If you read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which, from 1994, almost seems like a classic nowadays, you may see it as a sort of off-the-beaten-path travelogue about Savannah, an underdog of the South, for the beginning of the book. For what seems like the first half of the book, John Berendt simply describes the peculiar characters he meets, such as Lady Chablis, a transgendered drag queen. However, as the handsome descriptions and drama get going and readers meet Jim Williams, a respected antique dealer, and Danny Hansford, a good-for-nothing gigolo, it becomes clear what evils are really underfoot.
If you have any intention of reading the book or you don’t know the story, don’t let me spoil it for you and DO NOT read the next paragraph.
Townspeople always wondered why calm, collect Jim Williams kept Danny Hansford around, who was always getting in bar fights and generally causing mayhem, but it seemed like he was just doing the kid a favor. That is, until Danny and Jim got in a fight in the front parlor of Williams’ home, known as the Mercer House, located near the Victorian District and Forsyth Park in the Historic Center. Williams alleged that he shot Hansford in self-defense in that front parlor, although the evidence showed otherwise, which led to four mistrials which eventually led to Williams acquittal. Throughout the mess of the four trials, Williams was a visitor to a voodoo witch in Bonaventure Cemetery, located outside of Savannah, which is where the front cover photo of the book is from (The Bird Girl, now located in the Telfair Museum). Following his acquittal, Williams passed away very suddenly of a heart attack in his front parlor sitting room. In the exact same spot where Hansford fell years before.
In Savannah, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is often referred to as The Book, since much tourism has been garnished simply from Berendt’s novel, even though this is not the only media production to be taken from this Southern city. However, being a nerd (and not really into Forrest Gump) visiting Savannah, and most specifically, the Mercer House (also known as the Murder House) brings a whole new life to an already beautifully composed crime novel.
As I strolled throughout the happy city surrounded by families clutching maps and ice creams and the hands of children, I never forgot how Berendt had strolled those same streets. I saw the magnificent Victorians that Williams restored, which almost appeared as his old children to me. I thought about the affluent couples that walked those blocks to Williams’ famous Christmas parties, which brought Berendt to Savannah in the first place. I thought about Hansford stumbling home in drunken stupors, broken beer bottles in hand, off to possibly be Williams’ lover, which he was alleged to be. And, most importantly, I thought of Jim Williams when I stood in his front parlor sitting room, in the very spot where he possibly killed Hansford and, in the process, lost his own life years later.
Travel work doesn’t have to be all about where the best beaches are or where you can score the cheapest hotels on this side of the Atlantic. Instead, travel work should do what Berendt did– bring a little-known world to life to readers. Whether or not Williams was really the alleged killer does not take away the fact that Berendt brought a city to life before there were tour buses. This is what you should look for when traveling: Stories about people, about life, about extraordinary events in ordinary places.