City of the Dead

There is little debate among Savannah residents; they live in America’s most haunted city and there is one unifying reason. Savannah is built on its dead.

There are as many as seven partial cemeteries under Savannahs 2.2 square mile historic district. The total number of bodies under Savannah is anyone’s guess. The estimates range from inconsequential to over ten thousand.

I dismiss anyone who will attest to the exact number of souls or cemeteries under our streets but we can be sure of these:

a. Parts of Colonial Park Cemetery interred at least 11,000 of Savannahs citizens from 1750 until 1853.

b. A slave burial ground exists in the Calhoun square area, said to be the largest un-exhumed cemetery of the eighteenth century.

c. There are numerous Illegal burial sites preserved in and around Old Candler hospital.

Understanding the relationship the city has with the residents under its sidewalks is complex. However, it appears that living atop so many of its former citizenry has created a dysfunctional connection between us and them. The fractured relationship was set in motion during Savannah’s earliest childhood, when the living played the role of absent parents to the latchkey dead.

Adding fuel to the paranormal fire are the ways in which death came. They are mostly tragic, mostly untimely and mostly horrific in nature.

War

Besides innumerable skirmishes, the two greatest wars fought on U.S. soil were fought in and/or around Savannah. Predictably, the city has buried a great many casualties of war; most notably, those mortally wounded during the Siege of Savannah. This battle saw the bloodiest hour of the Revolutionary War and the second most deadly conflict of the entire war. American and British soldiers, enemies in life, now lay in eternal rest, side by side.

Yellow Fever

“All I desire for my own burial is not to be buried alive.” – Lord Chesterfield, 1769.

Yellow fever arrived in deadly waves as improvements in sea travel allowed the vector for spreading the epidemic to survive long enough to reach Savannah’s shore. The subtropical climate, combined with large amounts of standing water from frequent spring rains made ideal breeding grounds for the virus-carrying mosquito.

According to The Georgia Historical Society, the first major epidemic struck in 1820 and had sinister undertones, claiming 666 victims. Many say the ominous symbolism of the number, prevented Savannah from putting the exact tally of victims on the memorial marker located in Colonial Park Cemetery. Instead, it commemorates an estimate of the dead as “… nearly 700”.

It was a dark warning of things to come. Savannah was ravaged at least three more times from major yellow fever outbreaks and thousands more lives were claimed.

Contracting yellow fever was alarming was but there were more horrific possibilities which made the epidemic so feared. Chief among them was not dying and suffering the unimaginable possibility of a live burial. It was a very real fear for hundreds of years in America and yellow fever offered one of the best opportunities to be prematurely laid to rest.

You can hear tales of these live burials; stories of scratch, claw and bite marks found underneath coffin lids unearthed during expansion, or the habit of tying bells to thin ropes that were positioned in the hands of those placed in the coffin. In the event a person was buried alive, they could pull the rope from inside the casket; alerting anyone within earshot and offering hope to be “saved by the bell”.

Those saved by the bell appeared yellow and gaunt after returning from the grave. In Savannah they were referred to as “the dead ringers”. Today the term “dead ringer” is defined as an exact replica of an original. Many believed the survivors to be copies; soulless versions of the loved one they had laid to rest… the walking dead… zombies if you prefer.

Fear gripped the town and myths about how the fever was transmitted ran wild. Unfortunately, it would not be until the turn of the century that mosquitoes would be identified as the cause.

In the meantime, cannons were fired down Bay Street in bizarre attempts to kill whatever was in the air causing the sickness. Fires were set ablaze in strategic locations to ward off the unknown cause and curfews were imposed to keep the population from panicking or fleeing the city by night. People were ordered indoors while mass burials were ghoulishly carried out under the cover of darkness.

This presented a curious problem because a late term symptom of yellow fever is a coma-like sleep. As the sickness continued to claim victims, the doctors and competent caregivers were among them. At that point, untrained volunteers were employed to help care for the sick and dying. Without modern medicine, hasty night burials and the ill-equipped overseeing the panic, many people in fever-induced comas were prematurely pronounced dead. It isn’t hard to imagine what came next, even if it seems impossible to imagine what it must have been like.

The doomed soul would wake in the small coffin, claustrophobically pinned in the supine position. The air would have been stale, hot and pitch black. As the body continued to wake from the coma, oxygen consumption would resume at a near normal rate and slow suffocation would begin.

The victim would surely be drowsy and nauseous. Even uncrossing their arms in the blackness would have proved challenging in such a tight space. Attempts to push the immovable weight would have been futile. The desperation of clawing and scratching into the lid of the coffin would cause nausea to worsen. Likely, they would begin to vomit the oxidized blood in their stomach, which would now resemble coffee grounds. Unable to sit up, they would likely choke to death on the black vomit, as it was known, before having the opportunity to run out of air.

The fear of live burial followed us into modern times and patent filings show us safety coffins were designed to avoid being buried alive even as late as the 1980’s. According to the United States Patents Office, one such device was called, “The Improved Burial Case” (Patent No. 81,437 Franz Vester, Newark, New Jersey. August 25, 1868.) The coffin came complete with a ladder, rope and bell… just in case.

‘The Strangers’

The hardest numbers of tragic deaths to estimate are the ones Savannah simply refers to as “strangers”.

Early Savannah was small, concentric and built to be easily defended because of the military mission assigned it (Guarding South Carolina from the Spanish threat in Florida).

Immigrant populations and slave ships pulled into port weary and sick from long term ocean voyages. Those that died during the journey, or shortly after, were buried in the outlying woods while their family and loved ones moved on to settle in other places.

The dead were left behind in makeshift graves throughout what would later become greater Savannah. They were soon hard to distinguish, since no one was left to tend the site or memorialize its location. The innumerable unmarked graves stand in stark contrast to the formal places of rest, and eventually most of them were lost to development and forgotten.

Bone and coffin fragments from this time in the city’s history are undeniably present. Slave remains were discovered even in this century as utility workers attempted to install a new meter on the edge of Calhoun Square.

Not far away, line workers found partial skeletons in the branches of a live oak. In all probability, these were victims of one of Savannah’s devastating floods over a hundred years ago. We know that Hurricane Katrina victims are still being found in the trees of New Orleans. If Savannah is any predictor, they will continue to be for many years, if not centuries, to come.

It is reasonable to wonder why so many of the departed were simply built over rather than reinterred. Some were relocated but many were unable to afford the process, while countless others were lost to rapid development.

Expansion came, in part, after the death of Major General Nathanael Greene; a Revolutionary war hero awarded Mulberry Grove Plantation for his service during the war. By all accounts, he was one of George Washington’s best officers and the husband of Catherine “Caty” Greene. They worked the plantation together until Nathanael died suddenly from sunstroke. In desperation, Caty began working the land by herself, until one day, she met a young man who was tutoring her neighbor’s children. The man’s name was Eli Whitney.

Whitney moved onto the plantation to work on his inventions, one of which was expected to help Caty process her crop of short staple cotton. Together, they put the finishing touches on one of history’s greatest inventions, the cotton gin.

According to the Wikipedia entry for Caty Greene, it is widely believed she actually provided a great deal of input for the device. However, Eli received sole credit as social norms inhibited women from filing patents at the time.

With the development of gin technology, Savannah moved away from a small military settlement into a vibrant city. Developers and fortune seekers, along with the trades that serviced them, flocked to its shores. Since few people had land or money to move their dead, and so many left unclaimed, the city simply built over them.

Many believe this was the final act to set the wheels in motion. Savannah had developed a psychic disassociation and sense of amnesia about its dead.

Eventually, the city recovered from its neurosis and not only acknowledged death, but also paved the way for America to celebrate it as an extension of life during the Victorian era and even into modern times. A grand example of this can be viewed at beautiful Bonaventure Cemetery, which ironically translates, Good Fortune.

The emerging funeral parlor industry helped drive ease of burial, taking much of the responsibility for dealing with deceased loved ones away from the family and placing it in the hands of professionals. With this newfound free time, it became not only acceptable to memorialize the dead, but to celebrate their life graveside.

This new culture gave sculptors, like John Walz, a stage to display their memorial craft and Bonaventure residents like Savannah poet, Conrad Aiken, socially acceptable latitude to infuse creativity into the monuments representing them. Aiken’s tombstone was carved into a bench so that people could rest while they visited, watch the ships leaving the harbor, and enjoy a Martini with their picnic lunch as was Conrad’s custom during his life.

Today Savannah’s dead are remembered; visits to Bonaventure Cemetery thrive, famous lives are retold in books and on tours in the city. Others are recognized for different reasons; those who loved Savannah too much, died tragically, or left behind worldly business so pressing they refuse to move on to the next phase. Their stories are commemorated nightly throughout the city in any number of humorous, somber or chilling tales.

Savannah’s polarized attitude toward death, from passive denial to open celebration, seems to have exacerbated the rift in the underworld… bringing it to a constant fluid state. This jagged ethereal motion expanded Savannah’s borders beyond just a port city; it was now a portal city as well.