I have had the dubious distinction of walking the streets of some famously haunted cities and towns. My empirical nature has been tested and teased from the spooky glades of Gettysburg to the shady alleys of New Orleans. I’ve climbed the infamous “Exorcist Steps” in Georgetown, and visited notorious Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. I’ve lived in more than one “haunted house” over the years. Nothing did more to make me question the existence of ghosts than the year I lived in Savannah, Georgia.
Founded in 1733, the Historic Districts of Old Savannah contain some of the oldest continuously occupied public buildings and private homes in the United States. The Savannah chamber of commerce proudly promotes Savannah as the Most Haunted City in America. This notion plays into a desire to brand Savannah as a blend of New Orleans and Colonial Williamsburg, both a party town and an open-air living history museum. The result is a small surreal city where fantasy and reality refuse to remain in their discrete corners.
A ghost tour of Savannah is necessarily a lesson in the city’s history. The oldest inhabitants parlay family legends of their eminent and infamous ancestors into informative tales to relate to the tourists passing by their Addams Family mansions.
The ubiquitous horse drawn carriages and historically costumed tour guides reinforce the sense that Old Savannah exists somewhere outside of Time. The presence of the Savannah College of Art and Design, and several Caribbean Catholic churches, add to the authentic undercurrent of eccentricity. Various forms of witchcraft and folk magic are practiced openly by both provocateurs and true believers.
Afro-Caribbean slaves and freemen established their own communities in Savannah prior to the Revolution. These communities have sustained their own traditions of root work, hexing, and necromancy similar to those of Santeria and Voodoo, but, with a distinctly American flavor. Unlike Salem Village’s Tituba, or Marie Leveau of New Orleans, Savannah’s most famous witch did not live in the distant past – Valerie Fennel Aiken Boles died in 2009, age unknown. She had already taken on the aspect of an elder practitioner when John Berendt, the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, encountered her in the 1980’s. In the book she is quoted as having said: “Black magic never stops. What goes from you comes to you. Once you start this shit, you gotta keep it up. Just like the utility bill. Just like the grocery store. Or they kill you.” Berendt claimed that the only detail he dared to change was her name. The reclusive lady who was called Minerva in the book was by no means the last of her kind, and those in the know will observe members of her sisterhood still meeting in the downtown squares to this day.
Curiosity seekers are cautioned to keep a respectful distance and take care not to intrude lest they offend. Unlike the ghosts of famous generals said to linger in stately homes, these sorceresses are not an invention of the tourist trade. Like the sunburnt stevedores and drunken Marines who congregate near the riverfront, or the drag queens and working girls who strut the squares downtown, they are a part of the landscape that is not to be trifled with or teased. The natives are not as friendly as they seem. Savannah does not trust strangers. Savannah keeps her secrets.
Read the conclusion of this essay at my Patreon …