The strange history of Bonaventure Cemetery

Updated: Feb 26, 2020


So awhile back, I did a video on 10 haunted places in Savannah, Georgia. Problem is, there are tons of haunted places in Savannah, and most of them, including most of the ones in that video, have histories so extensive they probably could have had their own videos. But there was one place I purposefully didn’t talk about then because I knew I wanted to do a full story on it, so here you go. This is the history of Bonaventure Cemetery.

Bonaventure Cemetery actually lies just outside Savannah, at 330 Bonaventure Road in the town of Thunderbolt. It was opened in 1846 as a private cemetery and originally called Evergreen Cemetery. The newly instated cemetery was built on 70 acres of the Bonaventure Plantation, which was then owned by a man named John Mullryne, and was established because other cemeteries in the area were quickly filling up. Interestingly, in the early days of the cemetery, many families liked to have picnics there when they went to visit the graves of their loved ones.

The cemetery was bought by the city of Savannah in 1907, and I believe it was at this point that it was renamed Bonaventure Cemetery. Over the next century or so, it amassed a pretty rich history. Among those buried there are Johnny Mercer, a musician and co-founder of Capitol Records, and Conrad Aiken, former poet laureate of the United States and Georgia. According to legend, Aiken had his grave fashioned as a bench so people would sit on it. I’m not sure why you would want anyone to sit on your grave, but it’s not my grave. To each their own.

The monument above Gracie's tomb.

But interestingly, the cemetery’s most famous resident is a six-year-old girl named Gracie Watson. Gracie’s father was a manager at the Pulaski House, which has been many things in its lifetime but at the time was a hotel. Guests and staff at the hotel loved Gracie and were devastated when she died of pneumonia in 1889. An elaborate statue was carved over her grave — but we’ll get to more about Gracie later on.

There’s one thing I want to point out before we move on, though. Gracie died in 1889, but the building now known as the Pulaski House wasn’t built until 1914. I’m not sure if there was just another building there at the time of her death or if there’s something else I’m missing that would explain this seemingly contradictory fact, but I thought I’d point it out. Anyway, today the Pulaski House is a residence hall for students at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where I actually considered going at one point but never applied.

In 1992, the Bonaventure Historical Society was founded. Their mission, according to their website, has always been “the preservation and conversation of Savannah’s historic Bonaventure Cemetery.” However, just two years later, they would have their work cut out for them when a book thrust the cemetery — and the entire town of Savannah — into the national spotlight.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story was originally published in 1994. The cover depicts the now famous statue of a girl who has come to be known as “bird girl” because she’s supposedly holding out food for imaginary birds. Some people believe she was put on the cover because her two hands being held out represent good and evil.

The book is nonfiction and most sources will list it as true crime. However, it mostly details author John Berendt’s years visiting Savannah and eventually moving there after living in New York for much of his adult life. Along the way, he encounters and describes quite a few people that can only be described as…colorful. The actual crime part of the book doesn’t begin until about halfway through, when one of Berendt’s Savannah friends, Jim Williams, is accused of killing his lover, a man named Danny Hansford. Williams claimed the killing was done in self defense, but was put on trial for murder. He was ultimately tried four separate times, the first person in Georgia history to be tried for murder this much. But I’ll let you read the book yourself to discover how it all played out.

As it turns out, the “true” part of ‘true crime’ may not be entirely accurate here either. An author’s note in the back of the book confirms Berendt took “certain storytelling liberties” and “[w]here the narrative strays from nonfiction, my intention has been to remain faithful to the characters and to the essential drift of events as they really happened.”

Midnight was a huge success, and thrust Savannah into the national spotlight — tourism in the city was boosted by 50 % after the book was published. Even though Bonaventure Cemetery was only mentioned a handful of times in the book, it too became pretty well known after Midnight’s publication. A movie adaptation of the book was released in 1997, and parts of it were shot in the cemetery.

But despite the attention their town was getting, many Savannah residents weren’t happy. They referred to Midnight simply as “the book” and often referred to the events portrayed in it as “true-ish.” Terry Shaw, then-chairman of the Bonaventure Historical Society, said of the book: “Dirty linen, it is, and it brings, well, a certain low-class tourist to Bonaventure.”

I don’t want to give too much away about the book or take digs at the author, but I can kind of see where these people are coming from. Many of the portrayals of people in the book don’t exactly paint Southerners in the best light. In addition, despite only being mentioned a few times in the book, Bonaventure Cemetery was put on the map, and not all the attention it got was good. In one incident, someone acked up into a sundial in the cemetery and ended up just taking it. After that incident, the famous “bird girl’ statue was removed from the cemetery by its owner, Einar Trosdal, who said this was done because “we were just afraid something could have happened to it.” Today, the statue is housed at the Telfair Academy.

But of course, if you want to read the book or see the movie to make up your own mind about it, you can click here for the book and here for the movie.

And then, of course, there are the hauntings. Despite Bonaventure not being too well known before Midnight’s released in 1994, I’m pretty sure the legends and rumors of hauntings go back further. Among the alleged goings-on are statues that move on their own, making facial expressions at visitors. This is particularly common among angel statues. But one of the more well known moving statues is that of a woman named Corrine Lawton, whose sculpture is carved over her grave. Her statue is said to be facing away from the rest of her family’s burial plot because the family was ashamed that Corrine took her own life. Corrine’s statue is said to smile at pleasant people, but scowl at those who scowl at her statue. To be fair, that statue looks pretty creepy — I can see why someone might scowl at it.

Two more otherworldly creatures said to inhabit Bonaventure are ones that most living people find adorable — dogs and babies. Visitors have reported a baby’s cries near an actual infant’s grave in the cemetery — although that could easily be a real baby crying. Others have claimed to feel breath on their heels or hear angry barks in the distance. This is said to be the hellhounds that inhabit the grounds — though, again, those could just be real dogs and/or wind.

Another legend tells of a dinner party that took place on the grounds when it was still Bonaventure Plantation. Dinner parties were business as usual at the plantation, but this one took a dark turn. A servant approached the master of the house and said a fire had broken out. The master gathered up the rest of his servants and told them to move all the tables, chairs and food outside so the party could continue. And it did. The guests continued to eat, drink and party outside as the house burned down in front of them. At the end of the party, the master raised a toast, and he and his guests threw their glasses against a tree trunk. This fire didn’t seem to have any human casualties, but legend says you can sometimes hear the sounds of laughter and a giant fire crackling in the cemetery. This story was recounted in Midnight, but I can’t find any other sources to confirm it actually happened.

But the cemetery’s most famous ghost is the aforementioned Gracie Watson. The ghost of Gracie herself is said to play on the grounds from time to time, but much of the talk around her centers on the statue above her grave. Visitors leave toys on the statue, and she’s said to cry tears of blood if the toys are taken away. People will also leave coins at the grave — supposedly f you put a coin in her hand and run around the statue three times, the coin will disappear. Frankly, though, I’m not sure why you’d want your coins to just vanish like that — what if you want a gumball later? Maybe these are tourists who say Gracie took their money because they really spent it on some gimmicky t-shirt in a gift shop and are embarrassed to admit it.

At some point after Gracie’s death, a fence was built around her grave. I couldn’t find a reliable source to confirm exactly why this fence was put in place. Some said it was because people kept rubbing the statue for good luck and wore it down, so the fence was built to keep people away. Other speculation suggests this fence was actually constructed to keep Gracie’s spirit from getting out — although to be fair, if she really is still wandering the earth as a ghost, she seems like a pretty benign one.

Of course, if you want to experience Bonaventure for yourself, it’s open 365 days a year, from 8 am to 5 pm. There are several different companies that give tours of the now over 100 acres of ground that make up the cemetery. If you don’t want to go all the way to Savannah, there’s also a tour app you can get. Unfortunately, the reviews are mixed at best, but if you want to spend the 5 bucks and see for yourself, it’s available on iOS and Google Play.

Believe it or not, you can also get married at the cemetery — not the place you’d expect for a wedding, but a strangely appealing idea. I kind of want to get married at Bonaventure now. I just have to find someone to…you know, marry me.

So that’s just about all I have for you today on Bonaventure Cemetery and, of course, I would love to know your thoughts. Do you think Bonaventure Cemetery is really haunted? Do you think the success of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil helped or hurt its reputation? Have you ever been there, and did you have any paranormal experiences? Like I mentioned in my earlier video about haunted Savannah, I’d love to go there someday but passed up an opportunity last year. Hopefully one day I’ll get another one.

#creepystuff #truecrime #hauntedplace

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