The Mercer Williams House is best known from the New York Times Best-Selling novel and movie, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which follows the murder trial of Jim Williams in 1981 and the reporter covering the story.
However, the home actually dates back to 1860 when New York architects began building the home for General Hugh W. Mercer who followed his grandfather’s footsteps into the military. Mercer’s grandfather was a Brigadier General in the Continental Army fighting alongside George Washington in the American Revolution. General Hugh W. Mercer moved to Savannah after graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point and served until 1835 when he retired and transitioned into civilian life. However, once the Civil War began, Mercer joined the Confederate Army in 1861 taking arms against the Union. Due to the war, construction on the Mercer House was halted. Upon enlisting in the Confederate Army, Mercer quickly rose through the ranks and earned the rank of Brigadier General like his grandfather during the American Revolution. Mercer commanded a brigade of three Georgia regiments in the Battles of Dalton, Marietta, Atlanta, and Kennesaw Mountain. He was also instrumental in convincing slaves and free blacks into fighting against the Union. Mercer was arrested after the Civil War and put on trial for killing several deserters who fled during battle. He was eventually acquitted of the murders but spent a lot of money on his defense leaving him with no money to complete his home.
After the trial, Mercer sold the property to John Wilder and went to work at a bank until the 1870s when he and his family moved to Baltimore. As he got older and his health declined, Mercer went to Germany to get treatment. He spent the last few years of his life there until he died in 1877. Mercer’s great grandson, Johnny Mercer, co-founded Capitol Records and played a big part in the careers of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, Dean Martin, and many more successful artists from that time.
After purchasing the home from Mercer, John Wilder finished the construction and lived there with his wife. According to legend, Dr. Wilder and his wife got into an argument in the early 1900s which became so heated that it ended in murder. Enraged by his wife earlier in the day, Dr. Wilder waited until his wife went to bed, snuck into her room, and then smothered her with a pillow. What happened next is a still a mystery. The following morning Dr. Wilder was found dead outside the home. Some speculate that once Dr. Wilder calmed down, he realized he would spend the rest of his life in jail for killing his wife, and the only escape was to jump from the balcony to commit suicide. Others speculated that his wife’s ghost came back for revenge later in the night.
In the late 1960s, 11 year old boy, Tommy Downs, fell to his death from the roof of the Mercer Williams House. The boy climbed to the roof of the house to shoot pigeons with his slingshot and somehow slipped falling seventy feet to his death, impaling himself on one of the sharp tips of the black iron fence that surrounds the building.
In 1969, Jim Williams bought the house and completely restored the historic Italianate mansion bringing in antiques from all over the world to decorate it. In 1981, Williams was charged with murder after shooting his lover, Bill Hansford, in the home. According to Jim, a drunken Bill came over one night and started waving a gun around threatening to shoot him. Bill shot at Jim and missed so Jim pulled a pistol out of his desk and fired at Bill three times killing him in the study. After four trials and millions of dollars spent on attorneys, Williams was acquitted and returned home to the Mercer House in 1989. However, Williams died from heart failure six months later in the same room where Bill had been shot year’s earlier.
Some locals say Jim double-crossed his friend, Valerie Fennel Aiken Boles (Minerva in the movie) who was a local Voodoo priestess. Legend has it that Valerie cast a spell on Jim when he refused to pay her money after she used black magic to get him acquitted. No one knows for sure. Valerie passed away in 2009. She didn’t like dealing with the media so no one really knows for sure if she had something to do with Jim’s death or even dabbled in the dark arts at all.
Today the Mercer Williams House is a museum run by Jim Williams’ sister. You can purchase tickets to tour portions of the House and see how Williams lived. If you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of Tommy who is said to be a ghost that wanders the property looking out windows at night.