Of all the cemeteries in Savannah, Georgia, Bonaventure Cemetery is probably the most aesthetically pleasing. In fact, it’s generally considered to be one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the entirety of the United States—quite a feat!
Now operated by Savannah’s Department of Cemeteries and 100-acres in total, Bonaventure once belonged to the Tattnall and Mullryne families of the late eighteenth century. The plantation consisted of 9,920-acres, an enormous plot of land that today would comprise most of the Savannah Region.
However, drama ensued from here. You see, Tattnall and Mullryne were Loyalists, and once the Revolutionary War erupted, the state of Georgia (like many other newly installed states) stripped all Loyalist supporters of their land. Tattnall and Mullryne were no different.
What followed then was a long-term back-and-forth saga in which Tattnall and Mullryne were booted out and John Habersham purchased Bonaventure. The plantation’s name was decided upon by the original owners, who perhaps saw good fate in naming a working plantation “Bonaventure,” which means “good fortune” in Italian. It’s tough to say whether either Tattnall or Mullryne saw any good fortune in having their land be stolen away, but Tattnall’s son was able to repurchase the estate from Habersham in 1788.
Good fortune, indeed.
Until 1846, Bonaventure remained within the Tattnall family, before being sold to Peter Wiltberger. It was Wiltberger who agreed to care for the family plot on the plantation, and who would ultimately lay out the beginning foundation for Bonaventure to become the large-scale graveyard that it is today.
Which are the must-see tombs in Bonaventure for those visiting? Find out below!
Johnny Mercer (1909 – 1976)
19 Academy Award Nominations. 4 Oscars. Over 1,500 written songs. Founder of Capitol Records.
Could this be anyone else but American songwriter Johnny Mercer? Johnny was actually born in Savannah, Georgia, and hailed from a long line of important Savannahians. His mother Lillian Elizabeth was descended from a merchant seaman who navigated a Union blockade during the Civil War. If that heroic feat was not enough, Johnny Mercer also claimed Confederate General Hugh Weedon Mercer as his great-grandfather and American Revolutionary War General Hugh Mercer as well.
Oh, and Johnny also happened to be somewhat distantly related to General S. Patton.
As you can see, the Mercers in Savannah were very well connected.
From a very young age, Johnny’s parents fostered a musical environment. His father would sing Scottish songs, or his mother would bring him to vaudeville shows, even at the shockingly young age of six months. With no musical education behind him, Johnny joined his church’s choir at age six, and by age twelve had amassed hundreds of memorized songs in his head.
His talent was unprecedented, but so too was the fact that as good as he was a singer, he was an even better composer and songwriter. He snuck into speakeasies and listened to ragtime and jazz, all the while writing songs and practicing his craft. When his father’s business crashed, Johnny was expected to help as much as he could—his need for escape grew from there.
His escape came in the form of New York City, to which he moved in 1928 at nineteen years old. Harlem, Broadway—they were both his inspiration and the founding source of his drive. His first lyric appeared in a musical, The Garrick Gaieties, in 1930. He traveled to California and met Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong, two of his biggest idols.
For the next few years, in addition to marrying Ginger Meehan, Johnny threw himself into his work—he made a recording debut, he wrote dozens of songs that did not make it anywhere, he won a contest to perform with the Paul Whiteman orchestra. But it was not until the 1930s that Johnny truly found notoriety for his work.
He moved to Hollywood, began writing music for the movie industry, and as they say: that was that. After a few flops, his “I’m an Old Cowhand from the Rio Grande” was the final nail he needed to cement his place in the music world. He continued on the top of the game until his death in 1976.
Despite a rather successful career in life, as well as a more tumultuous personal life, Johnny’s level of success after his passing reached even greater heights. He became the inspiration for Barry Manilow, as some of his unfinished lyrics were given to him by Johnny’s widow, Ginger; Johnny was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; in 2009, Clint Eastwood released a documentary about Johnny in celebration of the centennial anniversary of his life.
And in that same year, the city of Savannah did Johnny Mercer one more honor: they created a statue for him in Savannah’s Ellis Square.
For a man who was born in Savannah, who traveled the world and put his stamp on music, Johnny Mercer returned to his birthplace after death. His tomb can now be found in Bonaventure Cemetery.
Hugh W. Mercer (1808 – 1877)
The tomb of Johnny Mercer’s great-grandfather, General Hugh W. Mercer’s, can also be found at Bonaventure Cemetery.
Born in Frederickburg, Virginia, Hugh W. Mercer also had big shoes to fill—after all, his grandfather, the original Hugh Mercer, had fought under George Washington during the American Revolutionary War.
In looking at his history, it seems that Mercer did a reasonably good job of keeping up. “Reasonable” because his early military career saw a few hurdles.” He’d entered West Point Academy in 1824 but found himself—along with 167 other cadets—involved in the Eggnog Riot of 1826.
It should be noted that alcohol and any level of intoxication was outlawed at West Point. (Unless you hoped to be expelled, of course).
It should also be noted that while the annual West Point Christmas party had normally offered eggnog prepared with alcohol, word came out just before Christmas that the eggnog for that year’s party was to be alcohol-free.
No one was amused, and the announcement ultimately led to one of the biggest scenes of rebellion that West Point had ever witnessed. Liquor was smuggled into the barracks, leading to nearly one-third (give or take) of the cadet’s imbibing way too much. From there, only mayhem ensued. Windows were broken; cadets wandered the grounds in drunken stupors; brawls broke out among the men.
The total damage would have equaled to nearly $4,000 in today’s US currency. The damage to the cadet’s military careers was worse. The lucky few, men like Jefferson Davis and Hugh W. Mercer, were remitted to the academy after being initially expelled and court martialed. Mercer finally graduated in 1828, and his military career continued from there on.
He served as a second lieutenant in the US Artillery and was promoted in 1834. However, a year later Mercer had resigned his commission and retired home to Savannah. It was then that he began construction on the infamous Mercer-Williams House, which would become the crime scene for a murder in the mid-1900s. Unfortunately, no member of the Mercer family ever lived at the Italianate-Revival property, for right after construction began the Civil War broke out and Mercer reenlisted.
He served as colonel and brigadier. In 1862, Mercer’s name became well known throughout the Confederate Army for being the first person to truly work on enlisting slaves to fight for the Confederacy. He later fought at Dalton, Kennesaw Mountain and Marietta—but then illness struck and Hugh W. Mercer returned home.
Banking became his major ambition during the latter half of his life, though his health never recovered. Despite traveling to various spa resorts to ease his pain, Mercer passed away in 1877 and his body was buried in Bonaventure Cemetery.
Conrad Aiken (1899 – 1973)
Poet Conrad Aiken was another born Savannahian, but unlike either Mercer, Aiken’s childhood was fraught with violence and death.
At the age of eleven, Aiken’s father brutally murdered Aiken’s mother, before turning the gun upon himself. There was no known reasoning as to why, at least none that was admitted outside of the family. Following the homicide-turned-suicide, Aiken and his three younger siblings were shipped to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be raised with their mother’s sister.
Between the brutal deaths of his parents, and Aiken’s later enrollment in Harvard University, his path to literary greatness was born of grief, hope and an interest in the psychological. At Harvard, Aiken met T.S. Eliot, who would become one of his most long-lasting friends.
Aiken’s interest in psychoanalysis developed even further. Sigmund Freud and Carl G. Jung were two scholarly psychologists that Aiken studied profusely—so much so that by the 1920s, Sigmund Freud had actually learned about Aiken’s writings and wished to conduct his own psychoanalysis of Aiken. Aiken was beside himself with excitement, buying a ship ticket and sailing straight for France to meet with his idol.
It was during his time on board that he actually stumbled across one of Freud’s personal disciples, who warned Aiken that taking Freud up on his offer might not be in his best interest. Whether Aiken was upset about this revelation or not, we will never know, but we do know that Conrad never met the man who most influenced his life’s work.
Ultimately, Aiken made his way to England where he divorced his first wife and married his second, painter Mary Hoover. When World War II broke out, Aiken and Mary returned to Massachusetts, where Aiken finally claimed an American audience for his literary work. In his 1952 autobiography, he finally detailed the dark, twisted life he’d experienced during his childhood. But it also included anecdotes about his travels, and the various literary scenes throughout the world.
Conrad Aiken had finally earned international acclaim. In his lifetime, he was awarded the position of Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress; the National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, as well as the first Georgia-born author to win the Pulitzer Prize, among many others.
In a weird twist of fate, Aiken and his family returned to Savannah in the 1960s—where he was offered to live in his old childhood home on Oglethorpe Avenue, across from Colonial Park Cemetery. Aiken wasn’t interested in returning to those particular memories, so he instead chose to live free-of-charge next door at 230 Oglethorpe Avenue.
Before his death, Aiken had a marble bench installed next to his parents’ tombstones in Bonaventure Cemetery. On it was etched “Give my love to the world” and “Cosmos Mariner Destination Unknown.”
For Aiken, despite the trials of his childhood and the deeply troubling thoughts that continued to plague him, he had only love the scholarly and literary world. In 2003, he received one last honor: he was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. Today, while his body is buried in Bonaventure Cemetery, a plaque commemorating his accomplishments can be found outside of his home on 230 Oglethorpe Avenue.
Little Gracie Watson (1883 – 1889)
Perhaps the most famous grave in Bonaventure Cemetery is that of Little Gracie Watson. The iron gate surrounding her tomb is often adorned with trinkets and toys left by guests of the cemetery, all of whom wish to offer the little girl a bit of comfort in the Afterlife.
The story of Little Gracie is by no means lighthearted.
Born in 1883 to parents W.J. and Frances Watson, Gracie hailed originally from Boston, Massachusetts. After her father was given the opportunity to manage one of the most popular hotels in Savannah, however, the Watson family made the move to Georgia. After all, one did not say no to the luxurious Pulaski Hotel.
From almost the first moment that the Watson family arrived, Little Gracie’s face became one of the most recognized in all of the hotel. The guests adored her, and it seems that she adored them as well. She would laugh and dance, sing and play for anyone willing to give her a moment of their time. For Little Gracie, it seemed that there was all the time in the world . . . Until there simply wasn’t any longer.
At just six years old, Little Gracie was struck with a high fever, a plaguing cough. Somehow she had caught pneumonia, a sickness that could level any adult and could surely do damage to a little girl. Little Gracie had not the strength to press on, and just days before Easter she finally succumbed to illness.
W.J. and Frances were utterly distraught. W.J. had a beautiful stone carving erected in Bonaventure Cemetery by famed sculptor John Waltz; it was to be an exact liking to his baby girl, and Waltz’s skill surely did Little Gracie justice.
Unfortunately, her parents found it almost unbearable to remain in Savannah after their daughter’s death. Instead, they chose to return to New England, where they lived out the rest of their days. At the time of the respective deaths, they were both buried together in New England . . . while poor Little Gracie remained in Savannah. Alone.
For over a hundred years now, Little Gracie has been a favorite stop for visitors of Bonaventure Cemetery. Although she is not with her family, one could surely argue that her family has since become everyone who makes it a priority to stop by her tomb and leave her toy or just to say hello.
For a little girl who once loved to sing and hold the attention in a room, we can only imagine that Little Gracie’s spirit revels in the spotlight.
With 100-acres of land for gravestones and tombs, these are only some of our favorite stops in Bonaventure Cemetery. Other famous people interred within Bonaventure Cemetery are: Georgia’s first governor, Edward Telfair, silent film actress Edythe Chapman, and Bishop Middleton Barnwell. The best way to visit Bonaventure Cemetery is to take a cemetery tour—with so much to see, it’s often incredibly easy to walk right past a notable tomb that has a striking story attached.
If you are looking for a cemetery tour to take part in, we (just so happen) to offer Tours of Bonaventure Cemetery. Want some more information? Follow this link!