Last week in Part I, I shared some of the colorful history of Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Ga. This week, we’ll continue our ramble.
It’s hard to think of Savannah without remembering its native son, singer/composer/lyricist Johnny Mercer. Many think the famous Mercer Williams House on Monterey Square must have been his home but it never was.
The construction of the house was started by General Hugh Weedon Mercer in 1860. He didn’t finish it but the next owners of the house did. Neither the General nor Johnny Mercer ever lived there. Jim Williams purchased it in 1969 and restored it to its former glory.
The son of a prominent attorney and his second wife, Johnny Mercer was a music lover from his earliest years. The family’s summer home, Vernon View, was situated on the tidal waters and he spent long summers there among mossy trees and saltwater marshes. It may have inspired him to later write the lyrics to “Moon River” for the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Johnny is buried in a plot that contains his parents and other relatives. His grave is beside that of his wife, Elizabeth “Ginger” Meltzer Mercer. Both of their gravestones are inscribed with lyrics from his songs.
Also in the same plot is a small bench with a sketch of Johnny’s profile inscribed on the seat. On the side are the titles of many of his much loved songs. He wrote so many good ones but I think “Old Fashioned” is my favorite. There’s no doubt that the man whom many call “The Poet of Savannah” made an indelible mark on the world.
The next two ladies are buried in adjoining plots but are no relation to each other. But you can’t see one without noticing the other.
The first one is in the Taliaferro family plot. A stunning angel hovers over a cross. It reminds me a great deal of the angel I love so much at Laurel Grove. She stands at the grave of Marie M. Barclay Taliaferro. Sadly, Marie’s angel has not held up as well as the one at Laurel Grove. Her wings and hands are damaged. But she is still lovely.
Charles Champe Taliaferro, Marie’s husband, outlived her by several years. He served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He is buried in Graham Cemetery in Orange, Va. Buried to her left are four of their children, all of whom died in infancy or childhood.
Located to the right of the Taliaferro angel is probably the most recognizable resident of Bonaventure. Gracie Watson is beloved by many, so much that a fence was put around her in the mid 1990s to keep her from being damaged. Shannon Scott, our evening tour guide, told us that the day after the fence was first put up, they found the lock on the gate destroyed with Gracie undisturbed inside. His explanation was that Gracie didn’t want to be closed in but preferred to stay close to her visitors.
Gracie was the only child of W.J. And Frances Watson. Her father was the resident manager of the Pulaski House Hotel, where Gracie grew up. A friendly and precocious child, she was popular with the guests and considered the hotel as her playground.
At the age of six, Gracie developed pneumonia and died in April 1889. Initially, her grave was marked by a standard tombstone. Her father was said to have sunk into a dark depression, leaving Pulaski House, and then eventually Savannah.
Watson did commission a sculpture of Gracie from John Walz, a local artist who worked from a photograph of her. You may remember Walz from my post about Laurel Grove South, where another of his statues resides. You can see other examples of Walz’ work throughout Bonaventure.
Not far away from Gracie is this unique piece of Egyptian Revival architecture in the form of the Mongin family tomb. The death dates listed at the foot of the tomb range from 1815 to 1840, in keeping with the period that this style was popular. There’s another similar example nearby in Laurel Grove North.
It’s hard to miss the tall Celtic cross that rises from the Chisholm family plot.
Next to the Chisolms is the Anderson family plot. The largest monument features a bust of Confederate Brigadier General Robert Houston Anderson. An 1857 graduate of West Point, he later accepted a commission as a Confederate lieutenant of artillery.
Promoted to Major September 1861, he assumed the administrative post of assistant adjutant general to William Henry Talbot Walker, Major General of Georgia state troops, commanding on the Georgia coast. In January 1863 he was transferred to line duty but not before finally seeing action in coastal Georgia at Fort McAllister, where he helped repel assaults by Federal ironclad ships. His transfer came with a promotion to Colonel of the 5th Georgia Cavalry, which was serving in the Army of Tennessee.
Anderson was raised to brigade command and made Brigadier General on July 1864. He took part in all of the operations in the Atlanta Campaign. After the war, he returned to Savannah and was the city’s chief of police from 1867 until his death.
My final stop was where my visit began, at the Lawton family plot. I wanted to visit the monument to Corinne Lawton, daughter of Alexander Lawton (whose large monument with the statue of Jesus I featured last week). The story of her brief life is steeped in much debate because many say she committed suicide while others claim she died of Yellow Fever.
A popular legend states that the beautiful Corinne fell in love with a young man several rungs below her on the socio-economic ladder and her parents forbade her to see him. Instead, they arranged her marriage to a more acceptable suitor. The story goes that Corrine drowned herself in the Wilmington River (upon whose banks Bonaventure is situated) on the eve of her wedding day to avoid spending her life with a man she didn’t love.
In contrast, the published diaries of Corinne’s mother, Sarah Lawton, explain how a lingering Yellow Fever epidemic (one of many Savannah suffered through) had shaken the city. Already suffering from a cold, Corrine fell victim to the illness.
According to Sarah, her daughter died in her bed, surrounded by family. Locals say the Lawton descendants who live in Savannah today are loyal to this version of events. As you can imagine, many favor the more romantic version.
The Lawtons commissioned Italian artist Benedetto Civiletti to create a sculpture to grace Corrinne’s grave. Her eyes, I must confess, spook me a bit. But I love the attention to detail he gave to the long, cascading locks down her back. The wreath on the steps is also skillfully done.
Around the time I was snapping these pictures of Corrinne’s statue, I heard the rumble of tour buses in the distance. In a few minutes, the tranquil peace of the place would be disturbed. After spending a little time at the water’s edge, I took a last look around and left.
But Bonaventure is not a place you visit once and forget. Despite my quibbles about the tourist hordes, I can’t deny the haunting beauty of the place. I know I’ll return for a third visit. If you are in Savannah, you can’t plan your travel itinerary without a visit to Bonaventure Cemetery.
But go on a Sunday morning. When the air is cool and the light is shining on the Wilmington River through the moss-covered trees.