How Savannah’s Haunted Tours Promote Intimacy with Public History

Savannah has no shortage of skeletons in its closet (or under its streets, as tour guides like to point out).  The city brags that it was the first host to transplanted Englishmen in Georgia:  the first city in the last colony, divided in geometric squares that boasted innovative ideas in city planning.  Any history of Georgia would be remiss not to mention its native heritage, a population devastated by earlier ventures by the Spanish in the southeast.  According to James Caskey, one of Savannah’s well-known tour guides and owner of Cobblestone Tours, the wrecking ball of Spanish conquest accounts for one of the darker periods in Georgia history.  It is from this mass violence, perhaps the earliest visited upon Georgian Native Americans by Europeans, that the region’s propensity for devastation began.  Don’t take this as a metaphor.  The death of Native Americans was not a harbinger for yellow fever, slavery, fire, and war; it is the very literal catalyst for ethereal forces to converge with the material world.  Ghosts, in other words.[1]  If you look into more recent history, it’s also the catalyst for a thriving ghost tour industry that builds itself upon the scandals of death and cultural remorse.  Savannah’s Ghost Tour Industry relies on its history, perhaps as a testament to that history:  it takes good, hard facts to become a nationally renowned ghost town, and Savannah has no shortage of good, hard horror in its archives.  Haunted Savannah does more than tantalize the curiosity of tourists and natives.  It hosts a parade for Savannah’s regrets:  wars, epidemics, fires, slavery, all those things modern consumerism looks at behind a glass pane as if horror belongs in a museum.  Ghost Tours in Savannah offer a more intimate connection with these issues, especially walking tours like Caskey’s Cobblestone Tours.

Caskey’s history of Savannah reaches deeper than ghost orbs on tourists’ Polaroids.  He, as well as others who have profited from books and tourism on Savannah’s haunts, compose a compelling medium of history:  we are physically visited by the past and forced to engage with it in some manner.  A theme running through many of the ghost stories also speaks to a thematic issue in the present:  the tearing down and repurposement of old buildings.  It seems, like many residents who have fought to maintain Historic Savannah, that spectral activity and renovation are one espoused to the other.  Caskey’s quasi-scientific explanation of the phenomenon says that buildings sponge up energy, energy which can be disturbed by foundational changes.[2]  Thus, ghosts are a kind of vibration felt after some time of settling, the same way light from a star takes thousands of years to register in human eyes.  Energy put into a home is not readily emitted or experienced.  Let’s look at a few of the hot spots of haunts to see how structural change plays into the city’s beloved ghost stories.

Old Colonial Cemetery can boast being the first large-scale burial plot in Savannah.  In his novel, Haunted Savannah:  America’s Most Spectral City, Caskey says that the cemetery is like a “‘Cliffs Notes’ tour of this city’s early history.”  Its mausoleums remind us of the southern family unit and its posthumous indivisibility.  Its mass graves bare the earthen scars of yellow fever outbreaks; this mosquito driven disease plagued the coastal south during the summer.  It is also a prime example of Savannah’s development.  In a guided tour that wrapped around Colonial Parks Cemetery, our tour guide took special pleasure in reminding us that Savannah was a “necropolis,” or a city built on its dead.  Where the gate now protects the cemetery (or protects the city, if you believe in the ghosts) was not the old borders of the cemetery.  When they closed Colonial Park in 1853, the cemetery was at capacity.  When they expanded the city to accommodate the living population, they had to evict or ignore the dead.  Today, roads are paved atop some of the mass graves—that should be enough to excite the “energy” in the park.  If that weren’t enough, the Union soldiers set up camp inside the cemetery during Sherman’s occupation.  Any defacement therein was, of course, made by the northern scourge.  Oddly enough, even though two out of three of the Cobblestone Tours focus on the park, actual ghost activity is limited.  Guides relay a story about a tourist who was inside the cemetery during the day and video-taping for fun.  He saw and caught on camera, a child-shaped shadow scampering in the distance.  It disappeared up a tree, only to drop ominously inside an unsuspecting couple’s baby carriage.  The video is readily available on Youtube, along with another video debunking it and arguments in the comment section debunking the video that debunked the original one (the internet is scarier than the cemetery, if you ask me).  Despite it not being the most active or even the most sinister of Savannah’s haunts, the cemetery speaks to change in the city, to expansion, to tragedy, all these things ghost stories are built upon.  For a more chilling location, let’s check in to a hotel.

Savannah’s Old City Hotel is perhaps the most televised of all Savannah’s haunted businesses.  Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures,” featured it on one episode.  Of course, they featured it as the Moonriver Brewery, which people know it as today.  It is also the starting point for Cobblestone Tours’ pub crawl, and considered to be the most haunted spot in Savannah.  This is due to its bloody history.  A duel that spawned a rivalry began and ended in the old City Hotel, culminating in the death of one of the duelists.  It was also in the City Hotel that members of an illegal slave trade operation (although slavery was legal in the United States up until the Civil War ended, the slave trade had a constitutional provision terminating the practice of bringing new slaves into the new world).  Despite its long reaching history, we see many of the reported ghost sightings from the recent past.  One of the more prolific ghosts, as described by a psychic who visited the brewery, is an “angry black female…using her knowledge of the dark arts to gain some revenge on this plane of existence.”[3]  Now, to play the devils-don’t-exist advocate, this description matches the same story a worker made up about the place.  With no knowledge of ghosts or psychic abilities and never having experienced the ghostly presence before inventing this person, he came up with the same character.  This certainly has more to do with the history at hand—Savannah as a southern city that participated in slavery and fought for slavery till the last—and perhaps residual guilt, that we visit the ghosts upon ourselves.  It is also noteworthy to mention that the City Hotel’s renovations sparked many of the ghostly occurrences; one worker noticed a “sense of anger” when someone mentions renovation.[4]   All of this, however, is psychological speculation, so let’s turn to the more quantifiable ghost experience:  the tours themselves.

Concerning Cobblestone Tours, it’s interesting to look at the method they use to engage tourists.  Rather than being stuffed in a bus (or a hearse, as one ghost tour company does), tourists are put in a place where there’s less standing between them and the history.  They get what you can call a “more authentic place experience,” that offers more engagement.[5]  In other words, it puts them at the scene of the crime, much nearer than they would get in a vehicle.  The schedule of the tour is more fluid, the interaction between tour guide and tourists more normal, and it’s much more effective to tell people they’re standing on graves rather than driving over them.  With multiple walking tours and driving tours available to see the haunted side of Savannah, we can see that it is a thriving industry—Savannah’s tourist rates are fiscally impressive all around.  Glenn Gentry, in his analysis of walking ghost tours in Savannah, shares that revenues from tourism has brought in $1 billion in 2003.  This was an increase for Savannah as the overall revenue decreased in Georgia.[6]  In a recent issue of Woman’s World, from October 2014, Haunted Savannah gets a full two page spread—ghosts are a marketing gem.[7]  Gentry also asserts that Savannah began investing in its dark side after Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the book and film, became popular.[8]  This investment isn’t a new or surprising venture for the South.  Introducing her book, Savannah Spectres, Margaret Debolt mentions that, “all of Dixie seemed to have more than its share of what the Scotsman called ‘things that go bump in the night.’”[9]  The popular imagination of the South as dark is not isolated to Savannah; there’s a nation-wide perception of ugliness in the South—or, more correctly, Southern history.  Again, we see that with the ghost stories.

Just to clear up the air, I am not calling Caskey, Debolt, or any other person who shared their encounter with the other side liars.  I’m not qualified to prove or disprove ghosts, but I can judge Savannah’s undead’s history and its impact on the living.  The ghost business clearly has a draw to it; it’s the magneticism of the occult.  And Savannah’s ghost tours dish out some of the most startling facts about the city’s history, facts that make characters come alive and diminishes the remoteness of history.  These stories are a boon to public inquiry in the city’s past and plays an integral part in Savannah’s tourist industry.

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