The Mercer Williams House is one of the most infamous homes in Savannah, there’s no doubt about that! After author John Berendt wrote about it in his New York Times Best Seller, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” his creative interpretation prompted hundreds of thousands of visitors to trek to Savannah to gawk at the spot where Danny Hansford’s shooting occurred.
Even though it was published back in 1994, visitors still flock to Mercer House to take selfies in front of the home’s beautiful Italianate façade. The tantalizing stories that unfolded behind its brick and plaster walls have financially benefitted the city of Savannah and its residents for decades — and there’s no end in sight.
It’s an intriguing house, that’s for sure! I’m going to give you a quick rundown on its history, talk about the haunted factor, and fill you in on a few of the deaths the have occurred on the property (Hansford’s wasn’t the only one).
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The Infamous Mercer House
Mercer Williams House | 429 Bull Street, Savannah, GA 31401
The beautiful Mercer Williams House is located on the southwest corner of Monterey Square and is one of the only homes in Savannah’s Historic District that takes up a full city block.
The property includes a rather large carriage house and a beautiful private courtyard. It’s also the “scene of the crime” for one of Savannah’s most notorious shootings. Let’s delve into the history of this scandalous home, shall we?
Related Reading: Old Savannah Trolley Tours: An Epic 1-Day Savannah Itinerary
History of the Mercer Williams House
Like many homes around here, the history of Mercer House runs about as deep as the murky waters of the Savannah River. It takes a few dark and twisted turns along the way, but that’s probably what makes it so captivating.
The home has run the gamut from being one of the most celebrated showpieces in the Historic District to hitting its low point as an empty and abandoned shell of its former self back in the mid-1900s.
Recent decades have brought about its triumphant return as one of the crown jewels of the city, and it currently operates as the Mercer House Museum.
The square the house faces is also home to many prominent mansions, as well as historic Congregation Mickve Israel — the third oldest Jewish synagogue in the nation. You can’t miss the beautiful Noble Hardee House on the south side of the square, with its fading (but no less glorious!) façade. It’s easily one of my top five favorite homes in Savannah!
The Noble Hardee House is currently home to Alex Raskin Antiques — although I hear that won’t be the case for much longer and that makes me very sad. But, as Forrest Gump would say, “That’s all I have to say about that.”
Let’s focus on the Mercer Williams House instead, since that’s why you’re here…
The Mercer House Years
The Italianate-style mansion was built in the 1860s for General Hugh Mercer, great-grandfather of popular singer/songwriter Johnny Mercer.
In his younger days, Mercer was a bit of a troublemaker. My research tells me he was nearly expelled from West Point’s elite military academy for participating in a drunken Christmas Day riot.
At least he was in familiar company since his classmates, Jefferson Davis — who went on to become president of the Confederacy, and Robert E. Lee — who became commander of the Confederate Army, also participated in the school’s famous Eggnog Riot.
Side note: I spent much of my late teen years attending dances at West Point, and I eventually got married in the academy’s Cadet Chapel. I can confirm that the school does NOT take kindly to any type of shenanigans from the cadets.
Mercer was married and working as a cashier at The Planters Bank in Savannah when he began construction on the home that currently bears his name. That construction halted when Mercer enlisted in the Confederacy during the War Between the States (aka the American Civil War).
Once the Civil War ended, Mercer moved to Baltimore. He never actually got the chance to live in the home he worked so hard to build.
The Mercer-Wilder House Years
When Mercer moved to Baltimore, he sold the unfinished home to John R. Wilder. Wilder completed construction in 1869, but then he died ten years later.
The home was known as the Mercer-Wilder house for many years. That is, until a more (in)famous resident came along and the moniker changed to the Mercer Williams House.
The Vacant Years
Through the years the Mercer House has seen multiple owners. Many years after Wilder’s death there was a period of time where it was vacant. Unfortunately, it fell into a state of neglect.
During that time, an 11-year-old boy named Tommy Downs wandered into the house. He was playing around, as boys tend to do, when he stumbled to his death from the top level of the home. The young lad was impaled (in the skull, no less!) on the beautiful wrought iron fence surrounding the property.
If you look closely, you can still see a missing piece of the fence marking the spot where he died. (Or at least the ghost tour guides like to point it out and claim that’s the reason for the missing spike!)
Make note that there are multiple missing spikes, but the one in question is on the south-facing side of the home. It’s just below one of the beautiful wrought-iron window balconies. You can see it in the top photo above.
Some speculate that little Tommy may not have been alone and that he could’ve been pushed to his death. I guess we’ll never know, but the youngster was just the home’s first reported ghost.
The Williams Era
In 1969, local preservationist Jim Williams purchased the house and began renovating it. Yes, that Jim Williams — the one who was the topic of the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”. Like most of his preservation projects, Williams did an impeccable job on the home and it became quite the showplace.
Williams ran his antique dealership out of the carriage house. He also began a secret relationship with his much-younger assistant, 21-year-old Danny Hansford.
Their relationship was volatile and finally ended with Hansford pulling a gun on Williams. According to Williams, Hansford’s gun jammed, leaving Williams just enough time to grab his own weapon and shoot Hansford in self-defense.
After four trials — which included three convictions, three appeals, and then finally an acquittal — Williams was finally set free and allowed to return to his home.
Haunted Stories About the Mercer Williams House
When tour guides spin tales about the house, they claim Williams was haunted by Hansford’s ghost once he returned home to the Mercer Williams House. If true, that haunting only lasted a few months. Unfortunately, Williams died suddenly — less than a year after his acquittal. Pneumonia is listed as his official cause of death.
His body was reportedly found in the study, in approximately the same location where Hansford was originally shot. Some like to say it was Hansford’s final revenge.
Since Williams was known for throwing large parties, and he particularly loved his elaborate Christmas Gala, visitors sometimes report seeing ghosts celebrating the holiday season at the Mercer House during the month of December.
The Carriage House
Jim operated his antiques restoration business out of the carriage house, so it was usually filled with priceless paintings and collector items. The two-story building spans the entire north/south width of the block, from sidewalk to sidewalk.
Guests used to be able to peek into the courtyard, but the height of its brick wall was extended during the late-1900s for privacy reasons. The entrances and windows were bricked over, as well. Whenever that happens, the ghost of the windows left behind are referred to as “phantom windows”.
The carriage house currently operates as a gift shop. If you go on a tour of Mercer House, make note that the tour groups typically meet inside the carriage house. It’s a good place to purchase local souvenirs and replicas from the home.
The Mercer Williams House Today
Jim Williams’ sister, Dr. Dorothy Williams Kingery, currently owns the home — although she came about it in a convoluted way. Williams was reportedly rather stingy to his sister in his will, and he left the home to his mother, Blanche Brooks Williams. When Mrs. Williams passed away, she bequeathed the home to her daughter, Dorothy Kingery.
Dr. Kingery currently lives in the home, and she makes the primary rooms on the ground floor available for touring. Guests can explore the beautiful foyer, Jim’s study, the dining room, the courtyard, and the carriage house.
I have a section in my Savannah First-Timer’s Guide where I discuss the top ten landmarks visitors should tour in Savannah, and this home is on the list. Some locals claim it’s a tourist trap, but hear me out….
It’s an incredibly beautiful home, and no one knows how much longer it will be open to the public, so I think you should absolutely take the opportunity to tour it while you still can!
The home is very grand, and there are beautiful antiques, reproductions, and eclectic furnishings on display. The decor hasn’t changed much since the days of Jim Williams, so as you’re walking through the grand foyer you can’t help but imagine what it must have been like to attend one of his lavish holiday soirees.
Although Dr. Kingery attempted to sell the home before, I hope it remains in the Williams family for many years to come. I’d hate for it to turn into an Airbnb! However, if it ever does, I hope the spirits of Jim Williams and Danny Hansford haunt the heck out of anyone who dares sleep there.
Can you tour the interior? Yes, the Mercer-Williams House is open for touring. Check rates for touring the interior of Mercer Williams House (no photos allowed) or go on a small group walking tour that discusses the people, places, and events depicted in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Photos of the Mercer Williams House
Even though the Mercer Williams House is one of the most photographed homes in Savannah, the façade is actually trademarked by Dr. Dorothy Williams Kingery. She did that to prevent people from using images of the home to promote tours and things of that nature.
If Dr. Kingery wanted to, she could sue me for 10% of any profit I make off the images I’ve taken of her lovely home. Fortunately for me, she hasn’t done so. (And if she ever happens to read this…Thank you, Dr. Kingery!)
I think she’s generous to share her incredible home with visitors, and I appreciate her entrepreneurial spirit for capitalizing on all the hoopla surrounding the house. (I tend to sympathize with the owners of notable homes in Savannah who get very little privacy due to all the looky loos trying to get a peek inside.)
Here are a few additional historic shots of the home, so you can see that it hasn’t changed much through the years…
If you want to learn more about the Mercer Williams House, there are a few books I recommend. Obviously, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” is the most popular. Understandably so, since it’s highly entertaining!
Here are a few that might interest you…
- “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt
- “Savannah Architectural Tours” by Elizabeth Osterberger and Jonathan Stalcup
- “Lawyer Games: After Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by Dep Kirkland
- “More than Mercer House: Savannah’s Jim Williams & His Southern Houses” by Dorothy Williams Kingery
Just do me one huge favor, and promise me you’ll read “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” before watching the movie. The movie just isn’t very good. The main reason to watch it is to see Lady Chablis’ in action. (Well that…and to enjoy all of the beautiful Savannah scenery!)
The book by Dr. Kingery focuses on the many homes that Jim Williams preserved, both in Savannah and throughout the Lowcountry. If you can wait until you arrive in Savannah to purchase the books, I suggest picking them up at E. Shaver Bookseller or V&J Duncan Antiques and Maps. Sometimes you can still find copies signed by the author!
Book a Tour: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil Tour
Savannah Travel Blog
As I’ve already mentioned, I live in Savannah and get to explore the city on a daily basis. Lucky me! I’m always honored when I’m able to help visitors plan their trips. Here are some of the resources I’ve created to help you out…
- My Savannah First-Timer’s Guide has all of my best tips about the city neatly packaged into one handy downloadable ebook.
- When you purchase my ebook, you’ll also gain access to my very active private Facebook group about Savannah! I pop in multiple times each day to answer questions, post photos, and provide updates about the city.
- Join my email list to stay in touch and get a printable list of 50 Things To Do on Foot in the Historic District — No Car Necessary, plus other helpful checklists.
- If you’re wondering where to start, try reading my post When is the Best Time to Visit Savannah? to select the most ideal time of year for your vacation.
So, what do you think of the Mercer House in Savannah? Does it live up to the hype?
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Historic Photo Credits: Historic American Buildings Survey, C. (1933) Mercer-Wilder House, 429 Bull Street, Savannah, Chatham County, GA. Savannah Georgia Chatham County, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ga0130/.