost stories? What other city so diligently collects its ghost stories? The only one that comes close is New Orleans, and I think Savannah may have them beat.
If you’re visiting Savannah, a hearse ghost tour is a fun, unique way to ensure you won’t be bored stiff. Would you do this?