Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil: A Destination Creation

If you read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evilwhich, 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.

The Bird Girl

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.

Springtime in Savannah, Georgia

Movin’ To The Country

“If you go to Atlanta, the first question people ask you is, ‘What’s your business?’ In Macon they ask, ‘Where do you go to church?’ In Augusta they ask your grandmother’s maiden name. But in Savannah the first question people ask you is ‘What would you like to drink?’” – John Berendt, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994).

And so, this is Savannah, Georgia for you. I would call myself a fairly seasoned traveler, I think– I have made my way around most of Europe, the United States, and ventured a little bit beyond. However, as much as I see, one part of the world that always baffles me a little is the outdoors lovin’, drawl speakin’, slow talkin’ South.

So, when my friend Dona and I ventured down to the Lowcountry for the week, the Hilton Head Island/Bluffton area, I jumped at the chance to visit Savannah, Georgia, for the day, a mere 20 minute drive from Bluffton, which is a small, cozy, and unappreciated town only about 20 minutes away from Hilton Head as well.

Palmetto Bluff

Savannah is basically a more tame New Orleans, which reminds me your typical Southern city gone rogue. If you’re into a slow-moving and historical city with a great open-container policy, then Savannah is made for you. However, it’s still worth a visit if you’re in the area, especially if you are familiar with Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a novel by John Berendt chronicling the trial of Jim Williams taking place in the city.

Dona and I took an Old Town Trolley tour of the city, which is overpriced at $33 a pop, although the commentary is good and entertaining and the trolleys are efficient, coming by every ten minutes or so, even though they are advertised to take even longer. However, if you can stand the heat and the walk of the two-and-a-half mile historical center, the largest historical center in the country, then buy yourself a guidebook, skip the boring stuff, and do it yourself. Otherwise, you’ll be dropped off the designated stops with really no information in your hands.

Our first stop was the City Market, which is just a concentrated gathering of less-obvious tourist traps featuring candles, chocolates, Georgia peach sangria (do it; like I said, there’s an open container policy) and of course, Paula Deen’s restaurant and store, “The Lady and Sons.”

Paula Deen

The next drop-off point was Chippewa Square, which is where “Forrest Gump” was filmed, although the bench itself where Gump sits is now located in the Savannah History Museum, located at the edge of Savannah and where the Old Town Trolley tours begin. We didn’t visit this museum, however since I hate history I was perfectly content Googling screenshots of the movie and then figuring out where the bench was and just taking some cheesy photos from there.

Forrest

On our way to get to the Victorian District, a handsome line of beautiful Victorians definitely worth a casual stroll for the sheer wow factor, we also passed the Six Pence Pub, where a scene of Pretty Woman was filmed.

And then, finally, the sight I waited my whole life to see- the Mercer House, the home where Jim Williams lived, and ultimately, died of a heart attack– in the exact spot where he allegedly shot his employee and also alleged, lover, Danny Hansford. The tour of the house is a little dry (and expensive, at $13), but for hardcore Midnight fans, it’s worth it just to be in the house and think to yourself, Jim Williams lived and died right here. And yes, you do go into the front sitting room, as well as the hallway and another two sitting rooms, as well as see some of his art and antique collection among the rooms. Don’t expect too much information about Midnight- the home is owned by Williams’ sister and clearly, there are orders to keep the whole crazy ordeal on the hush-hush.

If you’re still obsessed with Midnight, you can stop at the Telfair Museum of Art to see the Bird Girl statue, the famous statue from Bonaventure Cemetery outside of Savannah where the photo from the front of Midnight was taken. The statue was moved to protect the dignity of the graves surrounding it from the family who purchased it in the cemetery.

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And, even though it’s also a huge tourist trap, stop at River Street just to stroll about by the river and look at the beautiful buildings and water, since all of the shops are really just overpriced t-shirt shops.

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My bottom line? Savannah is nice. It is. It’s a classic Southern town with beautiful homes and trees and happy people who like a nice sweet tea. However, unless you’re a huge history or Midnight buff, don’t go out of your way for a visit.