Savannah, A City Built on the Dead

When we first did the tour of the city, we had heard that Savannah was a city built on the dead. I thought that meant many people died to make the city what it is today. I was thinking of soldiers securing or protecting the land, people giving up their lively hood, fighting over land, whatever the case may be. But it turned out, I was wrong.

The city is literally built on it’s dead. Savannah was established as a buffer between the wealthy South Carolinians to the north and the Spanish Catholics in Florida to the south. There were battles to keep the land secure. The second bloodiest battle of Revolutionary war was fought in Savannah and Savannah lost many men who were buried here. Indians used parts of the area for their burial grounds. Many died from Yellow Fever. The French and British had a skirmish here. Add to this, natural deaths, occasional murders, and the Pirates coming into the city then you can see that there would be a great need for cemeteries. And, some families had their own burial plots next to their homes.

Over time, either from vandalism or just time-worn, many gravestones were destroyed or lost. From one of my previous posts, you may remember that the city of Savannah is laid out in squares. Homes surrounded these squares. As time went on and as the city grew with infrastructure being developed, roads were paved over areas that had been burial grounds. Some homes or municipal buildings have been built over areas that had been someone’s burial plot.

At first, when skeleton’s were found they had tried to move them. Later, as more and more bodies were found, some even in mass graves, the decision was made not to disturb them anymore, just leave them where they are and continue with the roads, or housing whatever the project in progress.

It seemed to be that the hauntings began when the bodies were disturbed. One such case was explained to us on the ghost tour we recently took. The Foley house was a boarding house established by a prominent widow living in Savannah. She and her children lived in this house and had frequent and sometimes long term boarders. At one time, two boarders came to stay with her. One was a bricklayer and the other one was an older wealthy exporter gentleman named Wally. Wally frequently wore a top hat. He and the bricklayer both had been staying there for quite a while. One night Wally ended up dead. One story is that he went into the widow’s bedroom. She awoke with him standing over her with his hands on her neck. He had tried to strangle her. She was able to stretch her arm out, grab the candle holder next to her bed and hit him over the head with it. When she did he fell dead beside her bed. Another story is that she murdered him for his money.

Remember, the bricklayer who was also staying at the boarding house? 100 years later, when some remodeling was being done on the home, the contractor renovating the house found a wall that didn’t seem to be in the right place. When opening the wall, they found the skeleton of the older man, top hat and all. No one had heard from or seen him prior to the brick wall being opened. Now, 100 years later, he is a frequent top hat wearing visitor in the former boarding house, now known as the Foley House Restaurant.

It seems that Savannah made a good decision to leave the dead where they lay as they continued their renovations and improvements to the city. Hauntings seemed to escalate when the bodies were disturbed.

There are two main cemeteries in the Savannah; Colonial Cemetery and Bonaventure. Colonial is the older of the two and is in the center of Savannah. It has many unmarked graves as well of graves of very prominent people who were instrumental in the establishment of this country. One such person is Button Gwinnett, a signer of the declaration of independence.

Bonaventure Cemetery is on the edge of Savannah. Most people know it from the movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Or maybe people know of it because it has so many interesting, ornate grave markers. Johnny Mercer, musician, and composer is buried there as well as Conrad Aiken, a successful author.

I’m including several pictures of the grave markers and statues that I took when we visited Bonaventure. You can see how ornate they are. One of them you’ll notice there’s a bell beside the tomb in case the person happened to buried alive.

A bench in the Mercer family grave plot listing several of Johnny Mercer’s hit songs.

Note the blue bell beside the marker. This is for the deceased to ring from the grave if it turns out he wasn’t really dead

The above photos show how ornate and detailed even the very old tombstones were.

Gracie died when she was 6 years old. Before she died she was seen frequently at her parents hotel. Later, friends had this statue made for her gravestone.
In memory of Julia Denise Backus Smith
A more modern Bonaventure gravemarker is the statue of Julia who at one time was a city commissioner with well known compassion for the less fortunate of Savannah. She was an avid runner, winning many races in Georgia and was the first woman from Savannah to compete in the Boston Marathon. Unfortunately, she committed suicide in 2003.
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