Savannah’s cemeteries have an otherworldly appeal
VISITORS COME FOR the city’s history, weather and exquisite beauty, but they always want to know about the ghosts. And while certain tours, homes, boarding houses and even restaurants and pubs can all offer a haunted experience, cemeteries do it best.
COLONIAL PARK CEMETERY
While Savannah’s earliest burial plot is underneath what is now the Wright Square area, Colonial Park Cemetery, 200 Abercorn St., is the oldest cemetery still in existence. Located in the heart of the historic district, it served as Savannah’s main public cemetery from 1750 to 1853. Those buried there include Nathanael Greene, a major general of the Continental Army credited with wresting the South from the British; Georgia governors Archibald Bullock and Samuel Elbert; and notorious duelists Button Gwinnett and Lachlan McIntosh — notable because Gwinnett, who died from his wounds, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and McIntosh, like Greene, Bullock and Elbert, was a hero of the Revolutionary War. (Also notable: Savannah’s dueling grounds were in Colonial Park Cemetery.) It’s also where the victims of Savannah’s yellow fever epidemic of 1820 were laid to rest.
When Union General Sherman ended his March to the Sea in Savannah in December 1864, his troops set up camp in the park. “They had to camp in all the squares and cemeteries,” says news producer and tour guide Orlando Montoya. “When they stayed in Colonial Park, they knocked over a bunch of graves, many were vandalized, and some of the names and dates were changed.” As one apocryphal story goes, during that cold winter, the soldiers opened the crypts and slept in them, burning the bones inside for warmth.
British Colonel John Mullryne and his wife, Claudia, came to Georgia from South Carolina in the early 1760s. They named their new home Bonaventure, a combination of the Italian words buono and ventura, meaning good fortune. Col. Mullryne is said to be responsible for the live oaks that stand draped in Spanish moss today, adding to the singular beauty and mystique of what is now Bonaventure Cemetery, 330 Bonaventure Road. (One story claims he planted them for the wedding of his daughter Mary to Josiah Tattnall, in the shape of her new initials, M.T.)
During the Revolutionary War, the plantation was involved in the escape of Royal Governor James Wright after his arrest by Savannahians. This ended with the 600-acre Bonaventure tract being confiscated by the Revolutionary government and the families fleeing the country (the Mullrynes to the Bahamas and the Tattnalls to London). But young Josiah Tattnall Jr., loyal to Georgia and the Patriots, returned to fight under Nathanael Greene. Due to his patriotism, he was allowed to buy back his family land. He married Harriet Fenwick and went on to become governor of Georgia. Members of the Tattnall and Mullryne families, including Josiah and Harriet, were the cemetery’s first official inhabitants, buried across the lane from the plantation house.
In 1847, Commodore Josiah Tattnall III sold the property to hotelier Peter Wiltberger, who incorporated 70 acres into the Evergreen Cemetery Company of Bonaventure. It was sold to the city of Savannah in 1907 and became Bonaventure Cemetery.
“Whenever you visit Bonaventure Cemetery, you have to visit Little Gracie. People leave toys and statues and coins for her.” — Orlando Montoya, news producer and tour guide
Bonaventure is known as much for its ornate monuments as its lush greenery. And while it holds famous inhabitants like Johnny Mercer and Conrad Aiken, others became famous after their deaths, like Little Gracie Watson, who died at age 6.
Gracie’s parents managed the famed Pulaski Hotel on Johnson Square. Gracie was often the center of attention in the hotel lobby, playing and putting on shows for the guests. In 1889, just two days before Easter, Gracie succumbed to pneumonia. Her devastated parents commissioned sculptor John Walz to carve a life-sized monument of their little girl, said to be her perfect image.
Savannah was heartbroken over Gracie’s death. “Then when her parents moved back North,” Montoya says, “Little Gracie was left all alone in the cemetery with no one to take care of her grave. So, the tradition became that whenever you visited Bonaventure Cemetery, you had to visit Gracie. People would leave toys and statues and coins for her.” The practice of visiting Gracie continues today, going so far as Little Gracie birthday tours every July 10, complete with “Happy Birthday” serenades.
LAUREL GROVE CEMETERY
The land that would become Laurel Grove Cemetery, 802 W. Anderson St., began as Springfield Plantation, set on 445 acres of land between Augusta and Ogeechee Roads. It was owned by a Scotsman, Lachlan McGillivray, and abandoned in 1770 when he returned to Scotland. In 1782, Continental Congressman Joseph Clay purchased the land and eventually sold it to his son-in-law, Joseph Stiles.
By 1850, Colonial Park had reached its maximum capacity, as had the African American burial site under today’s Calhoun and Whitefield Squares. The city was in need of a new public cemetery. Location was an important consideration, as it was believed that “miasmas” (vapors that floated through the air) from both graves and the prevalent wet rice agriculture were responsible for the spread of disease. (They were right about the rice, but that’s because the water drew mosquitoes.) Springfield Plantation, southwest of the city, was ideal, and the city of Savannah purchased it from Stiles’ estate.
It was believed “miasmas” from both graves and the prevalent wet rice agriculture were responsible for the spread of disease.
Laurel Grove was segregated. “The White section is where your Confederate graves are; Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts; James Pierpont, the composer of ‘Jingle Bells,’” Montoya says. In the southern portion of the cemetery, Black people were buried, including enslaved people, all of the early pastors of the First African Baptist Church and civil rights leader W.W. Law. Another notable inhabitant is Jane DeVeaux, who secretly taught freed and enslaved children in a clandestine school.
Some, like Andrew Bryan, a founder of Savannah’s First African Baptist Church, and Henry Cunningham, an influential businessman and the first leader of the Second African Baptist Church, were originally buried in Whitefield or Calhoun Square, but were moved to Laurel Grove.
Today, Laurel Grove is physically divided into North and South, as Highway 204 runs between the two. And while it does not command the attention and tourists that Bonaventure does, it is also known for its beauty and charm, similarly adorned with elaborately carved monuments, moss-draped oaks, crepe myrtles and azaleas.
Daylight in the Garden
THE POPULARITY OF Bonaventure among tourists exploded after John Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” many seeking out the famous Bird Girl statue, originally located at the Trosdal family grave, according to Montoya, but now safely ensconced in the Telfair Museum of Art.
But when does curiosity and admiration cross a line? Lifelong Savannahian Diane Ciucevich Parker is a first cousin once removed of Johnny Mercer (her dad, David Julian Ciucevich, was Mercer’s first cousin). As such, several of Mercer’s relatives are in the same family plot as her parents, aunts and uncles.
“I’ve had many moments where bridal groups have been loud and boisterous while I was visiting my parents,” she says. “Visitors treat it like River Street.” She’s even had small items, “like an oyster shell Christmas tree,” stolen from their gravestones.
“We welcome you to enjoy the beauty of Bonaventure, but remember it’s a final resting place for many Savannahian families,” Parker says. “Treat it as if your loved one was there. This is sacred ground and a place where, at any time of the day, you’re going to have someone there visiting their loved ones or laying someone to rest.”
Tracy Brisson, owner of Savannah Custom Weddings & Elopements, agrees, noting Bonaventure’s and other cemeteries’ newfound popularity on social media sites like Instagram.
“[Posing on gravestones] is against the rules in all Savannah-owned cemeteries. They’ve banned photographers who they catch doing that, and when we do Halloween weddings, the city assigns us a monitor.” — Tracy Brisson
“[Posing on gravestones] is against the rules in all Savannah-owned cemeteries,” Brisson says. “They’ve banned photographers who they catch doing that, and when we do Halloween weddings, the city assigns us a monitor.” (The city’s conduct page for special events does in fact state, “The municipal cemeteries are not for sensational or entertainment purposes… Activities or events determined to be offensive, sacrilegious, disrespectful, or disruptive… will not be permitted.”)
“I am not sure if most people remember this,” Brisson says, “but Bonaventure is an active gravesite. You do not want a family burying their loved one to see someone in a gown lying on a tombstone. It is both symbolically disrespectful and then actively disrespectful to people who use Bonaventure to mourn their loved ones.”