I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Sex, Death, and the Occult
Genteel Savannah, Georgia was shaken in 1981 by a shooting and the revelation of unseemly goings on among its gracious dwellings. Then, there was the involvement of voodoo.
Renovating the Mercer House
James “Jim” Williams lived in the Mercer House in Savannah's Historic District. The mansion was built in the 1860s by Confederate General Hugh Mercer whose great grandson was the singer/songwriter Johnny Mercer ("Autumn Leaves," "Moon River," etc.).
The house was empty and had fallen on hard times when Williams bought it in 1969 and began extensive renovations. He was a prosperous antiques dealer and leading member of the city's preservationists.
He liked to host parties in the house attended by anybody who was anybody in Savannah. At one of these gatherings he met young Danny Hansford, a man described by the Washington Examiner as a “redneck hustler.”
Hansford had been born in Savannah in 1960 and had taken up the trade of a sex worker. Hansford and Williams began a semi-secret, tempestuous relationship that involved frequent quarrels. Danny was, apparently, prone to frequent outbursts of rage.
A Shooting Occurs
In the early morning hours of May 2, 1981, Jim Williams made a phone call to police to say that he had shot his young assistant.
Officers found Hansford in Williams's study; he was lying face down and there was a handgun underneath his right hand.
He had bullet wounds in his chest, back, and above his right ear. A bullet had passed through some papers on a desk and fragments of a bullet were embedded in a chair behind the desk.
Police said that they followed standard procedure and Hansford's hands were placed in bags. Later, examination showed there was no powder residue on the dead man's hands, which there would have been if he had fired a gun.
Williams was charged with murder.
Consulting the Occult
While he was working with his lawyers to craft his defense, Williams was also consulting with a voodoo priestess named Valerie Boles.
Journalist John Berendt wrote about the Hansford-Williams case in his 1994 book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. He wrote that he met with Boles and Williams in a Savannah graveyard, where she placed a spell on Spencer Lawton, the district attorney who had filed murder charges on Williams.
Berendt wrote that the priestess told Williams: “Now, you know how dead time works. Dead time lasts for one hour—from half an hour before midnight to half an hour after midnight. The half-hour before midnight is for doin' good. The half-hour after midnight is for doin' evil . . . Seems like we need a little of both tonight.”
Boles told Williams that he must ask Danny Hansford for forgiveness but the antiques dealer was not inclined to do so.
Early in 1982, Jim Williams was brought to trial.
He testified that he had killed Danny Hansford in self-defense. Hansford, he said, had entered his study drunk and in a foul mood. He said Hansford had thrown him against a door and then knocked over a grandfather clock in the hallway.
Shortly thereafter, according to Williams, Hansford returned to the study with a pistol in his hand and had fired at him. Williams said he then pulled a gun out of his desk and shot Hansford in a kill-or-be-killed scenario.
The prosecution alleged that Williams had planned the murder of Hansford and had staged the crime scene to make it look as though he was acting in self-defense. They argued that Williams had fired the second gun at his desk before placing it under the dead hand of Hansford.
The prosecution also noted that one of Hansford's trouser legs was underneath the leg of a chair, prompting the observation that dead people do not move furniture.
The jury agreed with the prosecution and Williams was given a life sentence. On appeal, the verdict was overturned when evidence emerged of police bungling of the case. A new trial was ordered.
The second trial, in September 1983, followed a similar pattern to the first one; the same verdict and sentence. But again, a technicality led to an overturning of the outcome.
A third trial in the spring of 1987 revealed new evidence that police had lied and the victim's hands had not been bagged. So there was a possible explanation for the lack of gunpowder residue. The trial ended in a hung jury and a mistrial.
Williams's defense successfully argued that he could not get a fair trial in Savannah because of all the publicity, so a fourth trial was held in Augusta, Georgia. This set a new record for Georgia; never before had anybody been tried four times for the same crime.
It was fourth time lucky for Jim Williams as it took the jury only an hour to return a verdict of not guilty.
Dep Kirkland, the district attorney who prosecuted Williams at his first trial, remains adamant about Williams's guilt. He has written, “Did Williams kill Hansford? Of course he did. Was it self-defense? Not even close. In fact, it is scientifically impossible for Williams to have been innocent of the crime.”
The freedom of Jim Williams was short-lived. In January 1990, just eight months after his acquittal, he suddenly dropped dead, at the age of 59, in the study in which Danny Hansford had died.
The death was somewhat mysterious, although not to the voodoo priestess Valerie Boles. She said: “The boy did it.”
- In 1969, Tommy Downs, 11, entered the abandoned Mercer House. He fell from the roof and was impaled on a spike of the wrought iron fence. Savannah ghost tour guides like to point to a missing spike in the fence and, without the benefit of solid evidence, tell their audience that it is the spot where Tommy Downs died.
- John Berendt's book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was described as a non-fiction novel and became a runaway success, spending 216 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list, one of the longest periods on the list. The initial press run was 25,000; it has since sold more than 2.7 million copies. In 1997, the novel was made into a movie, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring John Cusack, Kevin Spacey and Jude Law.
“Crime History: Savannah Murder Inspires Southern Gothic 'Midnight' Tale.” Scott McCabe, Washington Examiner, May 1, 2013
“The Mercer Williams House: Savannah's Most Notorious Home.” Erin Clarkson, savannahfirsttimer.com, undated.
“Reclusive Voodoo Priestess of 'Midnight' Fame Dies.” Dana Clark Felty, Savannah Morning News, May 8, 2009.
© 2022 Rupert Taylor