Savannah: A City Built on Her Dead

The Basis of the City's Role in the Story

A perfect day in the Hostess City of the South, Savannah, Georgia, would be strolling through the historic squares enjoying the sun and the beautiful ancient oaks laden with Spanish moss that shade the benches and sidewalks. You catch the sounds of conversation and laughter carried on the wind as you duck in and out of cafés, gift shops and museums. You wrap up your perfect day with a hearty meal of Southern comfort food—all the while unaware that beneath the beautiful city lingers a dark secret.

Over thirteen million tourists visit the city of hospitality every year. They indulge in Savannah’s night life, take part in seasonal festivals on the riverfront, historical tours and, of course, ghost tours. But none of them know of the residents beneath their feet.

In 2001, the American Institute of Parapsychology deemed Savannah one of the most haunted cities in the United States because of the massive number of dead buried beneath its streets, homes and businesses. The bustling city of Savannah is a necropolis. Some believe the hauntings are due to the city’s famous gray bricks, made by slaves from the volcanic material in the bed of the Savannah River. It is thought that the bricks hold on to the actions and emotions of people from the past.

Savannah was founded in February, 1733, by James Edward Oglethorpe when he brought the first forty families to the thirteenth colony. The colonist worked hard to settle the land and establish the city, but by the summer months many of the colonists were falling ill and dying of yellow fever. The breeding mosquitoes in the nearby swamps carried and spread the illness among the settlers. It was the first of several yellow fever outbreaks Savannah would suffer.

Others died of typhoid, cholera, influenza, smallpox, tuberculosis and heat stroke. None were used to the heat and humidity of the colony. Mortality records from the seventeenth century also listed a large number of women and newborns dying during childbirth. Death played such a big part in the lives of the colonists, they found it difficult to determine what to do with the increasing number of bodies.

In response, formal cemeteries were developed along with less formal burial grounds, including families burying loved ones in the backyard. If you were not a member of the Church of England, the law required that you be buried outside the walls of the city. The first official graveyard was developed in 1733 with the death of the first colonist, William Cos, who supposedly died from bad rum. This graveyard is the site of Wright Square today. Wright Square was originally known as Courthouse Square because it was the site of the colony’s first courthouse, jail and hanging tree. Once justice was handed out, the bodies were dumped in the graveyard for burial later.

Example of a family crypt.

As the colony grew, the citizens became concerned with the dead being buried close to where they lived. Many colonists worried that living in such close proximity to the dead would cause the spread of disease. Some had become superstitious, influenced by African slaves who believed that being too close to the dead would draw angry spirits and curses. The city officials responded by having the burial grounds excavated and the bodies relocated farther from the city. Eventually the city planners grew tired of digging up bodies and reburying them and so, to pacify the public, officials moved only the headstones. The bodies remained and the city squares, homes, businesses and streets were built over them.

One of the best known examples of this is the Old Colonial Park Cemetery that now lies beneath York, Bull, Oglethorpe and Whitaker Street. In the 1750s the city decided to move its original burial ground, but moving what had been Savannah’s primary burial ground for seventeen years to a new location proved to be too expensive and time consuming. So again, the city officials compromised by moving only the headstones to the new location.

Calhoun and Whitefield Squares are the most well-known sites affected by this decision. Whitefield Square was the site of the original slave burial ground from 1813 to 1853, but because of the lack of markers, the graveyard overlapped into what is now Calhoun Square. Some of the African American business and church leaders were relocated to Laurel Grove Cemetery when it opened in 1852, but an estimated 1,000 bodies still remain beneath Calhoun Square. As recently as 2004 a human skull was unearthed in Calhoun Square when a utility company employee installed a meter.

Savannah was occupied by the British Army in 1778 during the Revolutionary War. The colonists plotted to take back their settlement with the help of the French Army. In October of 1779, French and American soldiers slipped into the woods and surrounded Savannah, taking cover in the deep trenches around the city. The battle, known as the Siege of Savannah, started in the early morning hours with 140 cannons firing across the settlement for approximately two hours. The American and French soldiers had been outwitted and out-gunned, and the British Army showed no mercy, continuing to fire even after the French and American forces surrendered. The men who took cover in the trenches suffered the brunt of the cannon fire and when the dust settled 1,000 men lay dead, only thirteen of them British. The British Army took shovels and filled in the trenches, covering the dead and burying the wounded alive.

After the Revolutionary War, the citizens of Savannah prospered from the cotton trade, and large ornate homes were built where the trenches and watchtowers once stood. Today historic homes including the Sorrel Weed House, Green-Meldrim House and the Eliza Jewitt House stand over the trenches where the American and French soldiers were unceremoniously buried. Over the years, muskets, shell casings and bones have been found beneath the aging basement floors or unearthed during renovations.

During the Revolutionary War, the fence around Colonial Park Cemetery was damaged. Wild dogs and other scavenging animals would go in after dark and dig up the bodies, dragging them into Abercorn and Habersham Street, feasting and fighting over the remains. The people of Savannah feared the “poisonous influenza” or yellow fever would spread to those who lived near the decomposing bodies. In response the city officials built the 300,000-brick wall which still encloses the cemetery today.

Colonial Park Cemetery, which sits in the heart of the historic district today, has at least 14,000 documented graves; however, not all of them lie within the walls. The boundaries of the cemetery were changed to make room for roads, leaving many of the bodies outside the parameter in unmarked graves. Colonial Park is also the site of Savannah’s most well-known mass grave, containing the victims of the 1820 yellow fever epidemic. In 1820, 666 people died from the yellow fever outbreak. The church leaders, uncomfortable with that particular number, changed it to 700. Today there is a plaque in the corner of the cemetery commemorating the “700” yellow fever victims from that year.

Savannah lost many people to yellow fever outbreaks over the years. More than 4,000 people died from yellow fever between 1807–1820 with another 560 people in 1856 and 1,066 in 1876. During these outbreaks the city hired men known as “bone collectors” to dispose of the bodies. If someone in your family died during the day, you were to immediately throw the body out onto the front porch; the death wagon, pulled by a mule, would come around at night to collect the bodies. The bone collectors would follow behind the wagon, tossing bodies into it as they walked through the city. The bodies were then dumped into mass graves and covered with sand. The locations of these mass graves are unknown today.

In 1849, Evergreen Bonaventure Cemetery opened. City officials encouraged families to move their loved ones from Colonial Park to the new cemetery. The few tombstones and crypts that remained were left to fall into disrepair, eventually crumbling, and the bodies they marked were forgotten. In 1895 what remained of Colonial Park Cemetery became a city park. The headstones that remained were pulled up, but once again the bodies were left where they lay. The park planners had the headstones mounted along the east wall of the cemetery, where they still remain today. The bricked-in park contains sixty headstones and 13,000 bodies that lay beneath the walkways, benches and trash receptacles.

One of the most notable facts about Savannah is its survival of Sherman’s March to the Sea. Many theories exist as to why Sherman didn’t burn Savannah the way he had Atlanta. The answer is likely a combination of facts: Savannah was a port city, therefore useful to the Union; there were 25,000 bales of cotton in the harbor and 150 heavy guns captured from the city; also, it was an election year, and Sherman knew if it was reported that he destroyed a city that had surrendered so easily, the action would increase the growing anti-war sentiment growing throughout the country and hinder Lincoln’s reelection. Better to capture and occupy the city. So instead of destroying Savannah, Sherman offered the intact city to Lincoln as a Christmas gift.

Union soldiers flooded into Savannah, and officers occupied many of Savannah’s finer homes, while enlisted men were left to fend for themselves, many camping in Colonial Park Cemetery. Many of the headstones were destroyed or vandalized by bored Union soldiers. The crypts were broken into, the bodies dumped off the shelves so the soldiers could sleep there, sheltered from the cold December weather. The Marshall House hotel was occupied by the Union and used as a hospital, as were several other locations. During renovations of the Marshall House, amputated limbs were found under some of the floor boards, thought to have been left there during its time as a Civil War hospital.

The early colony of Savannah incorporated many cultures, including the original colonists steeped in Christianity, along with slaves, voodooists, sailors, traders and even pirates. The blend of cultures resulted in a cultural gumbo of Christian dogma and tribal African customs. This is particularly evident in areas where the beliefs overlap, such as the Christian belief that the living should not try to communicate with the dead, and the African belief that the dead should be helped on their way to the other side and the living should be protected from spirits that refuse to move on.

Rituals still practiced in Savannah today define the space between the living and the dead. Historically, when African Americans buried their dead, the locations were left unmarked so they would remain undisturbed by the living. If the graves were marked, they were surrounded by fences with no gate in order to keep visitors from disturbing the dead. When the generation of the recently buried died, so did the knowledge of where the dead were buried. African Americans of the time believed the dead should be left in peace so they could move on to their spiritual home. Tradition dictated that the dead were buried with the things they would need for their trip to the other side. This could consist of many things including water, food, herbs to keep them healthy and even a bed frame so they would have a place to rest.

The bodies beneath the city and the traditions surrounding the dead have developed into the culture and folklore of Savannah today. If you are paying attention on your visit to the city, you can see some of the most prevalent traditions.

The use of “Haint Blue,” a blue-green paint color believed to protect the living from the dead, can be seen all around town. Haint Blue is mixed from whatever materials are available; therefore, the color ranges from a watery green to a deep blue, meant to represent water. It is believed that spirits cannot pass over natural elements such as water and blood, so residents use it to seal the entrances of homes including doorways, windowsills and porches.

Keep your eyes open for curved walls. Many locals believed spirits would lurk in the corners of rooms. To combat this, many homes were built with curved rooms so if a spirit entered the house the curved walls would send the spirits right back through the house and out the door. Some of the homes have been outfitted with downspouts in the shape of mahi-mahi fish, believing these fish protect against evil spirits.

People who could not afford curved walls and mahi-mahi downspouts made spirit trees. These trees are covered with colorful glass bottles believed to attract wandering spirits and trap them within the swaying bottles. Many citizens turned to religious leaders to cleanse themselves and their homes with blessings, prayers and exorcisms.

Savannah is one of the oldest cities in America, steeped in traditions with a vibrant culture. Known for its hospitality and lavish parties, the locals like to explain that what counts in Savannah is not where your family is from or where you go to church, but your preference in alcoholic beverage. So while you partake in the city’s rich history and hospitality, enjoying the festivals, historical sites and the night life, remember what and who lies beneath your every step—and raise your glass in memory of the dead of Savannah.

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