The Mercer Williams House: Savannah's Most Notorious Home (2022)

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 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 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).

The Mercer Williams House: Savannah's Most Notorious Home (1)

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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 Mercer Williams House: Savannah's Most Notorious Home (2)

The property includes a rather large carriage house and a beautiful private courtyard.

It was 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?

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, aka: Alex Raskin Antiques*, 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!

*Alex Raskin Antiques sold in May of 2022 for 3.5 million.

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.

(Video) Mercer Williams House in Savannah, Georgia Documentary

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.

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The Mercer Williams House: Savannah's Most Notorious Home (4)
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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 B&W photo above.

Some speculate that little Tommy may not have been alone and that he could’ve been pushed to his death.

(Video) Savannah Ghost Tour - Mercer House - Part 1

I guess we’ll never know, but the youngster was just the home’s first reported ghost.

The Jim 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.

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The Mercer Williams House: Savannah's Most Notorious Home (7)
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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.

(Video) Mercer House - Savannah, Georgia

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”.

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The Mercer Williams House: Savannah's Most Notorious Home (13)
The Mercer Williams House: Savannah's Most Notorious Home (14)

The carriage house currently operates as a gift shop.

It’s a good place to purchase local souvenirs and replicas from the home.

If you go on a tour of Mercer House, make note that the tour groups typically meet inside the carriage house.

Related Reading: Old Savannah Trolley Tours: An Epic 1-Day Savannah Itinerary

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. 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.

Those who know me, know 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.

(Video) Phantom 3 Drone Crash on Historic Mercer-Williams House, Savannah, GA

Here are a few additional historic shots of the home, so you can see that it hasn’t changed much through the years…

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The Mercer Williams House: Savannah's Most Notorious Home (19)

If you want to learn more about the Mercer Williams House, here are a few books that might interest you…

Obviously, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” is the most popular.

Understandably so, since it’s highly entertaining!

Just do me one huge favor, and promise me you’ll read the book 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.

Although it’s rare, sometimes you can still find copies signed by the author at those two locations.

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 of50 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?

Love this post? Pin it now to save for later!

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/.

The Mercer Williams House: Savannah's Most Notorious Home (23) Erin authored the Savannah First-Timer's Guide and loves helping first-time visitors plan their trips. She lives in the artsy Starland District and enjoys exploring Savannah's hidden gems, as well as the surrounding Lowcountry.

FAQs

The Mercer Williams House: Savannah's Most Notorious Home? ›

Mercer House (now called Mercer Williams House Museum) is located at 429 Bull Street in Savannah, Georgia. Completed in 1868, it occupies the southwestern civic block of Monterey Square. The house in 2020, after the completion of upkeep on its brickwork and paintwork.

Who owns the Mercer House now? ›

After a century of prominent residents, the house was purchased by famed Savannah preservationist Jim Williams. Williams spent two years restoring the Mercer House and today guests can take tours to experience its sophisticated charm.

Did Johnny Mercer ever live in the Mercer House in Savannah? ›

Thus, no Mercer ever actually lived in the house that bears their name. In Savannah, the majority of historic homes use the name of the home's original family in addition to the most prominent family.

Where did Johnny Mercer live in Savannah? ›

Marker Text: World-renowned songwriter John Herndon Mercer was born in Savannah and spent much of his youth in this house at 226 East Gwinnett Street. His lyrics reflected the sounds of Southern conversation, influenced by the African-American music and the natural world he experienced.

How long is the tour of the Mercer Williams House? ›

Museum Information

Our 35 minute guided tours run approximately every 20 minutes. Parking is located on the street and is metered.

Who lives in the Mercer Williams House? ›

Mercer House (Savannah, Georgia)
Mercer Williams House Museum
Owner1860 – 1868 Hugh W. Mercer 1868 – unknown John R. Wilder Unknown – 1959 Savannah Shriners 1969 – 1990 Jim Williams 1990 – present Dorothy Williams Kingery
Technical details
Floor count3 (including basement)
Floor area7,000 sq.ft.
13 more rows

Is the story of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil true? ›

The book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, is based on a true story about Jim Williams. Of course, John Berendt added and embellished to make it more exciting. Mr. Williams bought Mercer house in 1969 after it had been vacant for over a decade.

Who lives in the Armstrong house Savannah Ga? ›

Savannah native and luxury hotelier Richard Kessler purchased the 25,000 square-foot mansion back in 2017. He restored the property to once again serve as a private residence - with help from designer Chuck Chewning and architect Christian Sottile.

Was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil filmed in the Mercer House? ›

The film was mostly filmed in Savannah. The main character, Jim Williams (played by Kevin Spacey), lived in Mercer House located at 429 Bull Street in the west end of Monterey Square in Savannah. The mansion was built in 1861 and was used as Williams' home in the film as well.

Where is Forrest Gump park bench? ›

The bench that Hanks/Forrest sat on was actually a movie prop that has since been placed in the Savannah History Museum. But the location of the bench for the movie in Chippewa Square is still a popular spot for photographs.

Where is the house from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil? ›

Clint Eastwood directed and produced the film version of the book, also titled "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil". The city of Savannah was used extensively for filming, and the Mercer Williams House was featured prominently. Scenes were shot inside and outside of the impressive home.

Was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil filmed in Savannah? ›

"Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" filmed in Savannah starting in May 1997. Warner Bros. Pictures spent an estimated $5.5 million filming in Savannah, said Jay Self, director of tourism and film services.

Where is the old section of Bonaventure Cemetery? ›

Savannah, Georgia

Is Jim Williams a real person? ›

Williams is the main character in the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, published four years after his death in 1990.
...
James Arthur Williams.
Jim Williams
BornJames Arthur WilliamsDecember 11, 1930 Gordon, Georgia, U.S.
DiedJanuary 14, 1990 (aged 59) Savannah, Georgia, U.S.
NationalityAmerican
3 more rows

Where was a Savannah haunting filmed? ›

A SAVANNAH HAUNTING is a film based on real supernatural phenomena the writer/director and his family experienced in their home in Savannah for decades. The film was shot on location at the actual haunted house. The filmmakers attempted to capture the subtle, creepy fear that afflicted the real residents of the home.

How do you get into Mercer's house in Skyrim? ›

With a high enough Speech skill (an Amulet of Dibella helps), Mercer's House Key can be obtained by persuading Vald that Mercer needs him in Markath, with a high enough Pickpocket skill, it can be taken from his pocket when he stands with his back against the gate - or it can be gotten by simply killing him.

Was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil filmed in Savannah? ›

"Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" filmed in Savannah starting in May 1997. Warner Bros. Pictures spent an estimated $5.5 million filming in Savannah, said Jay Self, director of tourism and film services.

Where is the house from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil? ›

Clint Eastwood directed and produced the film version of the book, also titled "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil". The city of Savannah was used extensively for filming, and the Mercer Williams House was featured prominently. Scenes were shot inside and outside of the impressive home.

Where is James Williams buried? ›

Grave Monument of Colonel James Williams

Colonel James Williams, who was purportedly slain by Major Ferguson at the Battle of Kings Mountain on 07 October 1780, is buried in the town of Gaffney, Cherokee County SC. His grave is located on Limestone Street in front of the Cherokee County Administration Building.

How old was Johnny Mercer when he died? ›

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