Mysterious Hauntings: Colonial Park Cemetery - Savanna, Georgia
Halloween is considered to be the time when the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest. It comes as no surprise that graveyards have become a fixture for the season. Whether it's teenagers out for a midnight scare or that family down the street decorating their lawn with headstones bought at Walmart, we tend to think of cemeteries when thinking of all the spookiness of Halloween. Of course when looking for haunted cemeteries you will find that numerous burial grounds from all over the world are supposedly ranked as the 'most haunted.' For this Halloween edition of Mysterious Hauntings I've decided to set the scene in the Old South at the oldest cemetery in Savanna, Georgia.
GhostsandGravestones.com has much information on the history and haunting of what was once referred to as the Old Cemetery. Though the grounds were used for many burials before the erection of the graveyard we know today, Colonial Park wasn't open to burials until 1750. It operated for 103 years, halting burials in 1853.
In more than a century the grounds were found to be in need of expansion three times. The first of these came in 1762. Once again in 1768, the cemetery had reached its capacity. The final expansion took place in 1789, bringing the grounds to the six acres that tourists and locals alike visit today. The southward and eastward development made room for 1000 graves, though it's thought that 10,000 are actually there as previous graves were built on and paved over during the construction of Colonial Park.
Savanna.com states that the cemetery previously went by many names. Aside from the Old Cemetery, it has also been called Old Brick Graveyard, South Broad Street Cemetery, and Christ Church Cemetery. It served as the city's main burial ground until its closing led to the Laurel Grove Cemetery opening as its successor.
As the grounds had closed to burials before the start of the Civil War, there were no Confederate soldiers interred there. Grave sites can be found for Button Gwinnett, a Georgia singer of the Declaration of Independence, and former owner of the Savanna Steamship Company, William Scarbrough. Even George Washington's second in command during the Revolutionary War, General Nathanael Green, was interred there for a time. America's foremost painter of miniatures, Edward Green Malbone, also found a peaceful place of eternal rest at Colonial Park.
During the Civil War, Sherman's March to the Sea left many cities in Georgia in smoldering destruction. Savanna survived that fate as it was surrendered without incident. Sherman even presented the city to Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas gift in 1864. Local legend has it that many of the headstones marking graves at Colonial Park were desecrated during the Union occupation, but this has been proven to be untrue. Vandals have desecrated the burial ground in many ways over the years since it closed to burials. Though it's common to blame the northerners, it's not hard to find that they had nothing to do with it.
Though tour guides will tell you that Union soldiers changed headstones throughout the burial ground with their bayonets, it's hard to know what exactly the real vandals might have used. Regardless, many dates were changed on some of the old, worn markers, with one man's headstone reading that he lived to be an astonishing 421-years-old. This man's eternal neighbor supposedly lived to the ripe old age of 544-years-old. Another's was changed to say that he was born a full 1000 years before his father.
Union soldiers during the occupation of Savanna have also been blamed for headstones that have been moved or gone missing. In fact, this can also be blamed on vandals as well as the many epidemics of yellow fever and malaria that broke out in the city. This caused the need to make more space for the growing population of the dead, uprooting old plots and the stones that marked them.
One among many interesting facts to be learned about the cemetery on SavannaFirstTimer.com described the punishments for desecrating the grounds in the mid-1850s. The Savanna City Ordinance outlined rules for those visiting and consequences for any that would deface tombs or markers, or those that could not conduct themselves in an orderly manner. Of course, those punishments were different for black offenders than they were for white ones due to the extreme racism of the Old South. A white person caught vandalizing the burial ground could expect nothing more than a $30 fine. A black person caught for the same offence would pay the same $30 fine, but also receive no more than 39 lashes from a whip. Half of the fines collected would go to the city, while the other half would go to whoever ratted the vandals out. A little encouragement for the citizens to help preserve the historic burial ground.
During the second half of the 19th century the cemetery had fallen into deterioration and was only getting worse. Proposals were being launched left and right for a courthouse, a railroad, or new streets to go in its place. As proposals threatened the old burial ground, the Park and Tree Commission stepped in to beautify the site. They brought the enchanting park back to life, reminding everyone why it was worth preserving in the first place. Aside from the historical value it has to offer, the tall, old oaks draped with Spanish moss flowing in the wind offer an ambiance like no other as they tower over crumbling gravestones. In 1967, the Trustees Garden Club undertook a huge restoration project on the Old Cemetery. In 1990, the city began a preservation project to maintain the cemetery and its timeless beauty for generations to come.
SavannaTerrors.com states that the burial ground wasn't finally named a park until 1896, a full 43 years after interments ceased. While it had originally been constructed for the Christ Church parish, people of all denominations could be interred there by 1789. For the first 50 years that Colonial Park served as the city's main burial ground there were no records kept of the deceased whatsoever. Record keeping didn't begin at the cemetery until the early 1800s. This made historical research done in 1990 as part of the preservation project much more difficult.
Thanks to the hard work of those that preserved the park's history in the '90s, the more than 250-year-old site is more informational than it ever was. Detailed changes made to the site were found while pilfering through old records. Newspaper articles, burial records, city counsel minutes, probate records, and early maps helped to piece together the cemetery's past like a 1000 piece puzzle. Hauntingly stunning photographs were taken for an updated map of the premises. Not only is there plenty of history to be learned, but plenty of ghost tours in America's most haunted city featuring its oldest and most haunted cemetery.
According to GhostCityTours.com many enthusiasts of the paranormal refer to this foreboding yet spellbinding place as 'Paranormal Central.' It's rightfully earned the reputation as Savanna has an alarming habit of building on top of grave sites. The city is often referred to as the City That Lives Upon Her Dead. Because of this reason, and others, locals believe that those buried there are angry over the disrespect they've endured in death.
The scene as described by OfficialSavannaGuide.com conjures images of ghostly apparitions and Voodoo rituals performed in the darkness of night. Disintegrating grave markers dot the grounds on which azaleas and other spectacular flowers can be seen blossoming in the spring and summer. Above-ground brick tombs built to stand the test of time can also be found among historic markers depicting the contributions to the city made by those buried there. Park benches, a playground, and a basketball court make it a destination the entire family can enjoy any time of year given the warm temperatures in Georgia. Towering oaks cloaked in Spanish moss adds to the eerie appearance of what was once aptly called the Old Brick Cemetery.
Colonial Park is so old that fact and legend have become blurred in many places. Savanna is a very old city with a past that seems to have taken on a life of its own. Having visited the city, but not the cemetery, I can definitely say that it can be easy to get swept up in the lore of Savanna. With Voodoo practitioners in and around the city, ghost tours on almost every corner, and historical sites everywhere you look, one can be forgiven for being taken in by the mysteriousness.
The most famous ghost story that guides love to regale tourists with is that of Rene Rondolier. Said to be seen wandering the grounds or hanging from what was once the hanging tree at the back of the cemetery, Rene is said to be a distinctive character. Standing at an astounding seven feet tall, tour guides say that his height gives him away. According to the lore two young girls were found to have been murdered in the cemetery one night, with their necks snapped. As Rene had a reputation around the city for snapping the necks of small animals, he was immediately the one and only suspect. A lynch mob formed to track him down and hang him for his crime. He was dragged back to the cemetery the girls were found in and executed. Some tour guides will even tell you that the glass found on the brick is to keep his spirit from wandering too far.
To further the lore of Rene Rondolier, tour guides like to say that he resided in a house that once stood on Hampton Lillibridge. In all actuality there are no historical records of any kind that can confirm his existence. There are also no records of any murders ever being committed in the cemetery. This seems to be just another occasion where the history of Savanna has almost shifted into mythology. Though you may not see a seven-foot-tall apparition at the old burial ground, you just may bear witness to shadow figures and an inexplicable green mist that drifts through the air at night.
What's a good Southern gothic haunting without some Voodoo? The city of Savanna still has a thriving Voodoo culture to this very day. Though there are still some practitioners within the city, many have moved to the outskirts for various reasons. Before the grounds started closing to the public at night it was quite common to come upon evidence of voodoo rituals in the mornings. Items would be left scattered in the wake of ceremonies as well as graves disturbed for use of the bones within. The cemetery's soil would even be utilized in rituals. This part of the cemetery's history is very true and can be easily confirmed. Many believe this to be another reason the site is as haunted as it's said to be.
Located just south of the burial ground is the playground and basketball court. This wholesome area for children and teens alike is no exception to the grim, dark stories that have grown along with the old oaks on the property. This space is rumored to have been the dueling grounds from 1740 until dueling was outlawed in 1877. Once it became a crime those looking to restore their honor had to travel to Hutchinson Island or South Carolina to do so. Though this is a popular story with tour guides in the area there are no records or reports that can confirm this with any kind of certainty.
Another popular rumor is that the small park that children now play on is the site of a mass grave. At least fifteen yellow fever outbreaks tore through the city, three of the worst occurring in 1820, 1854, and 1876. Local legend alludes to a mass grave of 700 victims that suffered the effects of this deadly illness. Atlas Obscura mentions that the actual number of deceased sufferers totaled to the number of the beast. The total was rounded up by the staunchly religious and superstitious community to curtail residents from evoking the Devil himself. Regardless of how many died or where they were buried, they were not buried in a mass grave under the playground that sits there today. Two archeological services used ground-penetrating radar to scan the area for bodies, finding nothing. Though they disproved the legend, they did find a dug path connecting two redoubts under the park.
Though the tales of dueling grounds and mass graves on the premises have been found to be untrue, one startling piece of information is based solidly in fact. In the early days of Colonial Park's operation as a functioning burial ground lost bodies were a common issue. The city's early methods of tracking the dead were problematic to say the least. Though their system has improved dramatically in 200 years, many remains were lost during expansions of the Old Cemetery. One notable figure to be lost launched a decades-long hunt for his and his son's remains.
George Washington's second in command, General Nathanael Green, died from a heatstroke on his plantation, Mulberry Grove, on June 19, 1786. His body was transported by boat to Savanna before being taken to the cemetery for burial. It was decided that he would be interred in the Graham family vault since the Grahams would not be using it. They had fled the country as Sympathizers of the Crown just a few years prior to Nathanael's death.
Nearly four years later the General's son, George Washington Green, died when his boat overturned near the plantation on April 4, 1790. He was interred with his father in the Graham family vault for what everyone assumed to be eternity. But, somewhere within the span of 30 years father and son were both lost. A committee was appointed to locate their bodies, but to no avail. Their whereabouts had become a seemingly unsolvable mystery.
In 1901, Asa Bird, President of the Rhode Island Society of Cincinnati, made a trip to Savanna with the purpose of finding these lost men. After a number of vaults were thoroughly examined, they were finally found to be inside the Graham-Mossman family vault. Several pieces of evidence found on their bodies confirmed their identities. In 1902, they were moved to their final resting place in Johnson Square. Father and son were placed underneath a monument bearing Nathanael's name. The Obelisk is seen by millions every year as it sits in the heart of the city.
SavannaFirstTimer.com tells the account of a visitor who caught a soldier, likely from the Revolutionary War, in a photograph. One of the most famous stories to emerge from the tombs is that of the jumping boy. In December 2008, a teenage boy named Jesse Greathouse was visiting the historic city with his family on vacation. Taking with him a cheap camcorder, Jesse decided to venture into the cemetery one night to see what he may catch on camera. He caught a little boy chasing someone through the grounds before leaping straight up into a tree. Just moments later he dropped straight back down, earning him the name jumping boy. The video has been debunked, but is still considered fun to watch. A link to the video can be on SavannaFirstTimer.com.
Though many of the stories have been proven false, one thing that cannot be denied is the almost unnatural feeling experienced by many that have passed through its walls. Orbs have been caught in pictures where no light should've been visible and shadows are seen moving about in the darkness of night. A strange green mist said to appear and float exclusively on the burial ground has been witnessed by many visitors. Is it that the dead remain in a state of unrest having been moved, disturbed, and disrespected repeatedly? Have voodoo ceremonies inadvertently woken the spirits from their rest? Is Savanna's dead angered by having so many of their graves built on or paved over? Or, has Savanna's lore actually managed to outgrow the city?
Whether you believe in ghosts or the tall tales of the Old South, Savanna is still worth a visit as is its oldest cemetery. Even if you don't leave with a ghostly encounter, you will surely take away much knowledge about one of America's oldest cities. We will surely visit this city again in this series as there are many haunted destinations throughout.