The historical district, dating back to the arrival of British settlers in 1733, is a grid system comprised of 22 leafy plazas, churches, and ornate antebellum mansions. Antebellum is defined as “before the war” – both the War of Independence and the Civil War, in which Savannah was spared a sacking by Sherman’s Union Army. There’s so much history here you can trip on it, which is what I did as soon as I crossed the Savannah River from my hotel. A free ferry dropped me off near the first of many statues depicting the characters and legends of Savannah. The lady who waved a flag at every passing ship. The flag-bearing soldier who was killed during the Siege of Savannah (along with a couple thousand other soldiers). There’s fountains and steeples, scenes reminiscent from the many films shot here, including Forrest Gump, Glory, and yes, Spongebob Squarepants. I bought a ticket for a hop-on hop off bus which was a little lazy, considering I basically walked the entire route looking for the bus after hopping it off it explore the fading tombstones that remain in Colonial Park Cemetery. Ten thousand people were buried here, but only 600 grave markers remain. They say the city was built on the dead, as other cemeteries were moved or built over. Construction in the old town often yields unidentified bones.
It was a fine spring day, the warmth blanketing me after my long northern winter. In summer, the temperature is hot enough to make a skeleton sweat, but late March I was happy to walk beneath the shady plazas, reading the many informational plaques, soaking back a beer in a go-cup (it’s legal to drink on the streets in Savannah, although my grey whiskers did little to stop bartenders carding me for ID at every turn). River Street is the main tourist strip, and it can get pretty ugly. Guns and cheap crap and booze and morbid obesity and religion. I check out Rousakis Plaza where a strange construction quirk creates an echo chamber. I spoke to eight locals in my 36 hours in the city, and nobody knew it existed. When the city was founded as a buffer between British South Carolina in the north and the Spanish in Florida to the south, there were four prohibitions: no slaves, no alcohol, no Catholics, no lawyers. All of that went by the wayside pretty quickly. Various fires destroyed half the town, and a yellow fever plague in 1820 killed on in ten people, including all the doctors. Despite all this, its strategic location as a port and the booming cotton and shipyard trade ensured great wealth flooded to Savannah, funnelled into rich families living in their sprawling mansions around the leafy squares. It makes for great walking, open-window tour buses, horse carriages, cycle tables, bike rides, Segway Tours, scooter tours, Pedi-cabs, heck there’s even hearse tours. Few tourists go beyond the old district, to the parts of the city less scenic and far more troublesome. I was warned that even though the bars are open late, the city shuts down early, and it’s best not to marginalize myself on the fringes late at night. Which of course is actually what I did, but only after spooking myself right out with a late night ghost tour to the Sorrel-Weed House.
Through the front doors, the air is thick and musty. Low-lighting adds the required ambiance one expects when visiting a genuine haunted house, and even the motion-detected infra-red cameras add an unnerving touch. Maddy regales us with the tragic story of the Sorrels, and a few ghost stories from her experience working at the house. Flickering lights, slamming doors, that sort of thing. It’s warm and despite my scepticism, adding the $38 x 25 in my head, not to mention the other group who started in the house before us, I can’t deny a sense of dread and my accelerated heart rate. Old portraits of dead people can do that too. We enter the front salon, where we learn that all the period furniture is not original, save for the two giant mirrors in the front and back salon. Houses can be haunted, but so can objects, and we learn that these mirrors are definitely haunted. Apparitions appear in tourist’s photos, orbs of light, strange shadows. It doesn’t help that the low lighting all but guarantees blurry photos that can let the imagination runneth over. Using flash creates double exposures and weird lights so that’s not particularly helpful. Still, everyone takes photos of the mirror, including myself. I wait until everyone moves into the back salon to get a photo with no tourist reflections in the mirror. I’m the only one in the room, shooting from a low right angle. We continue the tour, learning more about the hauntings and history, descending into a dark basement where we’re handed EMFs – the device electricians use to pick up energy. Paranormal investigators believe ghosts must draw on energy to manifest, which they do through humans, devices or the atmosphere. If the EMG starts flickering (and it’s not close to our phones), chances are something’s going on. Maddy tells us a personal story of hearing laughter in the room, the creepy Shadowman, and how she’s had to run out of the house in fear a couple times when locking up on her own. It’s an impressively understated and believable performance, and her dismissal of “theatrical” haunting nonsense feels genuine. It’s almost as if she doesn’t have to prove anything, because she doesn’t have to (or the operation is slick and well rehearsed). Nobody sees anything in particular. One women thinks she caught a weird apparition, but Maddy quickly points out it looks like someone in the group. Someone’s EMG goes off when we stand beneath the same rafters where Molly was hung in the slave quarters, adjacent to the main house. Well, that was fun, but I’ve got 20 minutes to walk the 20 minutes back to the river to catch the free ferry to my hotel, otherwise it’s an expensive cab ride home. I walk alone through the empty plazas, the streets mostly deserted. I’m a little edgy, but the streets are well lit and after a full day walking back and forth I’m familiar with the grid. I make the ferry, return to the hotel, and look through the photos I took in the house on my phone. And that’s when things go very, very weird.
Remember when I hung back to take a photo of the mirror with no reflections of tourists in it. Something catches my eye in the bottom left corner. No. Freaking. Way. I blow it up. That is a definitely a woman. She would have had to be almost directly in front of me to be in that spot. But I was alone, and there was nobody in the mirror. What’s more, she bears a striking resemblance to Matilda, appears old fashioned, doesn’t resemble anyone who was on the tour, and is looking in the direction of all the people in the back salon. I do believe I have just captured a ghost on film! I email the Ghost Tour folks immediately, who reply the next morning that they’ll check the time stamp to see if I was indeed alone, and whether their infra-red cameras picked anything up. They do three ghost tours a night, I don’t think they’re too surprised by this. Heck, I’m not even the first journalist to capture an apparition in the mirror, although the Lady does look remarkably clear – in that creepy, blurry ghostly sort of way. Combined with the jetlag and the fact I had to get up at 6:30am to give a keynote at conference, let’s just say a blissful night of sleep was not forthcoming.
I won’t get into the politics of being in a blue city in a red state. The lively conversations I had with locals, of all colour, absolutely terrified for the future of their country. The BBQ-sauce, the open carry gun laws, the St Patricks Parade hangover, America’s third largest synagogue, the African American Baptist Church that smuggled slaves beneath its floors, the canons and art and steamships and towering cargo ships that passed along the river on their way to the ocean. There's much to chew on in Savannah, a real southern treat. Weird, fascinating, and a town that refuses to let sleeping ghosts lie.