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Midnight In Savannah: Is It Really The Most 'Haunted' City In the United States?

By Michael H. Brown

We visited Savannah, Georgia, last week, and although we didn't plan it that way, it turned out to be an adventure in the supernatural.

We can start out with the night we arrived, which was the 13th and of course a Friday. Clouds scudded swiftly past a moon that was blazingly full. As in a movie, the entire sky was in motion.

If that didn't set the stage, what we heard from virtually everyone who lived there did. For in Savannah, it seems, there are ghosts -- or some kind of spiritual influence -- everywhere. There are the mysterious sounds and the smell of a non-existent cigar at the local Harley-Davidson shop on River. There are the noises at a seafood restaurant just up the street. There is the CD player that won't stop playing at an antique shop not a block away. At another antique shop, the clerk says she has left in a hurry (you hear this often, that folks have the feeling they must leave a building immediately) due to the feeling of a presence in a back corner. At a restaurant called Moon River is a strange noise that issues from a room in the back (along with moving silverware), and at another restaurant that is said to be haunted by a pirate is the distinct feeling of watching eyes on a back stairwell (the accounts of ghostly happenings here at the "Pirate's House" are too numerous to summarize).

And so on:

Everyone in Savannah claims to have stories of hauntings -- at times they are featured on the city's very own official website -- and while we always have to approach such accounts with skepticism, the sheer number of assertions from sober individuals who normally would not be expected to believe in such things takes it to a level of special consideration.

It is said that the old Cotton Exchange is haunted. So is the Pink House Restaurant. So is the Davenport House. So is a famous home next to St. John's Cathedral. So is the Telfair Hospital. So (of course) is the Laurel Grove Cemetery.

In Savannah it is sometimes difficult to find a place that isn't haunted, which of course raises a credibility issue, at least at first take.

The Church teaches a number of things relevant to this: that there is purgatory, where souls not quite ready for Heaven go, and that we are never to initiate contact with the deceased. Through the centuries, any number of mystics and saints, most prominently St. Padre Pio, claimed to experience visitations from souls who were "caught" or doing their purgatory on earth. That this happens is also alleged by those who have near-death experiences. In Rome is a museum (right) with relics, including a handprint burnt into a book, that allegedly came as signs from those who had not yet made their way to Heaven (and were begging for prayers).

In other cases, it could be manifestations from evil spirits. We are thus cautioned to recognize when supernatural events occur but never to have an obsessive interest in them.

Is it true? Are there really unsettled souls? And are they especially numerous in a city like Savannah? Is there something behind the claims about this genteel Southern town that calls itself "the most haunted city in America"?

While many cities now have "ghost tours" -- which we consider to be spiritually unhealthy (unless one is praying for the departed) -- Savannah doesn't even need to have a guide show you. It's a part of the very urban fabric. There is the specter in Paradise Park. There are the strange orbs of light that appear in photographs in the various mansions (some with discernible facial characteristics). There is even the fleeting apparition that haunted a Super 8 Motel.

Assuming the countless stories about things that go bump in the night are true, one has to start out by asking why one city should lay claim to so many stories, and whether the disturbances are from souls of the departed or a deception of evil. Or both.

On the surface, such stories are a simple product of Savannah's age (it was founded in 1733), but it may be more than that. In fact, historical factors converge in what some might call a "perfect" spiritual "storm."

First off, before the city was founded, there were Indians. They were known as the Creek and Choctaw, and Savannah is built at least in part on their burial grounds.

Such grounds, because they were the subject of ritual, are believed to be especially prone to spiritual disturbances (as was alleged in the famous Amityville case). Is there merit in such? Recall, if you will, the men who came out of the tombs possessed by demons -- that Jesus then dispersed easily.

Add to this pirates. Outlaws of the sea found refuge in the coves in or around Savannah and Captain Flint (of "Treasure Island" fame) is said to have drunkenly died at the Pirate House. Strange sounds and goings-on prevent employees of the restaurant from going upstairs after dark. They swear to the happenings.

Duels were fought in Savannah, and so was one of the most vicious battles of the Revolutionary War. So tack that on. When the city was built, some believe it was according to designs rooted in freemasonry or the biblical design of Solomon's Temple. By one measurement, using cubits, the original city was a square of a hundred on each side. (Such geometric forms can be important to occult lore; a magical square can be used to trace a talisman.) Others say it was simply fashioned after Roman military encampments.

Whatever the case, the slave trade was intense in Savannah, and many Africans died excruciating, pitiful death in the mills or in other fashions. Their moans can still be heard, to accept as fact what many claim, and if the spirits of the deceased are not enough, some of the slaves brought voodoo practices with them, creating what remains to this day as an undercurrent of such magic in the populace of this moss-draped city that is both sublime and seductive.

If that is not enough, there is also the fact that as Savannah expanded, it now rested not only on old Indian remains (it is said by some that Indians cursed anyone who would disturb their graves) but now also on cemeteries built by European settlers. It is a city built on the dead. And at times, Savannah needed mass graves. Such was the case in 1820, when 464 buildings were destroyed by fire and 666 people died from an outbreak of yellow fever (in a two-week period).

Savannah is most famous, in current times, for a huge bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which Clint Eastwood later made into a movie. The book was the non-fiction account of an antique dealer named James Williams who was arrested for the slaying of a young man in his home, known as the Mercer House.

Before moving into the Mercer House -- where he held a famous Christmas party each year -- Williams had worked restoring what was called the Hampton Lillibridge House -- another Savannah home so "haunted" (allegedly) that an Episcopalian bishop attempted to exorcise it. Restoration went slowly due to "strange occurrences."

Had something followed Williams? Or did he have his own involvements? As the movie emphasizes, Williams consulted a voodoo practitioner, especially during the legal turmoil.

Don't get me wrong: there is goodness in Savannah, there is beauty, there is history, there is much beyond "ghosts," there are friendly, wonderful people, but there is also an underside, an estheticism, that is sublime, seductive, and evil. Beware of what fascinates! 

At the same time, neglect not the dead. Whether or not they are "haunting" anywhere, we know that purgatorial souls exist and that not enough people pray for them. I believe they are allowed to manifest on occasion to remind us. Is there darkness here? There is darkness here. Best not to dwell on it. During our visit, the place we spent the most time was in the splendid downtown cathedral, St. John the Baptist. We recommend this as the focus for anyone who visits. When we hear of ghostly accounts, or run into them ourselves, it is time to pray for any souls who may need prayers and especially to have Mass said for those we know who are gone (and perhaps a collective Mass for everyone who has died in our own cities). The use of Holy Water and blessed salt can be important if there are manifestations in our own homes. We need this at a time, as our daily links show, that spiritual activity is intense around us.

As for Savannah, I have the same concern for it that I have had for cities like New Orleans, where there was also voodoo and a strong spiritual undercurrent. Pray for this good city.

As for Williams, he was acquitted after four trials -- only to be found dead himself, later on, in the same room as the murder. The circumstances seemed to capture the entire strangeness of Savannah.

And as for the Mercer House: it is said that visitors have observed lights and festivities in the elegant mansion on the very night of the year as Williams' most opulent annual party -- yet there had been no party. No one was there.

[see also: Blessed salt ]


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