Ever now and again, one really reaches out and touches your heart and gives you something beyond the general patronage of my tour. Which I’m always honored by. After all, they could spend their money LOTS of places, but are spending it with you on that day.
One of the bigger story presentations I do in Bonaventure is at the songwriter/singer (poet in his world), Johnny Mercer’s grave for all of the reasons he deserves as such an accomplished artistic and business spirit. Cole Porter once said, “Johnny Mercer is beyond category.” He wrote over 1500 songs, won 4 Oscars with 19 nominations and founded the biggest record company in the world, Capitol Records.
I grew up with my mother always having a piano & organ in the living room and teaching music in our house. I learned to play to some degree even though it never took really, but other than singing out of The Elvis 101 Songbook, my brother and I sang occasionally out of the Johnny Mercer books too. And nothing improves the mood for me than putting on some Johnny Mercer. Living in Savannah of course gives it something “extra”, and it reminds me of a simpler human feeling of living. The world is always chaos but its good to escape for awhile and feel more lovely about it inside of such songs.
Through the years, I’ve had people who worked with Johnny Mercer at Capitol who have taken my tour and not too many months back, had a woman on the tour that had a memory of him on Regency Street in London around 1970 or so (he died 1976). She was all of 21 and was in a sandwich shop near her home and while in the busy place she heard more than one person chattering “Thank you Mr. Mercer” and “You’re welcome Mr. Mercer.” She looked over and saw him eating and naturally, being a fan of “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” she went up to him and said, “Excuse me Mr. Mercer, I just wanted to say I’m such a big fan.” He looked up from his sandwich and with a big smile, piped, “So am I!” Classic Johnny. Always “On.” The tour had a good laugh over that and how interesting to have met him, had such a moment, and then finding yourself at a person’s grave so many years later to share such a story? It left me envious quite honestly. I’ve met my share of Savannah characters but the closest I will ever get is next to his grave. I did meet his wife, Ginger, an amazing woman before she died in 1994 but that’s another story for another time.
Elizabeth “Ginger” Meltzer as Broadway Show Girl & Later As V.P. Founder of Capitol Records and yes, Mrs. Mercer!
So couple of weeks ago, on one of those Savannah days in November where — well you can’t believe its so perfectly warm and sunny in November — I had a pitch perfect combination of the weather, a group of tourists and some level of good feeling that seemed too good to be true but so wonderful when you know its there and you ride the wave of it all. Attending that day was an older couple and the wife, Terry, had a khaki satchel over her shoulder which at first glance sort of fit their “safari” look as a couple. I paid it no real mind but it would have such special relevance after awhile..
So about 90 minutes in to what at times is a 3 hour story extravaganza, we arrived to the Johnny Mercer family plot on the Johnny Mercer Aisle and I did the big story show at this plot per usual. There’s truly something very spiritual about this plot too. It has this gorgeous live oak and its branches seem like a parasol spreading out protecting the family plot, giving it shade but just enough sun too. And I’ll share with you one of the mysteries of Bonaventure here. The cemetery has 27 miles of azaleas that bloom in March and April. The azaleas around this one patch of cemetery blooms all year long. Rarely do I see them without flowers, even in colder months. I can’t figure it out but I don’t try to either. To me the explanation is in the Mercer plot itself and all of the love and legacy that lives here and that so many people come here adoringly and as they stand there together, pour over their minds remembering all of the life moments they shared around Mercer’s music. Humans feel free to open all of their heart’s chambers there. Their minds too. That’s what fertilizes those flowers. I’m sure of it.
As I went on to tell my version of Johnny’s tale, it was then this lovely couple revealed their true purpose. They announced that they’d brought something to give to me personally. At first I was kind of speechless because I’m so “giving” in my story mode, that I’m not used to having someone present me with gifts in the middle of it! Hah! I kind of felt like someone was talking to me in a dream and that’s the best way I can explain it. Which yes, this is symptomatic of being both in the storytelling zone and the Bonaventure one at the same time.
So once I sort of shifted mental gears, the woman, Terry, started again and said, “Well, when we heard that you were so into Johnny Mercer, we knew we had to bring you these things for your collection.” While the tour looked on also surprised and intrigued, they pulled from their bag a collection of photographs and papers and Terry went onto explain the following living memory of Johnny Mercer and in a very distinct, elegant, Scottish accent I might add.
“When I was a younger woman, in my teens, I lived in Edinburgh and my mother worked at a very grand hotel there where lots of famous people stayed so I was used to my mother (Molly), telling me about seeing Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and lots of different celebrities in movies and music. I’d gone into the lobby one day and was waiting for my mother to take a break and suddenly I hear a man say, “Hey there Molly,” and I turned to see this short man walking through the lobby and really he was nothing to look at, but my mother replied, “Hello Mr. Mercer,” and they began talking to each other. It was then I realized it was Johnny Mercer. My mother knew that I was fan and when she took a moment to introduce me, and I expressed myself as much, he was legitimately surprised that someone so young knew who he was and took great interest in this fact. He told me he was in Europe to record an album with Bobby Darin and that when he finished it he would send me an autographed copy. He took all of my information and to my great surprise he sent my mother and I an autographed photograph(See Images) and then later some correspondence from his hotel in Paris, a couple of letters from California, a Christmas card, and of course, an autographed copy of the album, “Two of A Kind” with Bobby Darin.”
As Terry handed me all of this, I wanted more than anything to sit down with her and just talk but knowing I had a tour to finish, I was very fumbly and felt that having to just move along was somehow an insult to this lovely gesture so did all that I could to show my appreciation as we continued to walk onto the the last few grave sites of the day. Sometimes you just feel so blessed by the actions of others that you kind of want to cry with happiness and this for me was one of those times. I’m not sure if it will make sense to others, but it was like two angels had given me such treasures and then just walked back into the clouds. I wanted more time with them for such thoughtfulness.
Which is the thing. Even now as I’ve been typing this and scanning the images I’ve come to realize that I’m holding these very personal items 2nd hand. 3 hands ago? They were in his. Its 3 degrees of separation in my world. Johnny Mercer took the hotel’s stationery in Paris, probably smoking and a drink nearby, inserted into the typewriter and typed it up reflecting on the meeting with the young girl who was the woman on my tour. And yes, as you’ll read, flirting openly with them both. Perhaps he was just being “Johnny,” but maybe as he typed, it wasn’t a far cry from the feeling of a piano and as he thought himself the poet first, songman after, such letters may have seen more close to the heart of himself and his craft. Perhaps he whistled while he did and maybe flashes of song lyrics came to his lips, words for a future song. Who knows, maybe he even thought, “that’s witty” and jotted a note to the side. Surely there was music playing nearby? Yes, its fun to romance such things. And as I said earlier. I can’t bring him back to life. I’ll never get to really meet him. I can just be inspired in my stories by his spirit and conjure him up for audiences graveside. No, he doesn’t need me to do this but I love doing it. Johnny was known to be very personal with his fans. We’re a lot a like that way too. Mike Douglas once reflected to Tom Waits that he was the most personal, down to earth guy you could ever hope to run into in Hollywood. I don’t doubt it. He was from Savannah after all. He was everyone’s huckleberry friend.
Even now, Johnny Mercer is making magic happen through moments like this in Bonaventure…
Autograph To Molly & Terry
Mercer Family Christmas Card
Christmas Card Interior
Paris Letter To Terry
California Letter To Molly & Terry
California Letter To Terry
By Shannon Scott
Some of my fans and friends out there have already read this but wanted to add it to my blog as its been a popular request. Really looking forward to the expanded version of this story one day so people can really appreciate what a great friendship I shared with Paul Blatner and what a great man he was to this life!
So I have a theory on why I saw the ghosts two days ago. It was today that I learned that on the same day, one of my very good friends, mentors, teachers, Paul Blatner died. He was an amazing man who I will never in my life forget and he was just 58. He was one of the most amazing collectors I have ever met and very distinguished in his accomplishments. He started The Savannah History Museum, was an archivist at The Smithsonian and some of the objects on permanent loan there in the black studies collection, are considered priceless and the most valuable in the museum itself. He was funny, like a brother and I just talked to him less than two weeks ago for the last time and we shared some laughs. I am currently writing a story to honor his memory and our friendship and will be sharing it with everyone soon. A funny moment occurred this morning. I did not know his funeral was in Bonaventure at 10:30am but as I walked my tour to the map board there, I see the red funeral arrow bearing his name. I briefly mentioned him to my crowd, and first person to drive in and up to me was Professor John Duncan (Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil character) and naturally he asks me for directions. So for about 5 minutes I stood there and directed everyone towards Paul’s plot. I believe this was the universe operating yet again and Paul was smiling on this. Our friendship was about stories and ribald and while he was being sent to the Great Beyond, I was peppering the grounds shaman style with the energy of my storytelling. Naturally I intend to make him a stop on my tours in the future. Yes, later I went back to have a word with him and wanted to take him something personal that was “of me” and “of us.” As he was one of the great bottle colllector’s of Savannah, and almost literally, “The Father Of,” I placed a broken 19th century Savannah made Ginger Beer bottle at his grave as a flower vase. I found this in Bonaventure awhile ago and to me, the broken aspect, symbolic of the end of our earthly friendship and that yes, an earthly gesture that there will never be another like him. Bottles can be seen as the foundation collection of real collectors and shows humbleness and the ability to see beauty in simple things, which too are often very valuable as objects. At core bottles show others that you’re willing to really get dirty and dig to find something great and that you’re more than high brow academic or snooty antiques’ dealer. I kid the reader not, but I could bring Paul a pile of mixed glass out of a hole in the ground and Paul could tell me where and when every piece if it was made! The other object is a miniature of the statue to the Unknown Confederate Dead that you find in Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta. Paul was a Reb through an’ through and had one of the most amazing Confederate collections in America, including the rifle surrendered to Sherman by the Savannah Mayor. Interestingly, Paul was also buried with his father today. Howard Lee Blatner who died in 2009. I also knew him and he was a great man who grew up in the orphanage, Bethesda, America’s oldest orphanage begun by Ben Franklin in 1740. His father had been cremated and Paul had his ashes in a closet the whole time so Paul’s sister interred both of them together and as they were really a team for so many years in so many things, it was only right. I am grateful that Paul doted some amazing story objects on me as collector and that these things are now part of my storytelling. I consider it a blessing that I will always be evoking his name with the ways that I continue to inspire people. In that sense, we too will always be a team. And to some degree, this is why I believe I saw the two children spirits with their Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn hats. We were two friends that like children, delighted in the world around us and made one another giddy without any thought paid to who was watching. Long live Paul Blatner. The South mourns you fine sir.
My Song Dedication To My Friend Paul Blatner
I’ve done a number of incredibly cool posters for Bonaventure After Hours & my event, Dinner & A Cemetery, but this is the first poster I’ve created for Bonaventure as itself. While I art directed, the very gifted artist, Matt Duplessie helped me once again create something great for the artistry of my business! Matt Duplessie One of the things I’m constantly making people aware of, is how every detail of Victorian cemeteries, not matter how slight, has powerful symbolic meaning to spirituality and the many disciplines. Cemeteries are full of secrets. The poster you see here was derived from a 19th century image devoted to the fraternal order of The Odd Fellows. Their credo as an order — “Visit the Sick & Dying. Educate The Orphan. Bury The Stranger.” Sounds like a real party right? Actually there were known as the fun lodge among the many “friendly societies” of the 19th Century. In the poster we find many symbols hidden in cemeteries both literal, and via the flowers you see. The Calla Lily (Resurrection, Love), the Clasping Hands (Goodbye to your earthly home, hello to your heavenly & also Masonic handshake), The Beehive (Industriousness, Community), the Heart In Open Hand (Charity), the All Seeing Eye (God Watching Over All) and The Three Links (Friendship, Love & Truth) of The Three Link Fraternity. There’s also one surprise in the poster that I’ll leave particular people to discover and when they do, it will hold very special meaning but I shan’t tell. The poster is 12 x 18 on high gloss, acid free paper and is just stunning. You can order one here on Amazon for just $10.00, $4.95 regular shipping or can upgrade expedited. I’m happy to sign them if requested. Mailed in a sturdy tube! Bonaventure Love & Truth Poster
WARNING: Contains Adult Subjects, Some Profanity & Sexual Situations)
In 2005 I was invited to read for film about vampyres. I didn’t care much about them or for them, but the film paid, had some talented people involved, and after a test kiss with my female co-star, Tara Rinko who had stunning eyes, I was in for the 12 weeks of shooting. It also conincided strangely with my own time spent with a vampyre house, which was more like a group of tragically deluded children. I’ll write about them at a later date as they were a true, sanguine, or blood drinking house (I did not participate). The film became a strange allegory for my own life and sorting out its demons. I was always a person tortured by lusts and passions and it was only until shooting the film that I realized this was the crux of the vampyre personality and all the more reason it was in my life as a project. I was confronting my own darknesses and torments. We filmed this in an unoccupied house in downtown Savannah, a strip club called The Gold Club, along with Bonaventure Cemetery. My life ran a regular pattern for those 12 weeks. I would film the vampyre film all day, doing one or two ghost tours, then go back to the set to do more filming. It was like while confronting my own demons, while making art, I was becoming even more like a vampyre in my own life.
The story is basically about Francis the vampyre who has been alive since The Civil War, if not before, and long before the 21st century, he had lost his lover, Bathory to the war itself. After a century and more for searching for her, he finds her working at a modern day strip club, although its from sketching her in a random way, that he begins to realize this is indeed Bathory. He becomes decided in his mission to seduce and kidnap her, realizing that she is not “awake” to her former self and that he must resurrect her unconscious vampyre mind to once more join him in their journey. She eventually does, but only after staking him in the heart (Spoiler Alert!) and he dies in her arms. Strangely, but I could relate to that actually.
One interesting character note was that instead of having my character sleeping in a coffin, they decide to use a bed that I own that is made entirely of cemetery gates from Laurel Grove Cemetery here in Savannah. The gates probably date from the 1850s but the “headboard,” are these arching acanthus vines that would have been the entrance arch to a family plot and then the “footboard” is part of the fence from the plot with running boards coming from another part of the fence’s original foundation. The bed once reposed insde of the Hamilton-Turner House of Savannah and believe it or not, was in their wedding suite! Oddly its the only time the bed was really used by me or since and is just sitting in my garage in pieces. For a time, I had it on disply in my house for ghost tours and you can see it there in the photograph in this article in a picture that was taken for ESQUIRE Japan. That’s also my dog Mina in the bed with me who ironically, I named for Wynona Ryder’s character in the film “Bram Stoker’s DRACULA.” And she was my Mina for 16 years passing on in 2007.
The Victorian House in the middle of summer was beastly hot which to some degree was fine as I knew I would be doing a sex scene and that I wanted to lose some weight before filming it. The day we shot the sex scene was beyond surreal and interesting. Probably 10 crew members in a tiny little room, all hovering around the bed, camera lights and a rather larger 35MM film camera with crane, creening down and hovering over the action. Not trying to sound too cheeky but it did give you some empathy for your every day erotic film players. I’m pretty sure we spent somewhere around 8 hours or more, filming that scene. I had decided that since I was a regular walk-around-the-house-in-the-buff type, and frequently sunbathed in the nude, that I was going to take the whole thing in stride. I just pretty much walked around in ala birthday suit and did the scene unapologetically. You pretty much have to either cast any doubt to the winds or as I did, I just told myself, “Man, you look GOOD.” And I did so there. Plus my sexy costar made it easy and I was actually shocked, but she was much more nervous than I and at times it was really tough for her to be the object of focus. Thankfully there were some libations on the set that day!
So that’s that really. The 21 minute film, which is not on video, but actually shot on 35mm celluloid, was a fun little project. It showed at the one of the Savannah College of Art & Design Film Festival events and funny, but at one of the after parties where the crowd was dominated by many Spanish girls, I got recognized and they all kept saying suspiciously, “Vampiro! Vampiro!” Sadly, they did not ask for my autograph, nor a date. I believe the test film later sold in Hollyweird for a bigger project but do not believe that it was or has been made into a longer film. I had lots of fun doing it and learned a lot about myself too. It became part of the story of self, and shaking off my spiritual darkness and am glad I have the memory…
Read More Great Reviews Here & Find Out Why What I Offer People Is So Top Ranked! Bonaventure Cemetery Journeys
(Click Play To Listen To Shannon Recite This Article)
Bonaventure feels old. Really old. But beautiful. It feels like a destination after a long journey. I was told it’s a 10-minute drive from downtown but was once hours by horseback. In fact, the winding roads going up to it from two directions bespeak of an old carriage road that was never straightened. At the main entrance stand towering live oaks that look like elder guardians and an elegant brick caretaker’s house with pristine flower gardens. It’s a city office today, but was first the home of the cemetery’s sexton families. You ever look at a house and get the feeling it knows things? This one does. Especially those upstairs rooms, but they weren’t talking. Again, those confounding dualities of the Midnight In The Garden of Good and EvilSavannah. Mysteries hidden like you have to earn them or wait til they come to you.
My first clues? Little bat or gargoyle wings cast into the main iron gates and these two statues capping the entrance pillars. These “Mary” figures look sleepy and kind of sensual prompting in the reverent spectacle, what felt a semi-blasphemous thought, “Can cemeteries be sexy?” Before I could give that much attention, I saw something looking at me. An eye shape on what appeared to be the main cemetery map board encased in glass. Sure enough as I approached, the eye was there (not unlike the one on the business card given to me by Sabine). I walked closer and as I did the sunlight went from feeling yellow to golden. I mused, “Shadows and sunlight are stronger in here.”
When I got to the map board, I saw that the cemetery is rather large to say the least (100-200 acres). As I looked at this very distinct hieroglyphic-like eye, the map seemed to have a profile of a head around it. I’d seen things on TV about map makers and park planners using symbols and other impressions of antiquity inside such designs but wondered if it was my over-active imagination. The Victorians were into the iconography of the Egyptians, although this head reminded me of those murals of bald slaves or perhaps a pharaoh without his headdress. Near the map board was a yellow wooden arrow on a temporary stake. Taped to it was a piece of printer paper bearing a name and time, “Martin – 2pm.” I presumed this was pointing funeral goers to a plot, so I decided to walk in that direction. It was still early, and I might meet someone interesting.
As I roamed, I was taken with how garden-like Bonaventure seemed. The sheer number of live oaks dressed out in dangling moss cobwebs. It occurred to me that if one was seeking to conceal anything gothic or creepy, they might consider sticking to just palm trees. The live oaks are like something out of Tolkien’s imagination, waving gnarled arms with mouths that are both yawning or screaming in the serenity. As you pass, it’s as if they’re saying, “Wait til the sun goes down, that is when our day begins.”
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Anne Photography
Just ahead I could see a black van and a green tent. I continued to pass through an array of mourning statues, towering obelisks several stories high, broken columns and urns covered in veils. The many symbols made me aware of how so many religious views live on the backs of others and how diverse Savannah is or had once been. Suddenly more eyes were on me. A small headstone depicted the faces of three children peering from inside a heart-shaped window as if they were in heaven looking down on their family. The expressions of sympathy carved into their tiny faces was so natural. I marveled at the artist’s skill while trying to comprehend the mother, who in 1903, lay with all three of them lifeless in her arms. Standing over this small grave there was a simple but jarring phrase stamped in bold letters…(TRIPLETS). The parenthesis there as if to whisper the impact. Neighboring were the headstones of two other children for what appeared to be a total of five lost by a single mother. I was reminded of how novelist Mary Shelley had lost several children during childbirth and that “Frankenstein” in some way was her processing her anger toward God.
“Those are the carvings of John Walz,” a voice announced from behind.
As I whirled around, an older man stood there, probably in his 70s, breathing tubes extending from his nostrils leading to an oxygen tank strung over his shoulder.
“Sorry if I startled you, young man. I’m here for a friend’s service and came early to walk around as I’ve got a lot of family and memories here,” he reminisced. He called himself Mike Deegan.
“Who was this sculptor again?” I asked.
“John Walz. He was from Philly, married a Savannah girl and made our cemeteries more beautiful for sure…yeah, Savannah really lucked out with him,” he noted with a certain pride.
“Mike, is it true that those sculptors made their livings, so to speak, from children’s deaths during that period..it really seems like their graves are everywhere,” I noted.
“Yes, I suppose you’re right,” he sighed. Mike then popped up and asked, Have you met Little Gracie?“
Telling him no, he asked if he could introduce me. As we walked, Mike spoke of many names and families. Although the monuments seemed more than twice his age, he spoke of them as if he had known them. I heard both happiness and sorrow in his voice as if he wished they were still here.
Mike stopped in the road for a moment, wheezing, “Kid, whatever you do, don’t smoke anything stronger than pot…man, I shoulda listened to my friends at Haight-Ashbury,” he chuckled.
For all of the hushed conversation in Savannah, it’s amazing what residents will actually tell you if they determine you’re worthy. Like they want you to carry the truth outside of the walls and share, but not give them up at the same time in their home town. Mike said the reason he could talk more like this was because he lived way out in another county now.
As we continued to walk, I seemed to miss the major monuments in plots as I was struck by all of the children’s graves tucked at the back of family plots. Whereas monuments to adults were often bold, gray granite pieces, the memorials to children appeared stark white as if the stone marked their innocence. Tiny, even miniature headstones with little marble borders surrounding the grave poked out, and depending on their lengths, hinted at the child’s age at death. Toddlers a foot or so long mixed with slightly longer pieces of marble of children closer to 7 or 10 years old. According to Mike, these were flower beds where ivy once grew or morning glories, and now most are barren. There were reclined lambs carved into the top portions of some, with the occasional toy or trinket placed by family or perhaps a random stranger moved by the loneliness of one grave. I pondered if these were some of the lights and sources of the laughter at night. Do people hear it during the day?
Gracie by Jennifer Anne Photography
As we turned down a road bearing the sign, “Gracie Section,” there were a few cars parked narrowly by a fenced-in plot and several people standing in front smiling and stretching their arms above or through the fence to take pictures. Rising above some interior shrubs, there stood a glowing white marble statue of a small, pleasant-looking girl seated on a bench. One hand of the child was resting on a tree that looked chopped in half, a vine climbing it, the other hand holding perhaps a flower, and the pedestal she was seated on had branches forming the girl’s name, “GRACIE.” There were toys scattered in the front part of the plot, some handwritten notes and coins placed along the railing of the fence. She was also holding a toy teddybear on her lap, evidence that the fence didn’t deter everyone. There was a marble plaque with a few details but I preferred to hear Mike’s take on her.
“Who was she?” I asked.
“She’s Savannah,” Mike replied. “Her mother and father had a fancy hotel downtown during the “Cotton Boom” and Gracie was their only child. There was something special about her and everyone knew it. Everyone came to see her at the hotel (that was their home)…mayors, politicians all saw her as good luck, travelers too that were so far from their families. She must’ve been an old soul or something. People would give her things because they believed it meant their own families would be well when they returned off a long road,” he remarked.
“Newspapers and travel journals talked about her for awhile and it seemed like everyone wanted to know her…but she died when she was six in 1889 of pneumonia. Some say she got hit by a carriage first, but I don’t know that. First statue John Walz did in Savannah, and no one every forgot him for it…people were real sad over her death,” he noted solemnly.
“Every kid in Savannah grew up with her in a way…we all played around her before this fence was here, and you know, we all kept coming back to her as we grew older..she was like family, and I won’t lie, we might have had a beer or two with Gracie, but that’s ok, her parents owned a bar,” he laughed.
I asked him if he had more than oxygen in the tank, and after Mike stopped roaring over my jest, he looked at me like he was making a study and prompted, “Bet you wanna know the legend, huh?”
Of course I did, and said as much.
“Well don’t you believe that junk on the internet about her crying tears of blood…dumbest stuff I ever heard,” he fired back. “Even my grandmother told me this one, if you come out here under a full moon in the winter, all of these headstones are cold as ice, Gracie though – warm – like she’s still alive!”
As I looked at Mike’s elated face back over at Gracie, it seemed that she was smiling more than when we first arrived.
“She does that,” Mike boasted.
“What do you mean?” I chuckled.
“You saw her smile didn’t you?” he said proudly.
I thought to myself, had I? Was I becoming part of this illusory Savannah mindset?
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Anne Photography
Gracie suddenly seemed to me the reigning child; princess of “Heaven’s Playground”. Like she was the central figure in the cast; that all living and dead children came to pay homage to and perhaps lead their games. And for all of those who have no life-like statue, no headstone, no face, she symbolizes all of them. She is every child buried at Bonaventure.
“Why is Gracie here alone, Mike?”
His face grew sullen. He looked deeply at Gracie and said, “No one really knows, but after Walz unveiled the monument, her mother and father lost faith in the business…things…they sold the hotel, and within a few years were all gone. Guess they had nothing left for this place after such a golden time.”
Mike genuinely had tears in his eyes as he spoke, “Stranger still no one knows where they went or what happened to her parents.”
After holding back, I bravely asked, “Mike, do you know any ghost stories about Bonaventure?”
He shot me a look, and then humored, “Boy you really know how to work a guy!”
We both cracked up for a minute. I went on to tell him what I’d heard about the spook lights and children’s laughter. I could tell from his face he understood every word.
“So you wanna know about Heaven’s Playground?” Mike asked. “Now I don’t want you to think what I’m going to tell you is dark or evil or anything, because I think these kids out here have passed on but come back to fill this place with good energy and that’s what people feel out here day and night. They’re like cleaners of all the energy people come in with. They take people’s pain away, you see. They send everyone back to their lives good or better than they were before,” he concluded.
“I appreciate that Mike, but how does Gracie fit in?”
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Anne Photography
He went on, “Well before they put up that dern jail cell around her, the tradition was for everyone to come here and give Gracie a toy, maybe a coin and keep her company for a minute. The old saying is that she adopts every passerby and every passerby adopts her…she’s kind of the main attraction in “Heaven’s Playground” I guess you could say.”
He added, “But now she’s in a pen, and I don’t much like it. Gracie was out here for everybody. I know people do dumb things but I miss the old-fashioned way, you know…guess I’m showing my age.”
Out of the corner of my eye I noted that hearses and a string of cars were flowing into Bonaventure.
“Mike! Oh man, I forgot you were here for a funeral!”
He looked over in the direction of the tent and laughed, “Do I look like I’m in a hurry to get to a funeral, son? They need this oxygen more than me!”
We laughed. He appreciated my own quip when I told him that I too had a “deadline” waiting on me. As we were saying our goodbyes, I couldn’t resist asking, “Mike, has anyone ever seen Gracie’s ghost? I mean, does she play here or does she just sit here?”
He seemed impressed, “Son, I’ve never seen her myself, but I had some good friends who did. They used to live in that house up at the front for a long, long time. Just before the city moved in to take over the cemetery, there were my friends who were the sextons. One night in the heat of the summer, the grandmother and great grandmother were alone in the home when a friend dropped by. They were all sitting in the den with the door open with just the screen closed to catch the breeze off the bluff. Without a whisper, …there was suddenly a girl standing at the door with her hands on the screen and her nose pressed into it. She was just staring at them.there was suddenly a girl standing at the door with her hands on the screen and her nose pressed into it. She was just staring at them. The family friend took no notice of the girl’s appearance, but the other women knew who she was and couldn’t even speak. They said that the buttons on the girls dress were identical to that of Gracie’s, as were the style of shoes and buttons as well. The family friend was first to speak and asked the strange girl if there was something they could do for her. The girl responded by taking her hands off the screen and began to walk backwards away from the door. The family friend got up and went to the door and the other women followed. There the girl stood at the top of the steps, still staring at them and without a word, and without taking her eyes off of their’s, walked backwards down the steps and uncanny I tell ya, walked backwards staring at them back into the mist of the cemetery! Can you believe it? In reverse! Just gives me chills thinking about it and the two women of the family were stupified! But the family friend hadn’t made any spiritual connection and said casually to the women, “I’m going to go after her.” As she opened the screen door, an icy breeze blew into the house and the great-grandmother lunged at the woman yanking her back in and shrieked, “DON’T YOU DARE!” Once the two women explained to her who they believed had just visited them, their friend began to tremble with understanding and fear. Funniest part is, they went over to a bar in Thunderbolt that next minute and ordered themselves the biggest shots they’d ever drunk in their whole lives!”
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Anne Photography
Mike roared with laughter, yet I felt reluctant to do the same, as I stood there trying to process what he had just told me. Laughter was the last emotion I could conjure up thinking about not just a vaporous apparition doing this, but a flesh and blood statue spirit walking in the night.
“Why do you think Gracie did that or came to them in that way?” I managed to ask.
“Well, I can tell you what those women told me as a much younger man…since they were moving out they believed it was Gracie coming by in her own way to say goodbye to them, and a kind of “job well done for us here in the cemetery” parting moment. And I need a drink for just telling you that, young man,” he amusingly confided.
“But right now, I gotta go say a final toast to an old friend,” he said as he turned to go.
Some crows nearby began to caw in the trees and he commented, “Oh boy, that ain’t good luck. People used to say if you heard that at a funeral, meant someone else in your family was going to die. Sure hope it ain’t me, I gotta lot more to do today!”
I told him the crow would probably die before he would, I heard him laugh approvingly as he walked away. As I turned to leave, I caught sight of a note that didn’t seem to be there the whole time Mike and I were talking. It was a little weathered, yellow piece of journal paper, tied to Gracie’s gate, written in a child’s hand:
“Dear Gracie, my baby brother came to join you last week. Please take good care of him for us. I loved him very much. Love, Jenny”
Her handwriting told me she wasn’t more than 5 years old. Right about the same age as Gracie when she passed. A part of me wished I could tell Jenny that it would be ok and that Gracie would be looking out for her little brother.
That’s the thing about Savannah. It has the most beautiful of living things and the most beautiful of life gone by. It is full of notes and signs that seem to be found in the slightest moments with random encounters or people. They’re all reaching out and telling you something at every turn, entrusting you with it for some purpose of your own. And when I thought about why Mike had told me that ghost story, it dawned on me, that through the story, both he and Gracie wanted me to do a good job telling their story; and I certainly hope that I have.
So strange, but Savannah in a short time has become a new layer of my own skin. A part of its soul, now my own. Even if I didn’t have a moment with a ghost, in the very short time I visited, I feel like I got something better. Like I had a profound out-of-body and other worldly encounter with a mystical city and its most mysterious cemetery.
Photo courtesy of Dick Bjornseth
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.
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 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?”
They muttered, “Umm…we don’t have any.”
I chuckled back, “How’s that?”
My curiosity was naturally raised by this retort, “Are you telling me that officially? How do you know that they’re not?”
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.
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 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 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!