Adventure

Exploring Savannah on MIDNIGHT in the garden of Good & Evil Walking Tour

A Savannah walking tour to undercover the city’s murder mystery propelled me to Georgia in January. This scandal featuring an antiques dealer on trial for killing his male prostitute was the only pretext that my daughter Claire and I needed to visit Savannah.

While this decorous Southern city is famous as the Hostess City of South, we wanted to see its seedier side.

Our family obsession started years before when Claire first read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Published in 1994, the non-fiction book reveals the insular and close knit world of “America’s First Planned City.” The author is John Berendt. But it reads like a Flannery O’Connor novel—wickedly wonderful. What better way to investigate than a Savannah walking tour?

Genteel City

Now don’t get me wrong. Savannah (established 1733) is a genteel Southern city that deserves its reputation as a “dazzling combination of old-fashioned charm and chic modern style.” (VisitSavannah.com). You will find a charming Savannah walking tour on a variety of themes, such as the city’s historical district, its gardens or even its ghosts. Check out Viator.

Savannah’s historic district

The list is endless of what I loved—moss-draped oak trees, 22 historic squares, cobblestone streets, the twin steeples of Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home, the Mansion on Forsyth and the Olde Pink House. 

But I don’t think city founder General George Oglethorpe would have guessed that a book about a four-timed tried (and ultimately freed) arrogant antiques dealer would turn Savannah into a top tourist destination—the Garden City of Iniquity.

Scandalous Savannah

Or as the New York Times Book Review quipped, “Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil might be the first true-crime book that makes the reader want to book a bed and breakfast for an extended weekend at the scene of the crime.”

“Elegant and wicked.”

So I confess. I didn’t come down to learn about the life of Juliette Gordon Low (founder of the Girl Scouts) or sit on the bench made famous in the Forrest Gump movie, I was looking for dirt … Savannah red clay dirt. Loamy.

All we knew from the book is that “shots rang out in Savannah’s grandest mansion in the misty, early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self-defense?”

Claire and I wanted to get all the facts and see all the sights associated with the book, including Bonaventure Cemetery and the Mercer Williams House Museum (where Hanford died). We needed a Savannah walking tour.

Pet Friendly Accommodations

So in December, we began hurriedly researching our options. We would split the bill on a five-night stay at an AirBnb house that allowed pets. I should have known right off by the reasonable $750 price that the location was not Savannah proper. We ended up in a nondescript suburban neighborhood that offered none of Savannah’s storied charm or squares. We paid for being penny pinchers.

Perry explores Savannah

In addition, Savannah definitely is a smelly city.  It took some time getting used to the rotten egg smell. If the wind blew the wrong way, I had to squeeze my nose shut. To misquote Shakespeare:

Something is rotten in … Savannah.”

But the worst part was Claire’s 80-pound flat coat retriever had to get three scrubs in the bathtub during our stay. Why you ask? Isn’t this extreme? Nope. Something stinking was foul in our backyard. So poor Perry was not allowed to play in it after repeatedly stinking up our house. (Be smart. Spend money on an Airbnb in the historical district or find a hotel that allows dogs.) 

But getting back to our reason for visiting Savannah, we wanted to get a local’s dish on this murder mystery.

Read The Book

To prepare for our Savannah walking tour, we agreed to read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. (Full confession: I had heard of the book but somehow never read it.) So in the week leading up to my Savannah trip, I read the book and took notes. 

Questions swirled in my head. Why did Jim Williams allow his employee to scream epithets at him? Was Danny bipolar? Did Williams shoot to kill Danny or was it “self defense”?

By the time we arrived in Savannah in mid-January, I could hardly control by excitement.

Savannah Walking Tour

The only way to find answers was to take a Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil walking tour. Given our visit took place in January 2021 during the height of the second Covid wave, there were few options. Two companies offered specialized tours.

We chose Noble Jones Tours. The firm offered a “Deeper into Midnight” two-hour tour. And we definitely wanted to dive deeper into midnight along the path of trials, tribulations, vibrations and manipulations.

The company promised that all “your favorite characters are revealed, and the four trials that Jim Williams endured are scrutinized.” That’s right. Right down to the trial transcripts.

We stopped at a lot of the places mentioned in the book on our Savannah walking tour, including Casey’s diner, the Hamilton-Turner House (where Joe & Mandy lived) and Berendt’s rental home.

Deeper Into Midnight

While the company’s website description sounded intriguing, the reality was far better. Company owner Kelse Palko led the Saturday afternoon tour which ended up being private. Claire and I peppered our guide with questions non-stop. Perry dutifully followed along, wistfully watching a squirrel run up a tree.

A self-described “avid investigative reader,” Palko is obsessed with the book and Williams’ plight. Although he is not a Savannah native, he has lived long enough in the city to know its residents. He admitted Williams’ murder trials are one of Savannah’s stranger stories come to life. And he knew a lot about the wickedly funny eccentric characters in the book, such as Lady Chablis, Joe Odom and the voodoo priestess Minerva.

Ultimately our tour ended outside the Mercer Williams House Museum at 429 Bull Street. It is located by Monterey Square. Even though the house is open to the public for tours, it seemed deserted on this cold Saturday afternoon. The palm trees stood guard outside this mansion. Could Williams’ ghost (or Danny’s specter) be watching us from an upstairs bedroom? Palko wouldn’t tell. But this is what he loves about Savannah.

“Black magic never stops.”—John Berendt

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13 Comments

  • Reply
    Erin
    March 26, 2021 at 10:38 pm

    Great post! I always love hearing about new tours I can try in Savannah. I haven’t been on this one yet and it sounds fantastic. It’s so fun when the tour guides are passionate about the subject. PS: I love the book! 🙂

    • Reply
      Terri
      March 27, 2021 at 5:25 am

      You’re the expert Erin! You definitely want to try this tour. I loved it.

  • Reply
    Catherine
    March 27, 2021 at 6:46 am

    Oooh how cool this sounds!! I really want to visit Savannah!!

    • Reply
      Terri
      March 27, 2021 at 6:56 am

      Absolutely fantastic tour. And a great value. I can’t wait to go back to Savannah!

  • Reply
    Krista
    March 27, 2021 at 8:01 am

    This sounds like a really interesting tour to go on while staying in Savannah!

  • Reply
    Leeanne
    March 27, 2021 at 8:04 am

    You captured that steamy secretive city so well! Love the new digs for your blog!!

    • Reply
      Terri
      March 27, 2021 at 8:11 am

      THANK YOU! I wanted to show the unglossed view of Savannah. I see a new headline Steamy Secretive Savannah. LOVE IT!

  • Reply
    Courtney
    March 27, 2021 at 11:57 am

    I LOVE Savannah! I’d really love to do a haunted tour the next time I visit. I’ll look into Deeper Into Midnight! Thanks!

  • Reply
    Niki
    March 27, 2021 at 12:13 pm

    Intriguing insights! Haven’t been, but want to go! Read the book eons ago, but think it may be my next audio walking book. Guess I’ll have to not walk and talk with Irma. Well crafted story!

    • Reply
      Terri
      March 27, 2021 at 12:19 pm

      Definitely go back and get the Audible walking book. You’ll stay up all night listening to it. It is such a great book. Then come down to Savannah!

  • Reply
    Sharyn
    March 27, 2021 at 10:45 pm

    So many beautiful buildings. I look forward to seeing them.

  • Reply
    Susanna
    March 28, 2021 at 5:08 am

    Well, I know what I am downloading next! I LOVE reading and the idea of doing a walking tour based on a book gives me goosebumps, especially when the scenery is as lovely as Savannah with those lovely buildings I loved the bit of mystery at every turn and I hope the doggo stayed clean finally haha.

    • Reply
      Terri
      March 29, 2021 at 9:02 am

      You will love listening to this book on Audible. It is incredible. Very suspenseful. I hope you get a chance to get to Savannah to explore the city. And yes the doggo eventually stopped needing a bath after she was banned from using the AirBnb’s backyard … lol!

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