By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
No city delights in its spooks and history of haunted happenings like Savannah, Georgia.
“We’re the most haunted city in North America,” Big Scott, our driver and guide says proudly, “though New Orleans makes the same claim.”
Yes, it is Savannah that received the “most haunted” endorsement from the American Institute of Parapsychology, empowering a cottage industry built around the city’s ghostly reputation and accompanying tales of supernatural occurrences.
Which is why “Boo, y’all” is a phrase of welcoming in a city that uses Southern charm to soften the sordid aspects of its history. It is also the name of the most enjoyable city tour we’ve taken anywhere.
Modern Savannah has too much of an overlaying spirit of fun for visitors to take its spirits too seriously.
Ninety minutes of boos and booze on the Boo Y’all Comedy Ghost Tour (operated by Old Savannah Tours) was prefaced with the suggestion that we get a drink for the road at the bar next door before boarding the party bus .
More about Savannah coming soon: Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters Museum tour revealing look in reality of slavery
Boos and booze on the bus
The tour guide was local comedian Chris Davison doing a stand-up routine in the aisle based around notorious events and personalities from Savannah’s past. Davison works in tandem with Big Scott, and they did their best to deliver on the warning that passengers might die laughing.
It was all about fun, not fright, but with a delectably wicked edge that left our smile muscles sore in a satisfying way.
It’s not just about ghost stories. The comedic net casts a wide swatch over notorious persons and the personality of the city itself, past to present.
Everyone gets skewered from rich-kid students at the Savannah School of Art and Design (SCADlings, as they are known) to celebrities Kevin Spacey and Paula Deen.
Spacey starred in the 1997 film “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” based on a notorious murder case in the 1980s involving a prominent Savannah businessman.
Even before being charged with murder Spacey’s character, Jim Williams, stirred controversy by displaying a huge Nazi banner outside his house to disrupt a movie production being filmed in the adjacent square. Davison told the story as the bus passed a Jewish temple near the historic Mercer House where Williams lived at the time.
Gump bench and ghost visits
We also learned about Chippewa Square, best known as the site of filming of the famous bench scene in “Forrest Gump” with Forrest and a certain box of chocolates. The bench is no longer there, but tourists regularly trample the flowers where it was to take selfies. Those photos when seen on social media invariably highlight the bronze backside of the statue of General James Oglethorpe, Davison pointed out.
Debate about whether this was the most photogenic feature of Savannah’s founder was par for the irreverent spirit of this outing. Big Scott noted that this was a pretty dark-minded audience which laughed at a story about a suicide and a pirate’s tale of slitting the throats of his compatriots.
The pirate was one of several “ghosts” of infamous Savannah denizens who came aboard the bus to deliver monologues at various stops.
Chris observed that most people in the pirate’s line of work — that of absconding with hordes of cash from unfortunate rich folks — prefer not to be referred to as pirates. These days, they are sometimes known as hedge fund managers, he quipped.
One ghost with a German accent gave a hilarious talk in front of the Telfair Academy museum about what happens when liquor laden parties are held on the premises of the museum bequeathed by the teetotalling Mary Telfair.
Funnier was the interplay between the ghost and the high-spirited ladies from Minnesota seated in front of us. At one point he said, indignantly, “Did you just ‘Heil’ me?” He went on to assure us he had passed into the other world long before the Nazis came along.
Soon after it was time for the intermission of the tour as the bus stopped near another Savannah landmark: McDonough’s bar. Everyone trooped into the tavern for liquid reinforcements, which served to enhance the revelry on the second half of the excursion.
Savannah tours galore
Savannah is known as the City Built on its Dead because some it was indeed constructed atop existing grave sites. Its haunted reputation is further based on a grim history rife with public hangings, wars, ruthless pirates and a yellow fever epidemic, the latter which killed about a tenth of Savannah’s population in 1820.
No wonder there are numerous sites purported to be haunted in Savannah, and a variety of guided tours that highlight them, including a haunted pub crawl — fitting, considering one of Savannah’s premier haunt spots is a brewery. There are walking ghost tours, trolley ghost tours, even one that makes the rounds in a funeral hearse.
Considering all of these require an extension, or suspension, of belief, we chose the Boo Y’all party bus (Old Savannah Tours also offers three so-called grave encounters) because it promised fun rather than fright.
Enchanted by the Bird Girl
Savannah’s best known haunted place is Bonaventure Cemetery due to being a prominent setting in the John Berendt’s best-selling 1994 non-fiction novel “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and in the movie adaptation that followed. There are tours specific to the cemetery, which is east of Savannah overlooking the Wilmington River.
But don’t go there expecting to see the iconic Bird Girl statue, which graced the cover of Berendt’s book. No need to leave downtown Savannah for that.
The statue of a sad-looking young girl holding a bowl in each upturned hand was relocated to the Telfair Academy museum (121 Barnard St.) due to concerns about the crowds it was attracting at the cemetery.
Known as Little Wendy, it was installed as a family burial marker around 1940 and drew little public notice until Savannah photographer Jack Leigh featured it as the subject of a classic graveyard photo that became a stunning book cover.
Now the Bird Girl (one of four originally cast by sculptor Sylvia Shaw Judson) has her own room on the upper floor of Telfair Academy.
Notably, Telfair Academy was the first art museum in America founded by a woman, Mary Telfair.
The spacious museum in a former private mansion has a vast array of 19th and 20th-century American and European art — paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, photography. The Sculpture Gallery, downstairs, has plaster casts of renowned works including the Venus de Milo.
But Little Wendy is the star attraction. There is a copy of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” on the bench in her private room. The wall behind her is the backdrop of where she stood in Bonaventure Cemetery.
Patrons sit or stand to ponder the Bird Girl and her pose. Her head tilts slightly toward her left shoulder. Is she forlorn or contemplating … what?
She is an ethereal figure with an air of mystery about her. It is easy to imagine the spooky feeling that Leigh captured so well just before dusk in the cemetery.
Fortunately for him, there was nobody there to jump out from behind a tree and shout, “Boo, y’all!”