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.
I moved to Savannah in 2012 and lived in a neighborhood called Thomas Square, only a few blocks south of the Victorian District. Blocks in Savannah are not statistically longer than they are in other U.S. cities, but, the distances from one block to the next can be tremendous. Within the carefully planned grid of Old Savannah, one finds the stately Southern charm of days gone by.
Beyond Oglethorpe’s colonial utopia are the Victorian era neighborhoods, grand houses give way to row-houses and then to shotgun shacks. This is the “Devil’s Horseshoe” – so named for the long history of violent crime and human misery that defined the brutality of poverty in the Deep South.
Today, so-called transitional neighborhoods have pushed the Devil further from downtown, out to the railroad tracks and the highway exits. As is the case in so many cities, the forces of gentrification have merely displaced the poor further away from prosperous neighborhoods. Where I lived was right on the edge of the Horseshoe. Two blocks in any direction and the neighborhood either got dramatically better, or drastically worse.
In the Devil’s Horseshoe, the streets as well as the houses are haunted. During the Revolutionary War the city was besieged twice. The Continental and French navies blockaded the Savannah River and bombarded the Loyalist residents for months. The Battle of Savannah was among the most bloody of the Revolution, and most of the fighting occurred on the land that became the Horseshoe. Only a few blocks from where I lived, the San Dominique Regiment (Afro-French troops from what would become Haiti) stormed the British barricades in repeated attacks. Yellow fever, cholera, and typhoid, along with citywide fires decimated the population many times over the centuries, when the cemeteries got full, they dumped the dead in mass graves on the land that became the Horseshoe. These tragedies punctuated the cycle of violent crime, murder, and retribution, that define the lives of the least fortunate souls born in the Deep South.
At various crossroads around the Horseshoe, where untold hundreds of unfortunate souls have met Death without a trace of mercy or peace, the Shades of that suffering still linger. They lurk in the empty lots, and they creep along the unpaved lanes. Folks who live in Savannah get used to seeing people who are not entirely there.
Their presence is the only remaining reminder of tragic lives cut short by ill circumstance. Children and old folks who died in house fires. Brave men lynched for having a spine. Women and girls, exploited, abused, and left to die. The ghosts of a pitilessly cruel environment and the banality of evil in the Deep South.