Getting to Know the Ghosts of Savannah

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Savannah, Georgia, is often touted as being “the most haunted city in America.” During the day, the city is big and old and beautiful, with aging Victorian houses and ancient oak trees dripping with Spanish Moss. Millions of people come to Savannah each year to drink in its history, devour some of its food, and bask in its distinct Southern charm.

Victorian District

Photo by akdetrick, on Flickr

But at dusk, they also come to Savannah to explore the city’s darker aspects.

Savannah has a long, long history. Established in 1733, this port city was the colonial capital of the Province of Georgia, and was also the state’s first capital once it was granted statehood in 1788. It served as a battleground during the American Revolution, and again during the Civil War. Much of the present-day city is actually built on top of old gravesites that were the final resting places of not only soldiers and aristocrats, but also slaves and victims of disease like those who died in the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1820.

Add to this a population that over the centuries has included everyone from voodooists to pirates, and Savannah becomes the perfect backdrop for spooky ghost tales and unexplained events.

Bonaventure cemetery

Photo by baekken, on Flickr

Today, Savannah’s downtown area is one of the largest National Historic Landmark Districts in the United States, and there are plenty of “ghost tours” that will mix the history of the area with some of those spectral stories.

One of these stands out as being more unique than all the rest — Hearse Ghost Tours.

Yup, the reality is just like it sounds. Tourists are put in the back of a converted hearse (a REAL hearse) and driven through the darkening streets of Savannah.

Ghost Hearse tour, Savannah, Georgia

Photo by herrea, on Flickr

Kitschy? Yes. Ridiculous? Absolutely. But you know what? It was also an awesome, unconventional way to learn more about Savannah and its history.

This tour is not meant to be frightening. Instead, it’s meant to be educational, with some of the spooky ghost stories thrown in. (Though, this particular scaredy cat was feeling a bit jumpy anyway!)

I took one of these tours about 5 years ago on a day trip to Savannah. I remember being awed by the old buildings and gigantic squares of Savannah, and extremely interested and entertained by our ghost tour of the city at dusk.

Savannah, GA

Photo by Brian Hillegas, on Flickr

Were all the ghost stories we heard true? Probably not. In fact, doing a bit of poking around on the Internet suggests that many I heard that night have been completely fabricated, such as the ones that include a “giant” child strangler in Colonial Park Cemetery, Jack the Ripper-type murders of little girls in a house on Abercorn street, and the legend of Captain Flint (of “Treasure Island” fame) dying at the Pirate House pub.

But you know what? The stories sure seemed creepy enough at the time.

The Hearse tour lasts roughly and hour and a half and visits various sites of historical significance in Savannah, from “haunted” houses to old prisons and hospitals. Two or three cemeteries are also usually on the itinerary, including Colonial Park, which dates back to Georgia’s colonial days. I don’t care if there really was a giant there back in the 1800s who strangled children or not… old cemeteries like that are eerie of their own accord.

Savannah

Photo by jeffgunn, on Flickr

In all honesty, though, who doesn’t like a good ghost story? Even though they usually scare the crap out of me, I still get a thrill out of hearing them.

Some famous Savannah ghost stories include:

  • The story of the outcast “giant” Rene Ache Rondolier, who is said to have lived in Colonial Park Cemetery in the early 1800s. Rene was accused of murdering two girls and was hung for his offenses. Afterward, though, more bodies turned up in Colonial Park, and the townspeople blamed Rene’s ghost.
  • The story of an old abandoned hospital/sanitarium where brave souls on ghost tours can go down into a dark and supposedly haunted tunnel. Our guide told us that victims of plague/fever/disease were often removed from the hospital and placed in the tunnel — sometimes still alive. (Needless to say, I did NOT go in…)
  • The story of the 17Hundred90 house, now a bar and inn which is rumored to have as many as three ghosts-in-residence.
  • The story of the Mercer House (birthplace of John Mercer), where mysterious murders inspired the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt.
  • The story of one of the 22 city squares where most of Savannah’s lynchings used to take place. Our guide told us that, because of all the death that happened in this square, Spanish Moss won’t grow on the old oak tree where the ropes used to be tied. A bunch of BS? Perhaps. But there was an obvious lack of moss on the tree he pointed out…
  • And, of course, the unsubstantiated creepy stories associated with the old mansion at 432 Abercorn Street, where it’s said that multiple children have been killed in the past, including 2 or 3 little girls killed in a fashion similar to London prostitutes killed by Jack the Ripper.

I realize most of these stories are made up. I know it is silly to believe that Jack the Ripper traded in British whores for Savannah children. But it didn’t stop me from getting goosebumps at that site, half-expecting to see the spectral figure of a little girl in the window or hear some disembodied giggling.

Savannah, GA

Photo by Kelley Mari, on Flickr

And that’s the whole point of a touristy ghost tour, right? To learn some real history, and then hear some spooky stories. Just like the embellished stories you heard around the campfire as a kid, whether the Savannah ghost stories are real are not aren’t really a concern as you’re being chauffeured around in your hearse.

Savannah, Georgia

Photo by respres, on Flickr

So how, then, does Savannah become known as the “most haunted city in America”? Well, the truth of the matter is that there’s a lot of history here that includes death, sickness, and a preoccupation with the supernatural. That, and much of the city is built on top of old gravesites — new construction often means unearthing unexpected human remains.

And if that doesn’t give you a heebie-jeebies, I’m not sure what will…

——

Have you been to Savannah and gotten familiar with any of its ghosts? 

Also, stay tuned Monday, when I’ll have a special Halloween feature up about spooky places people have traveled to!

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