Bonaventure: Heaven’s Playground (Part One)

Photo By Shannon Scott (C) All Rights Reserved

Photo By Shannon Scott (C) All Rights Reserved

NOTE: Originally appeared in the online quirky magazine, Twisted South, and I am mentioned as the mysterious man of the cool business card. Any other implications to me in the writing are either highly exaggerated or completely true. As many know, there is a City Cemetery Policy against telling ghost stories or discussing anything psychical, paranormal or otherwise “creepy” in City of Savannah Cemeteries. And although this seems highly contrary to A, The First Amendment, but also in a city where the heritage of such discussion easily goes back to The Revolutionary War, if not prior, all the more curious. Noteworthy is that the City of Savannah government page has a Q&A section where in the Top 5 questions is strangely, “Are any of the cemeteries haunted?” As if this somehow is such an issue that they need to formally address it in a government way. Lo & behold there is actually a governmental answer and everyone should definitely check it out at the below link. http://www.savannahga.gov/faq.aspx 

Part of my adding this article to my blog page is that I found it highly respectful of Savannah, the history and entertaining at the same time. I also address my feelings about said rules & their reasons in the article itself. 

Bonaventure: Heaven’s Playground (part I)

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Photo courtesy of Jennifer Anne Photography

I went to Savannah, Georgia looking for ghosts, yet I’m the one who came back feeling haunted. For the past few years, I’d heard that Savannah was supposed to be the most haunted city in America. When I got the call to write a story for a magazine, I wasn’t sure I’d end up caring much about it because, frankly, I had some pretty cheesy perceptions of such things. I was leery. Now, I’d say never judge a ghost by its sheet!

As I poked around, it turns out in 2002 Savannah was dubbed “America’s Most Haunted City” by The American Institute of Parapsychology.  In no time at all (according to the city’s Visitors Bureau), it went from a town of five ghost tour companies to over 50!  So if Dahlonega, Georgia is known as the original Gold Rush town, Savannah may well be considered the original “Ghost Rush” town. Like any good prospector, I wanted to know if there were ghosts in dem thar hills (or swamps, but you get the point). I’d visited Savannah before and really took to the place, but I didn’t want to be too touristy this time around, so I decided to bypass the ghost tour scene. My aim was to grab up a few ghost stories from the locals and head out on my own. To be honest, it really seemed that everyone I talked to had the same story about this house or that hotel, with some variations. I was getting discouraged. But with one phone call, my angle (and my attitude) completely shifted to a single cemetery.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Anne PhotographyPhoto courtesy of Jennifer Anne Photography

I was on the phone with a city person, and was trying to feel them out on why hauntings were such a big deal. At one point, I asked what seemed to be a perfectly normal question, “Do you have any haunted cemeteries?”

*Silence*

They muttered, “Umm…we don’t have any.”

I chuckled back, “How’s that?”

The person responded more convincingly, “None of our cemeteries are haunted.”

My curiosity was naturally raised by this retort, “Are you telling me that officially? How do you know that they’re not?”

More withdrawn, they replied, “Ummm…we have a city policy that there can be no discussion of ghosts or paranormal subjects on cemetery grounds managed by the city.”

I nearly dropped the phone. Although it felt very stop-the-presses, I could not get much more out of them and was shocked by what seemed a genuine nervousness around the conversation.

“You do realize you’re known as America’s Most Haunted City, right?”

“I’ve heard that, yes,” they replied.

Coyly, I asked, “So do Savannah’s ghosts just know to stay out of the cemeteries or do you tell them they can’t come in?” I had hoped to prompt a little laughter, but none came and I left them with a final query, “Ok, so if I wanted to not find some ghosts and not hear any ghost stories in a cemetery, where would be my best bet?”

“On or off the record?” they asked. “Off,” I told them. And then came the name…”Bonaventure.

Once the name had been spoken, it was like it kept growing in importance. I started to see the name printed in tourist magazines, on brochures and heard the word coming out of many mouths in hotel lobbies and gift shops. I got the feeling this place was taunting me through total strangers. My curiosity only grew while feeling equally uneasy, like maybe I should ignore the voices. Unfortunately I couldn’t, and it got worse when a beautiful, smiling bartender named Sabine, standing behind the basement bar of The Olde Pink House, exclaimed, “Oh, you’ve got to go there! I know the perfect person for you to talk to.” She handed me the strangest business card I’d seen in a while.

BizCard

Half listening to Sabine talk of being in Bonaventure late one night during a lightning storm with friends thinking they’d not live to see tomorrow, I stared hypnotized at a single large red eye staring out at me from this business card. Three links formed a crescent above it like a halo or bizarre eyelash. There was no name, just three initials, “S.S.S.,” but on the back of the card there was a winged hourglass graphic, and it boasted, “PROVIDING the Public with The Most Illuminating, Inimitable and Eternally COMPELLING TALES Currently Possible Here On Earth.” I felt like I was inside of an 18th century mansion root cellar and the ghost of P.T. Barnum had handed me his 19th century calling card through a gypsy woman. I half expected Sabine to be gone when I looked up, but no, thank God she was still pouring. Tomorrow I’d dial the number.

At first, I got the voicemail a few times, then finally a call back. The man’s voice was very pleasant and he sounded like he was a singer or a DJ.

Asking politely, “How can I help you, Byron?”

I spoke of my mission and he acknowledged my interest but after a few minutes of conversation he said, “I respect your interest but I really can’t comment on anything because it would put my livelihood at stake.”

He seemed genuinely guarded, “You see, I’m a believer myself, and have seen things, but to do what I do in the old guard’s cemetery, I have to keep the lid on that topic. It’s kind of a gentleman’s agreement out there.”

Inquiring further, “But why all of the secrecy? Don’t they know it just makes it sound more haunted?”

Photo courtesy of Dick BjornsethPhoto courtesy of Dick Bjornseth

The man with the strange card thoughtfully answered, “I do, Byron, but really I think the intention is to guard the old cemeteries from exploitation. I think their hearts are in the right place, but it’s a kind of censorship, and you know, some of the earliest ghost stories themselves come from locals talking in the 18th century about the spirits of Revolutionary War soldiers coming out of the wall of Colonial Park Cemetery. That’s on record.” He went on to add, “Ghosts are a long-standing part of the city heritage and really, if told the right way, can act for sources of reflection on life and our values. Some scare a little, but you know, mostly they’re there to tell a kind of life story or comment on history in a different way. It’s not a bad thing, but some see it as making fun or something about life being cheap.” He joked, “Some story tellers are better at keeping it thoughtful and classier than others.”

He spoke of a tour that he did called Bonaventure After Hours which was the only cemetery night tour in the city.  He invited me along. Our conversation was like Savannah itself, a mixture of dualities and contradictions. Even though I’d not gotten what I’d hope to get out of him, I felt like I’d learned something very deep about Savannah. I was more eager than ever to visit Bonaventure.

Bonaventure Cemetery sits in a town that according to Savannah author, Tarrin Lupo, was named by pirates, as well as for the intense lightning storms that occur there. In the minds of most who live in the area, it’s still Savannah, but the old fishing village is technically a separate jurisdiction. Any town named by pirates has got to be good, so I made my way down Victory Drive to see the town, Thunderbolt, where Bonaventure rested. As I turned down the waterfront road, there were condos, a smattering of funky old cottages, a couple of shops and not much else. It was quaint, reminiscent of many New England port towns I’d grown up around. Smack dab in the middle of the main road was a large wooden cross.  I thought of John Carpenter’s The Fog and had visions of sailor ghosts with glowing red eyes wandering the streets.

I decided to pull into the parking lot of a restaurant that was all verandas and decks called Tubby’s Tankhouse for more story reconnaissance and a drink. The bartender, Sheila, was nice and without much hesitation, I told her what I was doing. Before I could even ask her, she was off and running with a story about working there and seeing a ghost in the kitchen. My mind began to wander and it struck me that people who live in Savannah are either slightly off, or there’s something about the environment that causes people to really see apparitions. Not expecting much, I asked her if she’d ever seen anything in Bonaventure itself.

Photo courtesy of Dick BjornsethPhoto courtesy of Dick Bjornseth

Sheila paused for a moment and then offered, “Mostly spook lights and children’s voices…and their laughter sometimes.”

I gulped a little bit at her answer and asked, “What do you mean?”

She began, “Ever since I was a little kid, my friends and I, we’d sneak out there and just wander around, and we’d see these big balls of light jump across the path and sometimes rise up into the trees and sit in the crooks like they was birds perched or somethin.”

“How big were they?” I asked.

“Some were tennis ball size and then some bout as big as a basketball, I reckon,” she concluded.

“You said something about laughter,” I inquired.

“Yeah, it’s the darndest thing…we’d hear running in gravel behind us, feet skidding and pebbles going every which way, and then kids laughing like they were right behind us and all around us, and then we’d see the spook lights,” Sheila said, somewhat elated.

Beyond curious, I pressed, “Sheila, why do you think all of that is happening?”

Her answer was touching and amusing. …“Well we used to call it Heaven’s Playground as kids…there are more kids buried out there than anything and we kind of saw it like Heaven was letting them come out at night to play with us real kids.”

I thanked her, paid my bill and set off to see a place that now felt more mythical than real. Bonaventure.

STAY TUNED FOR PART 2!

“Our Darling”

 

CasketHandle

Post Mortem Girl In Casket

Post Mortem Girl In Casket

 

The handle from a child’s casket (click on images to expand). Found in the grasses of the cemetery. Notice the small heart. The giveaway as to whose casket it belonged. To think 100 or 130 years ago? A pallbearer was holding it instead of me. A brother or father or uncle or cousin or nephew. Feeling solemn and fraught with emotion, and perhaps gripped it a bit harder than I as if they were protecting the memory of a tiny soldier who never made it home. Were they bright and healthy just days before? By the look of the handle I would guess a child no more than 8 or 9, and it is so delicate that it feels more ornamental than practical as many of them were. Probably a very small casket and a very young child. I own and collect such things. Now again I get a “gift” like this from the cemetery. Deemed from the unknown to care for and protect it and give it meaning again instead of winding up unappreciated or in the rubble pile at the far back of the cemetery. By the looks of it, the casket may have been covered in white velvet with some sort of pattern. I owned one like it once. A pewter coffin plate on top bearing the inscription in quotes, “Our Darling.” Satin everywhere inside and a comfy silky pillow for the child’s head. Naturally, this being found in The Catholic Cemetery, means the family of then, reasonably new to America my guess, would have observed the Irish Wake. For 3, perhaps 4 days, this casket was placed on the dining room table of the family, possibly even moved to the courtyard or even cemetery for the family to capture the strange, but often wonderfully moving, “Memento Mori” or the post-mortem photo. Prompts the wonder if such a photo is still in the family or lost to the shuffle of some distant flea market, but somewhere on the front or back of the image, remains the watermark of the studio who took it. Such places were in Savannah’s City Market at one time or the other. Painting eyeballs on the sleeping child wasn’t uncommon and some photos inscribed, “Awake In Heaven.” Did they take the child there as was often the tradition or did they have the coin only for the casket & services? Did the family easily write a check, or did the family pawn and pool all they had to give their child a final send off worthy of their life cut short and their trip to Heaven? Was this the first child to die or the 5th? Were they ever able to bring a headstone? Most children in such cemeteries of the period and often even now, have no markers. I wonder if the mama and sisters each cut locks of the child’s hair and wore them in lockets for years or the rest of their lives or put the photo and the hair in a scrapbook or shadow box? I still have the Alaskan Malamute fur from my dog Mina that died in 2007 and every now and again, reopen the bag to smell her. Did the mother occasionally do the same to recapture some scent of her child? In the quiet meditation of a moment on a rainy day, did she lightly wet the hair with her mouth to ensure the curl remained a certain way? To remember….And did she ever really let go? Taking joy in other children? Yes, these are the questions.

Many years ago, before the sweet scintilla of The South lured me, my junior & senior years were filled working in a Victorian Cemetery called Maplewood. It was there I was first made aware of the stark realities of infant mortality. The cemetery sat up on a hill surrounded by farmer’s corn fields generally. There was a day I was weed-eating over a portion of the grounds that looked as if it would soon fall into the farmer’s field. My weedeater wire began kicking up tiny bones and then small plastic medical bags I would guess, full of more of them! Turns out I’d hit upon a forgotten section where very young infants, many of them still born I would presume, were reposited without much real ceremony. In one respect, you could say I rescued that section of the cemetery.

Finding the casket handle reminded me that such sections often go lost because people want to move on. It also returns me to a strange knowing I suppose, or one that I’ve learned in the years since. That the old cemeteries? There may be one nice headstone or memorial for a child with little cherubs or a carved lamb reclining, but that may be the only stone that was ever placed for what could be several more children buried in the same plot full of adults. Maybe the one, became the memorial for them all. And that money and time and values, made it more hopeful to give more to a monument of someone who was living or had lived a full life as so often is the dynamic in Victorian plots. The one child memorial is where you paid respect to all of the children buried there. It is interesting to note that when new burials are dug in the older cemeteries, someone has the necessary and morbid task of “thumping for caskets” to ensure that the new burial does not compromise any, adult or child. I have to think however, that there is some anxiety for the worker that knows the deal that more often than not, they’ll strike a container with a child. A kind of tonal acknowledgment of life not given them since burial. Betting after the initial “THUMP,” many workers offer a quiet, “Sorry down there” and maybe a prayer. Heck, ever since I found the handle, I’ve been reminded of the one, “Now I lay me down to sleep…” that my mother and I must’ve said together hundreds of nights. And now you know why my friends…many darlings never woke up.

Today was a rainy day in Savannah cemeteries. But the drizzle was spritzing evenly and not a scary storm at all. The kind of rain that makes people want to go to the cemeteries. And they were there. Less tourists, and more relatives it appeared. You could tell. They were out walking and kneeling around certain plots with umbrellas for long periods of time and then going down to say hello to other family. And with everything around one being so old, it was not hard for me to flash back to the moments of the family and this child they’d buried. I could imagine them in what may have been the steam of St. John’s Cathedral. Was it sunny or overcast? Drizzle or downpour? Not even sure if every child got a service in the big stained glass palace, but in my mind, they did. A grand send off. People in fantastic black clothing, women waving grand hand fans, the echoes of muffled cries and a cough now and then. The casket surrounded by fragrant flowers to the point of stench and the sunlight through the stained glass cascading across the child’s supple cheeks, warming them back to life for a second. “They look like they’re sleeping” someone murmurs to comfort. Outside awaits a white glass hearse carriage. Beveled windows like they’re burying and parading small royalty to the cemetery. Men in top hats, horses with plumes. It was probably some ride to. Hours even? As the family walked through mud and muck, behind the procession. Up the hill to the cemetery. There the gravediggers had opened the hole and stood by showing respect, ready to pat the dirt back over. Gray faces, black veils. Were there dozens of people or just a few. Or what if their only child? Just the mother and father? Narely a minister as it was too expensive? They say women weren’t allowed to watch the casket being lowered but think that some of the Irish women didn’t go for it as “shocking” after all they’d been through.

Gripping the handle once more, I note that there is one surviving burning acanthus bush still intact on the handle. The rust makes it see more alive. Did it break off as they pulled the casket from the hearse? Using rope to lower to and from and no notice was given? I was asked how such a thing could escape notice in a heavily visited cemetery. And Savannah has a metal detector club culture that is fierce, so yes, they’re more right in asking than they know. I surmise that realistically it came up during the addition to another burial some years later and may be all that’s left of the original casket. If it were 50 years ago, probably men with shovels. 10 years ago, certainly a back hoe and little notice given it. Sadly many caskets are destroyed by modern machinery. One of the dirty secrets of cemeteries now. Cemetery workers are either keen to look for such treasures or have no interest for practical and superstitious reasons. All the same, it really is a lucky find in the life of a person like me. I know its not worth much but to me, its a currency of history not money. And it now rests in the storyland of my living room museum among all of the other souvenirs from the past. But this one more personal than some from friends & eBay. This I can tie to a place and has more sensory levels. Especially for one who lived to see his baby shoes bronzed and grew past the age of ten.

NOTE: Did you enjoy this story? Learn ya few things?  Well come get the whole story with Shannon Scott on his tours. Just click the Tours tab and you’re on you’re way to the cemetery! Dribble

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Take The Private Tour of Your Lives (of The Dead!)

Lots of people recognize me for pioneering tours & events in Bonaventure Cemetery and that my tour is the one “to take,” but many out there are unaware that one of the ways I made being out there so attractive is by offering Private Tours of Bonaventure & Greenwich Cemeteries. I consider this the ultimate cemetery insider tour and something that should be seriously thought about when contemplating how you wish to spend your time there. Naturally its lovely to be crowds of 10-20 people but some are looking for that “extra special” experience and with me, the horse’s mouth. In addition, Bonaventure is just the tip of the iceberg as there is a whole city of cemetery touring to be had! Bonaventure is great, but for locals, cemeteries like Laurel Grove North (& South), Colonial Park & the Catholic Cemetery have big appeal. So these can be tailor made to satisfy the cemetery aficionados out there for sure! These tours can be big Q&A kinds of things and can often share details that a larger crowd just can’t be privy too. They aren’t everyone’s budget but I assure you that you get what you pay for in terms of personalism, information and nuance mixed up with storyist craft at its finest! There may also be a cemetery nut in your life? Treat them to a gift certificate of some kind! Get your tickets here!

http://www.zerve.com/ShannonScott/PrivBona

Shannon Scott’s New Website

LLipton2012

The image is taken from an old photograph, where in the original, all of the people are living attendees of the wake. We’ll soon post the original for your enjoyment. Laurie has doctored it up to fit her theme of having some fun with the image, but also making some kind of valuable statement about life & death and family. What’s your interpretation? In a recent email I asked Laurie if she was the woman in the casket and who was the non-skeletal man hidden up on the porch? She didn’t respond for one reason or another, but I put to her my own theory that perhaps it has something to do with the death of an important romance and that it may have been very public and “died” a slow harsh death in front of many friends and family. Not bad eh? Thanks, I went to art school so you know, I’m smart like that. Even so, Laurie wouldn’t confirm or deny, and probably like many artists, prefers to leave it open for interpretation. And yes, art imitates life, and here we see it imitating death!

Laurie has wonderful books, original work, prints and a whole host of fascinating illuatrations and drawings that will take you just hours to completely study! Please see her website and support her work! http://www.laurielipton.com