Saturday, November 23, 2013

Haunted Mercer House

Millions of readers enjoyed John Berendt’s non-fiction book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil published in 1994. 

This book tells the story of a Savannah, Georgia resident Jim Williams. Williams was a successful antique dealer, and he restored over fifty of Savannah’s historic buildings.

The Mercer house was built by Johnny Mercer’s * great-grandfather, General Hugh Mercer. But the general never lived in the home because the Civil War interrupted. After the war, he sold the house.

The red brick house eventually landed in the hands of Jim Williams. He spent two years restoring it and then moved in. Williams, who was an Air Force veteran, was gay but he never publically came out. 

In fact, he went out of his way to create the illusion that he was a man’s man. The Mercer House was adorned with hunting items, etc. even though Williams did not hunt.

Jim Williams in
front of
Mercer House

Williams was known for the elaborate Christmas parties he held each year. People from all over would attend. He was the perfect host, but he was a controlling perfectionist who always kept himself at a distance. 

Williams had made exorbitant amounts of money by selling antiques--many of them fake.

Berendt’s book and the subsequent film made Williams famous--actually infamous. Williams died before the book was published, but he became notorious in Savannah when he had a fight with “his young lover,” Danny Hansford ** and allegedly shot and killed him in May of 1981.

The 21-year-old Hansford was a “high maintenance” hustler who was not ashamed to be kept by Williams. Williams paid all his expenses and bought him a car. He was tried not once but four times, over eight years, for Hansford’s murder. 

He claimed self-defense stating Hansford had pulled a gun on him.

In his first two trails he was found guilty--his lawyers successfully appealed them both. The third trial ended in a hung jury, and in his fourth trial--that was moved to Augusta--the jury acquitted him within two hours. It was believed that several witnesses were paid off.

What really happened remains a mystery. One judge who tried him, George Oliver stated, "He believed Jim Williams had shot Hansford in cold blood." He then added, “Hansford was trouble with a capital “T” and that sometimes, people just need killing.”

In 1989, Jim Williams was set free. He managed to throw one last gala Christmas party before he died a month later at the age of 59. There are several accounts of how he died. The general consensus is he probably died from AIDS-related pneumonia. 

Some even speculate Hansford finally got his “revenge.” Williams body was found near the spot where he might have been shot if Hansford had successfully used his gun.

In the years after Hansford’s death, Williams was told that Hansford’s spirit did not rest easy. He enlisted the help of a Voodoo practitioner who tried to “persuade Hansford to forgive Williams.” This person told Williams that Danny's spirit was angry and needed to be appeased. He ignored this warning.

Danny Hansford's grave
Even today it is stated that Danny Hansford haunts the area around where he was buried. Several EVP’s have been recorded at his gravesite.

Williams had encountered ghostly activity before-- one of the houses he restored on St. Julian Street was haunted. This activity was so persistent that he could not get carpenters to work on the house. He called in a priest to perform an exorcism. 

Williams personally heard unexplained footsteps and loud crashes. Today this home still has activity and is included in a Savannah ghost tour.

A few years after Williams died people started to gather at the Mercer House on the anniversary of when he held his Christmas parties. These witnesses have reported seeing the home “ablaze with lights.” They also have heard “sounds of revelers” inside the house. There were no parties in the area when this activity was observed.

It is stated that Williams ghost is seen wandering around another property that he helped to preserve.

Today the Mercer home is open for limited tours. The house still has furniture and art that belonged to Jim Williams.

* Johnny Mercer was a successful American singer-songwriter who co-founded Capitol Records. He wrote the song lyrics for Moon River.

** At the time of Danny's death, most news reports listed him as an employee of Williams.

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