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The Tragic Tale of Gwinnett & McIntosh

Button Gwinnett, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, is buried in Savannah’s Colonial Park Cemetery. He died of wounds suffered in a duel with General Lachlan McIntosh, another Georgian Revolutionary hero, and buried in the same place.

The feud between the two men stemmed from insults McIntosh leveled against Gwinnett after the disastrous Georgia invasion of British Florida in 1777 (Gwinnett was already angry that McIntosh had been promoted to brigadier general in the Continental Army instead of himself). McIntosh called Gwinnett a “scoundrel and lying rascal,” in front of the Georgia Assembly. Infuriated, Gwinnett challenged McIntosh to a duel on what is now the cemetery grounds. Both men were shot in the leg, at which point their seconds stopped the duel. McIntosh, though injured, had only sustained a flesh wound. Gwinnett’s thigh injury was far more serious, and he died 3 days after being taken to a hospital. McIntosh was tried for murder but acquitted. Mrs. Gwinnett refused to condemn McIntosh for the death of her husband.

Nonetheless, Gwinnett’s friends in the Savannah colony turned on McIntosh, and for his own protection he was ordered to leave the city and join George Washington at Valley Forge. In time, he redeemed himself by leading troops successfully at the Siege of Savannah in 1779, and spending 2 years as a British prisoner of war. He became an esteemed, though poor, citizen of Savannah in his later years, and died in 1806. Ironically, the two old enemies, Gwinnett and McIntosh, are buried very near each other.

Long before John Berendt and his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, there were other writers associated with Savannah.

Chief of these is Flannery O'Connor (1924-64), one of the South's greatest writers, author of Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960). She is also known for her short stories, including the collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955). She won the O. Henry Award three times. Between October and May, an association dedicated to her holds readings, films, and lectures about her and other Southern writers. You can visit the Flannery O'Connor Childhood Home, 207 E. Charlton St. (tel. 912/921-5618). The house is open from 1-4 p.m. every day except Thursday. (Closed major holidays and the first 2 weeks of Sept. and Jan.) Admission is $5 for adults, free for kids. For more info, see http://www.flanneryoconnorhome.org/

Conrad Aiken (1889-1973), the American poet, critic, writer, and Pulitzer Prize winner, was also born in Savannah. He lived at 228 (for the first 11 years of his life) and at 230 E. Oglethorpe Ave. (for the last 11 years of his life). In Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Mary Harty and John Berendt sipped martinis at the bench-shaped tombstone of Aiken in Bonaventure Cemetery.

A Visit to the Murder House

A landmark building, paid for by Gen. Hugh W. Mercer, great-grandfather of Johnny Mercer, the Mercer Williams House was completed around 1868. It became known as "the envy of Savannah." Decades later, it was rumored that Jacqueline Onassis wanted to purchase it for use as a private home.

Mostly its fame was promulgated by the John Berendt book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It was here, in May 1981, as related in the book, that the wealthy homosexual antiques dealer Jim Williams fatally shot his lover, that blond "walking streak of sex," Danny Hansford, age 21. The Mercer Williams House was also the setting where Williams gave his legendary Christmas parties each year. In January 1991, Williams died of a heart attack at the age of 59 in the same room where he'd shot Hansford.

For years, heirs to Williams' estate have been downplaying its prurience and emphasizing, with much justification, Williams' role as a bon vivant and the savior of at least 60 historic houses in and around Savannah. The estate has agreed, for a fee, to open the house for tours.

Buy your ticket in the carriage house behind the Mercer Williams House, inside a gift shop loaded with objects of which Jim, the decorator, might have approved, and a few that he might have found sappy and sentimental. You'll be ushered into one of an ongoing series of tours, each lasting about 30 or 35 minutes. Tours depart from the carriage house and gift shop, at the compound's back entrance (430 Whitaker St.).

Don't think for a second that questions about Williams' sexuality, his promiscuity, or the murder will be engaged. Guides firmly advise before tours even begin that these are AAA Tours (including only questions about art, architecture, and antiques). Photos are rigidly forbidden, and a strong-willed guide will emphatically urge you "not to touch, drool on, dribble on, or engage the furniture or art objects in any way."

You'll learn that the Mercer family commissioned the design of the house but no member ever actually lived here; that a "dry moat" surrounds the house, allowing for light and air to enter the lower floors; that there's a ballroom on the second floor, but because of fire codes, no one is allowed upstairs.

The house has been used as the setting for movies, including Clint Eastwood's film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Swamp Thing, and Return of Swamp Thing. The Mercer Williams House is gorgeously furnished in a style that befits a sophisticated millionaire. It is not an authentic re-creation of a Federalist or mid-Victorian home, thanks to the presence of comfortable 20th-century sofas, personalized photos, and art objects, and the "eclectic" vision of its style setter. 

The tour's main benefit is that it makes you realize that Jim Williams was a helluva guy and a helluva benefactor to the Savannah that has so richly profited from his efforts ever since.

The Mercer Williams House Museum is at 429 Bull St. (tel. 912/236-6352; www.mercerhouse.com). Admission is $13 for adults and $8 for students with ID (both college and grad school). Tours run every 40 minutes daily from 10:30am to 4:30pm.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.