If Savannah Georgia is the second most haunted city in the United States, I don’t want to hang around in the first. Actually I did. New Orleans holds that distinction, but I didn’t go on a late night Ghost Tour in New Orleans, much less hang about in one of the most haunted houses in the city. I can’t say the same for Savannah, a heritage city that expanded over the graveyards and cemeteries, where the dead are as restless as the Spanish moss blowing with the wind in the gnarled old trees. As with many others, the city first came to my attention when I read the bestselling book, and watched the film adaption of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. True crime, travelogue and drama collided in an acclaimed story that convinced the world that Savannah is home to decadent eccentrics, where wives compared their husbands’ suicide notes, drag queens (the legendary Lady Chablis) reigned in high society, political and personal corruption was the norm, and the elite drained artillery punch inside their southern gothic fortress mansions, impervious to the outside world. Or something like that. Along with Gulfstream Aerospace, a military base, the second largest port on the eastern seaboard and the Savannah College of Art and Design, tourism keeps this quirky city thriving.
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.
I had one night to myself in the city, and judging by the sheer volume of brochures at the airport, Ghost Tours seemed like all the rage. I laid them out on the hotel table, and my hand was drawn to the Sorrell-Weed tour, consisting of a one-hour walking tour and an hour in the house itself. The tour and house has been featured on all the Ghost Hunter type shows, but so have a lot of others. It is however the only tour that lets you go into one of these houses at night, and truth be told I was expecting something hokey when I showed up at 9:30pm on the corner of Bull and East Harris. The house was built in 1840 by a wealthy merchant named Francis Sorrel, opposite Madison Plaza, scene of an epic battle during the War of Independence. Francis’s wife Matilda was a social butterfly, throwing lavish dinners and parties, the house was a social hot spot, hosting the likes of General Robert E Lee, and all seemed swell. Except that Matilda, the sister of Francis’s deceased first wife, suffered from depression, and one day found her husband in bed with the head slave Molly in the slave quarters. Matilda promptly ran into the house, up to the third floor balcony, and jumped off it, breaking her neck. Three weeks later, Molly was found hanging from the rafters. The Sorrel fortunes took a nose dive, but not before their son, a doctor, turned the basement into a little house of horrors, amputating his way through death and carnage in that wonderful time where infections were best treated with hacksaws. It was a not a happy place, and let’s not go into the dozen dead bodies lying beneath the foundations dating back to the war. The house was sold to Henry Weed in 1859, and the ghosts of the dead have been known to haunt it ever since. There’s Matilda, the shapeless and mischievous Shadowman, the screams of Molly about to be strung up (her death was called a suicide), children, soldiers, old ladies – they are said to pop up. Our guide’s name was Maddy, and first she led all 25 of us on a short walk to the cemetery, revealing some of the more morbid history of what would otherwise be a charming neighbourhood. There’s the Hamilton-Turner House that Walt Disney stayed at, the one that inspired the Haunted House at Disneyland. Today it’s an upmarket B&B. People have reported ghost soldiers parading around Madison Square. Many mansions were built on hallowed ground of the removed and forgotten cemeteries. “Wherever you’re staying in Savannah, there’s no place safe from a haunting,” she tells us. Not in a “oooooh” voice mind you, just kind of matter-of-factly. Standing outside Colonial Park Cemetery (my second visit in the day, although night is way creepier) we learn how people were buried in mass graves. Fever induced comas led to premature burial as well. Many were buried alive during the plague of yellow fever, sparking a mass paranoia of relatives worried their loved ones would wake up underground. Bells were attached to the wrists of corpses, with guards on the “graveyard shift” listening for rings in case anyone needed to be “saved by the bell.” When the wind was howling, the bells might ring on their own, but the graves had to be dug up just in case, although the result was often a “dead ringer.” Then came the Union soldiers who camped in the cemetery, taking great joy in using tombstones for target practice, graffiti, or anything else they could think of to upset the surrendered Confederate populace. There’s even a happy ghost story, but things really get interesting when we return to the house, entering through a squeaky iron-wrought gate with a creepy sound straight out of a movie.
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.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.