Best history questions from tourists

A tour guide reflects on his favorite customer queries

ONE OF my great loves as a walking tour guide is being able to interact with my tour group at the end of the evening in the form of a Q & A session. It is a chance for me to veer off-script, at least figuratively speaking, and talk about topics I don't normally cover in my allotted two hour timeframe.

I love those moments. I’ve been a tour guide for 14 years and love to read about Savannah’s history, so I’ve got tons of material just sort of floating around in my head that I would never otherwise get to use.

In a previous column I covered a few of the sillier queries I’ve received, but I thought that I had better follow that up with: what are some of the best questions I’ve ever gotten at the end of a tour?

What's the craziest story about Savannah that you know?

There are too many to choose from: the tale of the Butcher Murderer, Jesse McKethan, who terrorized Savannah in the mid-1940s is a pretty gruesome story. On the night I was asked this question, though: I picked a tale involving Henry Parker, one of our earliest politicians, who had an exceedingly embarrassing evening in 1739.

In the early days of Savannah, we were overseen by the Trustee-appointed Magistrates, a title roughly equal to being mayor. One of our earliest Magistrates was Henry Parker, who had quite a love for rum.

This was unfortunate for Henry, because rum was forbidden in Savannah. On the night in question, Henry staggered into Jenkins’ Tavern, already having knocked back a considerable amount of the forbidden liquor.

Henry was drunk and out of money, so in order to quench his thirst that night he offered the owner of the tavern, Edward Jenkins, a special deal: in exchange for a whole bowl of rum punch, they would trade places and jobs for the night. Under this arrangement, barkeep would become Magistrate, and vice versa.

The barkeeper Jenkins considered this for a moment, and then accepted the offer. The two even traded clothes to make the deal even more official. The new Magistrate stepped out from behind the bar, and the new tavern keeper stepped behind and began to serve drinks.

When Henry asked for the bowl of rum punch he was promised, though, the new Magistrate Jenkins exercised his new authority: he called Henry a ‘drunken swab’ and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck. He then chastised him for debasing the office of Magistrate, and threw Henry to the floor!

The bartender-for-a-night never did get his bowl of punch, because rum was strictly forbidden in Savannah. Henry Parker had been a linen draper back in London, so perhaps it could be said that he made a career out of being three sheets to the wind.

What's the deal with all the dead bodies buried in odd places in Savannah?

You might have heard the saying that Savannah is a city built upon its dead, and wondered if it is true. Well, it is, and the truth is much stranger than many Savannahians realize.

Most of us already know that the original burial ground near Wright Square got absorbed and developed, and the Jewish burial ground survives in part in the median of Oglethorpe Avenue. Many of those bodies are still there. But how many are aware that there were not one but two cemeteries which have been paved over and lost near Calhoun Square?

One was a burial spot for African Americans, and the other was used as a Potter’s Field. In 2004, a utility company was digging in front of the Massie Heritage Center. The crew found a human skull and other assorted bones.

Colonial Park Cemetery and the surrounding areas are also a treasure trove for morbid stories regarding strange burials. In 1967, workers doing some construction on Abercorn Street next to the cemetery began discovering human bodies. As a matter of fact, if you look down the brick sidewalk of the cemetery along Abercorn Street, you will notice a regular pattern of subtle depressions and humps within the walkway, reminiscent of gentle ocean swells.

Many people attribute this strange feature to the wooden coffins which are undoubtedly under the sidewalk, which have slowly collapsed under the weight of the bricks and earth over them. In 1968, the city manager at the time told a prominent local historian that graves stretched perhaps as far as Drayton Street, one full block to the west.

A story which may confirm this comes from a friend of mine who once worked at a law firm next door to that fire station. The law firm was located in a converted residential home. One day a man came to visit the house, and told them that he used to live there as a child. He remembered digging in the backyard in the late 1940s while doing landscaping with his father, and that they had hit multiple coffins while doing it.

They called the city, who sent a truck to pick up the coffins and remains. No one seems to remember where the coffins were moved.

click to enlarge The Casimir Pulaski Monument
The Casimir Pulaski Monument

Then there’s Savannah’s odd habit of losing the bodies of our patriots and war heroes. We have misplaced or otherwise forgotten the exact location of the final resting spot of Revolutionary War Generals Samuel Elbert, Nathanael Greene, Casimir Pulaski, and Georgia President Button Gwinnett.

Amusing stories surround all four: Elbert’s remains were stolen by children but returned. Gwinnett’s remains were exhumed, and kept by a local schoolteacher in his closet for years. Pulaski’s bones have never been 100 percent verified.

General Greene’s journey back from anonymity was anything but ceremonious. When his forgotten whereabouts were discovered in 1901, his body was exhumed and placed in a wooden soap crate.

Moved to the nearby police barracks, the box containing the war hero’s bones was reportedly kicked by a newspaper reporter enquiring what was within. “Great heavens, man,” the police sergeant told him, “that’s General Greene’s body you are kicking.”

These are just two of the many wonderful questions I’ve been asked over nearly a decade and a half of leading tours here. What I love is that people are curious enough to ask them in the first place.

This city is full of those truly strange, exotically great historical tidbits which make her unique. Revealing just a few means that I get to contribute in some small way to the authenticity of the Historic District.