The True Story Behind Savannah’s Most Notorious Home

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Photo credit: ClassicStock - Getty Images
Photo credit: ClassicStock - Getty Images


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The full story of the Mercer-Williams house is featured in episode 4 of House Beautiful’s new haunted house podcast, Dark House. Listen to the episode here.

Draped in Spanish moss, studded with quaint cobblestone roads, and illuminated by old-world street lamps, every street in Savannah, Georgia, feels like a time capsule buzzing with romance and history. Much like the well-maintained streets and squares, the homes throughout the city's historic district are nothing short of awe-inspiring. Their endurance is thanks to preservation efforts in the city, which gained a lot of traction in the 1960s—when famed restorationist and antique collector Jim Williams came to town. Williams's own former home at 429 Bull Street, which takes up the entire city block of Monterey square, is one of the most spectacular in Savannah. But in true Southern Gothic fashion, if you peel back the layers of historic charm, you'll find something sinister lurking underneath...

Photo credit: joe daniel price - Getty Images
Photo credit: joe daniel price - Getty Images

Known as The Mercer-Williams House, the 7,000 square foot mansion is a crucial stop on the city’s many ghost tours, and it's also the residence that inspired John Berendt’s best-selling 1994 novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It's seen at least three untimely deaths, including that of 11-year-old Tommy Downs when he fell off the roof in 1969, the 1981 fatal shooting of Danny Hansford by Williams, and Williams himself when he died in the same room as Hansford less than a year after being acquitted of Hansford's death in a fourth trial. Rumors about the crime and ensuing ghost stories continue to swirl to this day. Long before the two tragedies, though, the house played host to the buzziest Christmas party in all of Savannah, and guests lucky enough to attend would be in good company: Williams's priceless antique collection.

Photo credit: House Beautiful
Photo credit: House Beautiful

Williams's possessions included: a presentation casket bearing the Imperial coat of arms of Russia, a gold crown cipher of Tsar Nicholas II, a piece from the state carriage used at the coronation of Napoleon, and a pair of $10,000 crystal candlesticks that were a gift from Martha and George Washington to their daughter on her wedding day—to name a few. There's also famously a full-blown organ installed in the home, which definitely adds to the air of mystery and macabre. Underneath this esteemed collection, the house itself is rumored to be built right on top of the unmarked graves of people who died during the yellow fever epidemic in the 1800s.

Photo credit: RiverNorthPhotography
Photo credit: RiverNorthPhotography

The Italianate home dates all the way back to 1860, when General Hugh Mercer commissioned New York City-based architect John S. Norris to build it. However, construction was interrupted by the Civil War and Mercer never even lived in the home. According to the Georgia Historical Society, it was first occupied by John R. Wilder in 1868 and was then abandoned for a number of years until Savannah's historic district was revitalized in the mid-20th-century. While 429 Bull Street certainly has all the makings of a haunted house, the current owner (and Williams's sister), Dorothy Kingery, focuses museum tours on the fabulous antiques and architectural details rather than any hauntings. That doesn't stop the ghost stories about the house from circulating, though.

Many visitors report visions of a little boy on the balcony or in a window, and a few years after Williams died, people started to report that they were hearing lively music and seeing the house all lit up around Christmas, but when authorities would arrive, there was no activity observed. Who knows? Perhaps the museum manager is simply playing the organ to keep busy during a night shift. Or maybe it's something more mysterious...

Curious to learn all the details of the Mercer-Williams house and why it's one of the most haunted homes in the country? Listen to episode 4 of our podcast, Dark House, for the full story and an exclusive interview with comedian, celebrity barber, paranormal investigator, and reality TV host, Marcus Harvey, who tells us about his spooky experiences in Savannah and beyond.


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