Bonaventure Plantation and Cemetery
Bonaventure means good fortune. In the movie “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” author John Berendt used the Bonaventure Cemetery as a backdrop in his story about Savannah, Georgia, and the people who reside there.
After reading the acclaimed book and seeing the movie, I decided to visit the once little known cemetery. I arrived late in the evening, encountering the wrought iron gates and moss draped oaks, both lending an eerie, but at the same time peaceful, atmosphere to the place. I was pleasantly surprised by the quiet beauty of so many marble statues memorializing the long deceased occupants of these lonely plots beneath the ancient gray bearded live oaks. All of this perfectly framed by the slow movement of the Wilmington river.
It appeared I was the only living person in the cemetery at this time. As I wandered among the lonely graves--some of them complete with life size marble statues resembling the grave‘s present occupants--I had the feeling I was treading through some wonderful and mysterious outdoor art gallery.
Over there is the grave of little six year old Gracie Watkins who died of pneumonia two days before Easter in 1889. Gracie was born in 1883 in Savannah, Georgia. Her parents owned the luxurious Pulaski Hotel where Gracie quickly became a favorite among the many guests. Gracie was a lively bright child which brought much cheer to the otherwise quiet hotel. Fortunately for us, Gracie’s parents had a photograph made of Gracie only six weeks prior to her death. From this recent photo, Gracie’s father commissioned John Walz to sculpt a like sized statue of his daughter.
The statue is very beautiful and can be seen at her grave site. Gracie is still reported to be a resident in the former hotel. Reports of her apparition are numerous, and trinkets belonging to visitors of the former hotel site, find themselves, in the planter on Gracie's gravestone.
The grave of murder victim Danny Hansford, leading character in the book “ Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” also resides in the cemetery. Johnny Mercer and a number of historic figures are buried there as well.
Alexander Robert Lawton has a very impressive gravesite. A life sized statue of Jesus standing beside a grand archway marks his burial site. Mr. Lawton, a lawyer, President of the Augusta and Savannah railroad, and President of the Americas Bar Association. He served as a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army. Connie Elliot Lawton, born September 21, 1846 and died January 24, 1877 is buried in the family plot as well. She was Alexander’s eldest daughter. Connie drown herself the evening prior to her wedding, as an alternative to a loveless marriage. A statue of Connie facing away from the river that took her life, and sitting next to a cross, memorializes the grave. The inscription reads “ Allured to brighter worlds, and led the way”.
Other residents of the cemetery are James Arthur (Jim) Williams , former resident of Mercer House , and Danny Hansford, who was killed in the Mercer House. Jim Williams, later acquitted of this murder charge. John Berendt’s book “ Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” gives his account of the events surrounding the news sensation. Berendt‘s book brought the interest of the general public and renewed tourism to Savannah. The grave of Jim Williams and Danny Hansford are not far from each other. If only those tombstones could talk. Tours of Mercer House are available.
John Herndon (Johnny) Mercer , born November 18, 1909, died June 25, 1976, rests peacefully under the spreading oaks. Johnny Mercer was famous for his song writing, and singing. He wrote more than 1,500 songs, was nominated for nine Academy Awards, and won four. Mr. Mercer was the co-founder of Capitol Records. Johnny Mercer was born to prominent attorney and real estate developer George Anderson Mercer and Lillian Elizabeth Cucevich Mercer.
Lillian‘s father was a merchant seaman who ran the Union blockade during the Civil War. Johnny’s great grandfather General Weedon Mercer built Mercer house in 1860. Jim Williams later resided in this same house.
The cemetery hosts numerous marble statues, most sculpted by Italian artisans. There is a large array of giant angels, and other serene sculptures marking the resting place of influential Savannah’s. This is a landmark worth visiting. Just be sure to leave by 5:00 pm, when the cemetery closes. When I sensed it was time to leave, I found that I was locked in the cemetery. I felt a growing sense of uneasiness as I viewed the closed gates in the coming darkness. Fortunately, the caretaker had not left and he opened the gates to allow me a quick exit. On a later visit I took some friends to the cemetery who declared it was the best part of the trip.
Prior to becoming a cemetery, Bonaventure was originally a large Plantation consisting of 600 acres. The original owner was Colonel John Mullryne and his wife Claudia Catell Mullryne who built the plantation house in 1762. Josiah Tattnal III sold the plantation to Peter Wilberger on March 10, 1846. The original plantation house burned in 1771, but was replaced by an elegant brick mansion. In 1776 Royal Governor James Wright escaped his captors in the Revolutionary War and hid in the mansion. He later moved to Cockspur Island until he was able to be transported to England.
June 9, 1779, the plantation house was used as a hospital for Charles Henri d’Estaing’s ill French soldiers during the siege of Savannah. John planted live oaks every fifteen feet in the shape of the letters M & T in honor of the marriage of his daughter Mary Mull to Josiah Tattnal Sr, Josiah Tattnal and John Mullryne pledged loyalty to Britan and King George III during the Revolutionary War.
Both were banned from Georgia as traitors. The loyalists refused to leave and were arrested. Bonaventure was seized by the colonists and auctioned off to the highest bidder. The plantation was sold to John Habersham in 1782. Josiah Tattnal Jr. was able to buy the plantation back in 1785. He lived on the plantation with his wife Harriett Fenwick Tattnall , and their children until his death in 1804. Josiah fought for the colonials and was later elected governor. Mary preceded Josiah in death in 1803. The children were raised by grandparents in London after the death of both parents.
Josiah and his wife were known for their elaborate parties. Around Christmas 1803, the plantation house caught fire during a dinner party. Once Josiah was notified by his man servant the house was lost, he ordered the tables, chairs and food moved out to the lawn. The dinner party continued as the house burned down before their very eyes. Josiah toasted the group with wine and broke his glass on a near by tree. The party members took their cue and did the same. The air was cool with a nice breeze. The party guest danced, ate, and drank till dawn.
The private cemetery and surrounding land was sold in 1846 to Peter Wiltberger. The son of Peter, Major William H. Wiltberger, formed the Evergreen Cemetery. On July 7, 1907, the City of Savannah purchased the cemetery and renamed it Bonaventure Cemetery using it’s original plantation name.
The ruins of the plantation house were demolished in the 1960’s in order to expand the cemetery.