Last month, I wrote about my trip to Savannah, Georgia. Its historic district is gorgeous and enthralling. If you've never been there, go. If you have been there, you're fortunate. If you live there, I'm jealous of you.
Whenever I visit a city for the first time, I try to read a book about it before my trip. After I arrive, I mosey through local independent bookstores and buy a few books so I can learn more about the town's saints and scoundrels. Those books are always my favorite souvenirs.
It's Savannah, so of course the week before my journey I grabbed my copy of John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I had read it when it was released in 1994, but not since, so I considered re-reading it a mandatory pleasure before my Savannah jaunt. I enjoyed my re-read as much as I did my first, if not more given my impending trip.
As readers of Midnight know, the book's central story is about antiques dealer Jim Williams' four trials for the murder of Danny Hansford in May, 1981. One of the things that always puzzled me in Berendt's book was why, between his first and second trials, Williams abruptly sought to bolster the efforts of his crack legal team with the assistance of a local occult practitioner named Minerva. Prior to his suddenly employing Minerva (a disciple of a dead local "root doctor" named Dr. Buzzard), there was nothing substantial in Midnight to indicate Williams placed any faith in spell-craft and the like. Given Berendt's consistent depiction of Williams as a highly sophisticated and worldly man, it seemed out of character for Williams to retain Minerva's services and hang around in graveyards at midnight to secure an acquittal via such patently extrajudicial tactics, much less to stick with those tactics so ardently for years.
But thanks to my wandering the shelves of some of Savannah's local book shops, I don't wonder about Williams hiring Minerva anymore. A book by James Caskey titled Haunted Savannah aimed me in the direction of finding the light I've sought to solve that little mystery.
I learned Minerva wasn't the first person Williams engaged to perform supernatural services in troubling times in Savannah. Nearly 20 years before Hansford's murder, Williams' second historic home renovation project in Savannah was the Hampton Lillibridge House. Completed around 1799, the house was originally situated on Bryan Street. However, its foundation was faltering badly when Williams bought it in 1963, so he had it moved a couple blocks east to its current address on East St. Julian Street, and began his restoration work.
The restoration did not proceed smoothly. Williams had considerable difficulty keeping craftsmen on his payroll, because the house he bought was and remains renown as the one of the most haunted houses in the most haunted city in America. Following the move, Williams' men discovered a crypt in the house's bowels. The waterlogged crypt was very old, and it wasn't empty. Workmen quit in droves, citing malevolent presences, disappearing tools, unexplained footsteps and voices, apparitions, and lights and music emanating from unoccupied parts of the three-story building. While Williams was abroad on a buying trip, one of Williams' friends ventured into the house to check out some supposed strangeness, only to be rescued by a pair of his buddies who found him terrified on the third floor, screaming that something unseen was trying to throw him down a nearby 30 foot chimney shaft. Eventually enough work was completed for Williams to move into the house himself. His brief tenure included a ceaseless nightly barrage of unidentifiable footsteps, mysterious dark figures that vanished in an instant, and at one point arming himself with a pistol and chasing a specter from room to room until the entity entered a room, slammed the door and locked it from the inside. The disturbances occurred so often Williams took to calling the Savannah police to investigate the house on many occasions, but the cops never found anything. Finally, a police captain visited Williams at the house and told him the department was going to have to start charging Williams to cover the costs of attending all the false alarms. During that conversation, an organ started to play in the house. Williams told the captain that Williams was alone in the house, and didn't own a player organ. The men walked into the parlor, and watched the keys on an organ move by themselves while music flooded the room.
At the end of his earthly rope, Williams hired an Episcopalian bishop from Atlanta to perform an exorcism. That happened on December 7, 1963. It didn't take, because after a few days' respite the paranormal activities returned in full force. Then Williams took a last shot, soliciting an examination and advice from Hans Holzer, a famous paranormal researcher. Holzer confirmed abundant otherworldly presences in the house, but like the good bishop before him, he couldn't make them go away. He was able to write a book featuring Williams' house, though, so it wasn't a total loss for Holzer. Long out of print, the book's called The Phantoms of Dixie.
Incidentally, the Hampton Lillibridge House (it's a private home -- don't go snooping) retains its lofty place among America's most haunted homes to this day. A parapsychological research team from Duke University says the house is the single most haunted building they've every investigated.
So by the time of his successive trials for Hansford's murder in the 1980's, Williams was very well-acquainted with hauntings, exorcisms, and things paranormal. Viewed from that perspective, I no longer wonder why in Midnight Williams "suddenly" brought Minerva onto his legal defense team after his conviction in the first Hansford trial. It wasn't so sudden after all. He couldn't beat them in 1963, so he joined them 20 years later.
"You believe what you choose, and I'll believe what I know."
(As played by Kevin Spacey)