The Haunting Beauty of Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, Georgia ~9 min read
Located on a scenic bluff of the Wilmington River, east of Savannah, Georgia, Bonaventure Cemetery is a rural cemetery became famous when it was featured in the 1994 novel “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt, and in the subsequent movie, directed by Clint Eastwood, based on the same book.
Like the book, it has a Southern Gothic atmosphere, with Spanish moss giving shade to time-worn Victorian monuments.
It is the largest of the city’s municipal cemeteries, containing nearly 160 acres (around 0.65 km2) and, interestingly, it’s generally considered to be one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the entirety of the United States—quite a feat!
Now operated by Savannah’s Department of Cemeteries and 100-acres in total, Bonaventure once belonged to the Tattnall and Mullryne families of the late eighteenth century.
The plantation consisted of 9,920-acres, an enormous plot of land that today would comprise most of the Savannah Region.
However, drama started from here: Commodore Josiah Tattnall and Colonel John Mullryne were Loyalists, and once the Revolutionary War erupted, the state of Georgia (like many other newly installed states) stripped all Loyalist supporters of their land.
And our characters were no different.
What followed then was a long-term back-and-forth saga in which Tattnall and Mullryne were booted out and John Habersham purchased Bonaventure. The plantation’s name was decided upon by the original owners, who perhaps saw good fate in naming a working plantation “Bonaventure,” which means “good fortune” in Italian. It’s tough to say whether either Tattnall or Mullryne saw any good fortune in having their land be stolen away, but Tattnall’s son was able to repurchase the estate from Habersham himself in 1788.
Good fortune, really.
Until 1846, Bonaventure remained within the Tattnall family, before being sold to Peter Wiltberger.
The first burials took place in 1850, and three years later, Peter Wiltberger himself was entombed in a family vault.
Major William H. Wiltberger, the son of Peter, formed the Evergreen Cemetery Company on June 12, 1868 and, on July 7, 1907, the City of Savannah purchased the company, making officially the cemetery public.
In 1867 influential Scottish-American naturalist John Muir began his Thousand Mile Walk to Florida and the Gulf. In October he sojourned for six days and nights in the Bonaventure cemetery, sleeping upon graves overnight, this being the safest and cheapest accommodation that he could find while he waited for money to be expressed from home.
He found the cemetery even then breathtakingly beautiful and inspiring and wrote a lengthy chapter upon it, “Camping in the Tombs”:
“Part of the grounds was cultivated and planted with live-oak (Quercus virginiana), about a hundred years ago, by a wealthy gentleman who had his country residence here But much the greater part is undisturbed. Even those spots which are disordered by art, Nature is ever at work to reclaim, and to make them look as if the foot of man had never known them. Only a small plot of ground is occupied with graves and the old mansion is in ruins.
The most conspicuous glory of Bonaventure is its noble avenue of live-oaks. They are the most magnificent planted trees I have ever seen, about fifty feet high and perhaps three or four feet in diameter, with broad spreading leafy heads. The main branches reach out horizontally until they come together over the driveway, embowering it throughout its entire length, while each branch is adorned like a garden with ferns, flowers, grasses, and dwarf palmettos.
But of all the plants of these curious tree-gardens the most striking and characteristic is the so-called Long Moss (Tillandsia usneoides). It drapes all the branches from top to bottom, hanging in long silvery-gray skeins, reaching a length of not less than eight or ten feet, and when slowly waving in the wind they produce a solemn funereal effect singularly impressive.
There are also thousands of smaller trees and clustered bushes, covered almost from sight in the glorious brightness of their own light. The place is half surrounded by the salt marshes and islands of the river, their reeds and sedges making a delightful fringe. Many bald eagles roost among the trees along the side of the marsh. Their screams are heard every morning, joined with the noise of crows and the songs of countless warblers, hidden deep in their dwellings of leafy bowers. Large flocks of butterflies, flies, all kinds of happy insects, seem to be in a perfect fever of joy and sportive gladness. The whole place seems like a center of life. The dead do not reign there alone.
Bonaventure to me is one of the most impressive assemblages of animal and plant creatures I ever met. I was fresh from the Western prairies, the garden-like openings of Wisconsin, the beech and maple and oak woods of Indiana and Kentucky, the dark mysterious Savannah cypress forests; but never since I was allowed to walk the woods have I found so impressive a company of trees as the tillandsia-draped oaks of Bonaventure.
I gazed awe-stricken as one new-arrived from another world. Bonaventure is called a graveyard, a town of the dead, but the few graves are powerless in such a depth of life. The rippling of living waters, the song of birds, the joyous confidence of flowers, the calm, undisturbable grandeur of the oaks, mark this place of graves as one of the Lord’s most favored abodes of life and light.”
Well…either way, there are many notable characters buried here, including singer Johnny Mercer (1909 – 1976).
19 Academy Award Nominations.
Over 1,500 written songs.
Founder of Capitol Records.
Johnny was born in Savannah, and hailed from a long line of important Savannahians. His mother Lillian Elizabeth was descended from a merchant seaman who navigated a Union blockade during the Civil War. If that heroic feat was not enough, Johnny Mercer also claimed Confederate General Hugh Weedon Mercer as his great-grandfather and American Revolutionary War General Hugh Mercer as well!
Oh, and he also happened to be somewhat distantly related to General S. Patton.
From a very young age, Johnny’s parents fostered a musical environment.
His father would sing Scottish songs, while his mother would bring him to vaudeville shows, even at the incredibly tender age of six months. With no musical education behind him, Johnny joined his church’s choir at age six, and by age twelve had amassed hundreds of memorized songs in his head.
His talent was unprecedented, but so too was the fact that as good as he was a singer, he was an even better composer and songwriter.
When his father’s business crashed, Johnny was expected to help as much as he could, and his need for escape grew from there.
An escape that came in the form of New York City, to which he moved in 1928 at nineteen years old.
His first lyric appeared in a musical, The Garrick Gaieties, in 1930. Then he traveled to California and met Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong, two of his biggest idols.
For the next few years, in addition to marrying Ginger Meehan, Johnny threw himself into his work: he made a recording debut, he wrote dozens of songs that did not make it anywhere, and he won a contest to perform with the Paul Whiteman orchestra.
But it was not until the 1930s that Johnny truly found notoriety.
He moved to Hollywood, began writing music for the movie industry, and as they say: that was that.
After a few flops, his “I’m an Old Cowhand from the Rio Grande” was the final step he needed to cement his place in the music world, where he continued, until his death in 1976.
He was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, in 2009 Clint Eastwood released a documentary about Johnny in celebration of the centennial anniversary of his life and, in that same year, the city of Savannah did him one more honor: they created a statue for him in Savannah’s Ellis Square.
The tomb of Johnny Mercer’s great-grandfather, General Hugh W. Mercer’s (1808 – 1877) can also be found at Bonaventure Cemetery, as well as poet Conrad Aiken (1899 – 1973).
At the age of eleven, Conrad’s father brutally murdered Conrad’s mother, before turning the gun upon himself.
Apparently there was no known reasoning as to why, at least none that was admitted outside of the family. Following the homicide-turned-suicide, Conrad and his three younger siblings were shipped to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be raised with their mother’s sister.
Between the brutal deaths of his parents, and Aiken’s later enrollment in Harvard University, his path to literary greatness was born of grief, hope and an interest in the psychological.
At Harvard, he met T.S. Eliot, who would become one of his most long-lasting friends.
Sigmund Freud and Carl G. Jung were two scholarly psychologists that Conrad studied profusely—so much so that by the 1920s, Sigmund Freud had actually learned about his writings and wished to conduct his own psychoanalysis of Conrad himself. Conrad, beside himself with excitement, buying a ship ticket and sailing straight for France to meet with his idol. It was during his time on board that he actually stumbled across one of Freud’s personal disciples, who warned him that taking Freud up on his offer might not be in his best interest. Whether Conrad was upset about this revelation or not, we will never know, but we do know that he never met the man who most influenced his life’s work.
But probably it’s Gracie Watson (1883 – 1889) who most deserves a visit.
Having died at just six years old, her grave is marked by a life-size marble statue with her hand resting on a tree stump, symbolizing her life cut short.
Her story is by no means lighthearted.
Born in 1883 to parents W.J. and Frances Watson, she hailed originally from Boston, Massachusetts.
After her father was given the opportunity to manage one of the most popular hotels in Savannah the Watson family made the move to Georgia.
After all, one did not say no to the luxurious Pulaski Hotel!
From almost the first moment that the Watson family arrived, Gracie’s face became one of the most recognized in all of the hotel.
The guests adored the little girl, and it seems that she adored them as well. For Gracie, it seemed that there was all the time in the world.
Sadly, at just six years old, she was struck with a high fever and a plaguing cough. Somehow she had caught pneumonia, a sickness that could level any adult and could surely do damage to a little girl. Simply, she had not the strength to press on, and just days before Easter she finally succumbed to illness.
W.J. and Frances were utterly distraught.
W.J. had a beautiful stone carving erected in Bonaventure Cemetery by famed sculptor John Waltz, and his skill surely did poor Gracie justice.
For obvious reasons, her parents found it almost unbearable to remain in Savannah after her death, and they chose to return to New England, where they lived out the rest of their days. At the time of the respective deaths, they were both buried together in New England…while poor Gracie remained in Savannah. Alone.
But there is a happy ending…well…more or less.
For over a hundred years now, little Gracie has been a favorite stop for visitors of Bonaventure Cemetery. Although she is not with her family, one could surely argue that her family has since become everyone who stops by her tomb and leave her a toy or just say her hello.
Some have even reported seeing the ghost of Gracie near the site.
For years, people have reported seeing a little girl that fits her description playing in Johnson Square, where her father’s hotel once stood. The legend claims she appears as a normal, living little girl in a white dress who vanishes without a trace when you get too close.
In any case, with 100-acres of land for gravestones and tombs, these are only some of most popular stops in Bonaventure Cemetery.
Other famous people interred within Bonaventure Cemetery are Georgia’s first governor, Edward Telfair, silent film actress Edythe Chapman, and Bishop Middleton Barnwell, while other spooky accounts include inexplicable sounds, like crying babies and barking dogs, and statues suddenly smiling as people approach them.
Yes, Bonaventure Cemetery may contain some haunted legacies, but it is an enchanting place that transfixes every visitor that enters its gate.
And absolutely it deserve a visit, after all.
Images from web – Google Research