Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a 1994 bestseller book by John Berendt and a big-screen movie directed by Clint Eastwood in 1997, has made Savannah a number-one travel destination. Whether you believe Jim Williams’ killing of his young lover, Danny Hansford, was murder or self-defense, the case made the book a best-seller and is still bringing visitors to Savannah. Strangely enough, Williams was a big force in the restoration of a decaying historic Savannah during his lifetime. Here are some places you can visit or tour related to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
I visited most of these places on a press trip, but my opinions are my own.
1. Mercer-Williams House
Jim Williams, one of the main characters in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, lived and died in the Mercer-Williams House. It has a long history preceding Williams. Hugh Weedon Mercer began construction of the home in 1860, but construction stopped due to the start of the Civil War. After the war, Mercer was broke and unable to finish the home. Despite the name, no Mercer ever lived in the house. It remained unfinished until 1868 and passed through different owners. It was the site of the Shriner’s headquarters when Williams purchased it.
The home is now owned by William’s sister. There is a tour of the history of the house, the antiques, and Williams’ contributions to Savannah’s historic preservation. The guide is knowledgeable and explains the architectural aspects, antiques, and art in each room. Williams’ office is furnished much as it was when he died. There are his antiques and pictures of Williams and his guests at his famous Christmas parties. Ironically, Jim Williams died in this same room where he shot his young lover. In the movie, Danny Hansford is renamed Billy Hanson and played by Jude Law.
The house has several ghost stories. Many say Danny Hansford could not rest in peace when his killer was at large and living well. People have reported lights going on and off in their homes at night when no one is in the rooms. People passing by the house around Christmas have seen a party going on in the dark, sometimes empty, home. When Williams was alive, his Christmas parties were one of the top social events of the year. Being invited, or not, defined your position in Savannah society.
Pro Tip: For the tour, Williams’ sister forbids guides from discussing any reference to her brother’s trials or paranormal occurrences.
2. Armstrong House
George Armstrong built the Armstrong House, now known as Armstrong Kessler Mansion, in 1919 and it remained in his family until 1935. The mansion then became the campus of Armstrong Junior College. It’s the only Italian Renaissance Revival home in Savannah. It was recently acquired by Richard Kessler and will be his private home and not open for tours. However, it will be used as an event venue, so the possibility of seeing the interior is not off the table.
It was Jim Williams’ home before he bought Mercer House. He sold it to Sonny Seiler’s law firm. In the movie, it was used as the law office of attorney Sonny Seiler played by Jack Thompson. They cast Seiler in the movie as Judge Samuel L. White, who presided over Williams’ trial.
The mansion, like many historic homes in Savannah, was destined for the wrecker’s ball before the Historic Savannah Foundation rescued it. People remember William mostly for the infamous murder trial, but before that, he was one of the major forces in saving many of Savannah’s historic homes from being destroyed in the name of progress.
3. Bonaventure Cemetery
Bonaventure Cemetery is one of the country’s most beautiful cemeteries. Its moss-draped oaks on the banks of the river offer a feeling of peace. Perhaps misleading. In the book and movie, “Minerva, the Voodoo Priestess” in real life, Valerie Fennel Aiken Boles, portrayed in the movie by actress Irma P. Hall, was a friend of Williams and performed rituals at the cemetery to cast a spell on the Chatham County District Attorney, Spencer Lawton, who had filed murder charges against Williams. The site takes its name from the Bonaventure Plantation that was located here. Its owner, Governor Josiah Tattnall, was famous for his hospitality.
He hosted the plantation’s last and most famous dinner party around 1800. The guests were wining, dining, and having a grand time. Upon being informed that the house was on fire, Governor Tattnall requested the party move outdoors and continue. As the house was engulfed in flames, one of the merrymakers proposed a toast, “May the joy of this occasion never end, and may we always be as we are tonight.” So if you visit the cemetery at night, don’t be surprised if you hear the sounds of merrymakers and the clink of toasting glasses. Perhaps the party continues uninterrupted to this day.
One of the opening scenes in the movie pans over songwriter Johnny Mercer’s grave. It shows the Bird Girl statue, which is no longer there. It is now at the Telfair Museum.
4. Telfair Academy
Telfair Academy Art Museum was constructed in 1819 for Alexander Telfair. Alexander’s sister Mary was his heir and the last of the family. Upon her death in 1875, Mary deeded the magnificent mansion to the city for an art museum with the stipulation that there be no eating, drinking, or smoking within. The building is in the English Regency style. Along with the Bird Girl statue, it houses the oldest art museum in the Southeast. There is something else, Mary Telfair’s presence!
Rumors imply that Mary and her more attractive sister Margaret loved the same man. Margaret won the matrimonial sweepstakes, and Mary never married. Occasionally, if a visitor breaks any of the rules, Mary admonishes the culprit with rattling windows and the sound of distant voices. Mary is a lady who likes things to stay just as they were. Our trolley driver told us of an occasion when workmen were remodeling the dining room where her oil portrait hangs. When workers removed her portrait, a portion of the rotunda ceiling fell. They replaced her portrait in its accustomed position.
5. Forsyth Park
The three-tiered, cast-iron fountain at Forsyth Park served as the backdrop for several scenes in the movie. The fountain is one of the most photographed places in Savannah. It was built in 1858 as the centerpiece for the 30-acre park named for Georgia’s 33rd governor. It’s located one block south of Mercer-Williams House.
6. Clary’s Café
Author John Berendt, renamed John Kelso in the movie and played by John Cusack, would eat breakfast at Clary’s daily while working on the book. It’s where he met Luther Driggers, who had flies strung on his lapel and carried a vial of poison he planned to dump into the Savannah water supply. In the movie, they featured it as Clary’s Drugstore.
A friend and I visited Clary’s for lunch. It’s a small building with a group of tables outside. Several had a doggie happily eating the treat Clary’s gave them and drinking from their water bowl under their owner’s table. There was a waiting line at the door. Locals know about this place. Inside, the black and white tile floor and the counter, typical of its former incarnation as a drug store, recall the feeling of a ‘50s diner. You can eat at the counter where Berendt sat, but we went to the quieter back dining area. The walls are filled with photos from the movie and two colorful stained-glass windows are hanging on the walls. One is of the Bird Girl statue and the other proclaims, “Clary’s Café Established 1903.”
They serve breakfast until they close at 4 p.m., but I had lunch. A grilled Reuben sandwich with layers of sliced corned beef, Swiss cheese, dressing, and sauerkraut served on grilled caraway rye bread with fries and pickles.
Pro Tip: It’s worth visiting for the food alone, but the book and movie draw visitors from all over.
7. Churchill’s Pub
If you wander into Churchill’s Pub, located in the historic district, it’s easy to believe you are back in Merry Olde England. The bar, built in England in 1860, is the oldest in Savannah. The food is typical British fare with some American dishes tossed in. It’s not mentioned in the book but has a spot in the movie. The pub is where John Kelso (John Berendt), meets singer Mandy Nichols based on real-life Nancy Hillis from the book, played by Clint Eastwood’s daughter, Alison.
Pro Tip: You may want to visit Club One, a drag queen cabaret. This was where John Berendt met Lady Chablis. She passed away on March 11, 2016.
For more information on traveling to Savannah, check out these articles: