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?
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.
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.
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.
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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