Savannah's Jim Williams' legacy lives on through film, a murder case and historic buildings

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Fans of Clint Eastwood’s movie “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” have a chance to watch the mystery-thriller from the comfort of their homes. The film adaptation of the New York Times bestseller of the same name is now streaming on HBO Max, introducing new audiences to one of Georgia’s most well-known cases.

But for those engrossed in the murder trial set against the backdrop of a beguiling Savannah in the 1980s, they might be asking one question: who was Jim Williams?

Remnants of Jim Williams' life and contributions can be felt all over the Savannah Historic District. A successful antiques dealer, historic preservationist and local socialite, Williams helped preserve more than 50 buildings in Savannah and the Lowcountry during his 30-year career.

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The author of the book, John Berendt, described Williams as a “genius” bachelor who turned coal into diamonds when it came to restorations and exuded old money, though he’d been born in middle Georgia. His “growing appetite for grandeur” was only made even more apparent by his restoration and occupancy of the grand Mercer House  -- now called the Mercer Williams House Museum — that sits on Monterey Square.

The house where Williams’ hosted annual Christmas parties that were the talk of the town soon became a true-crime scene where Williams was arrested for the shooting and murder of Danny Hansford, Williams’ 21-year-old handyman and lover.

Unlike in the movie, Williams’ was actually tried four times instead of once. The guilty verdict from the first two juries were appealed and the third jury couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict. In the fourth and final trial, a record in the state of Georgia, Williams was acquitted of his charges under the plea of self defense. The trial lasted from Feb. 2, 1982, to May 9, 1989; however, Williams' status as a free man was short-lived. Eight months later on Jan. 14, 1990, he was found dead in his study from complications with pneumonia.

The striking part? It was the same place where he’d claimed to have shot Hansford in self defense.

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Williams' trial and death paved the way to make Savannah the destination tourist spot it is today. In the years after, the popularity of Berendt’s 1994 novel and the 1997 film adaptation shined a light on Williams’ legacy and the timelessness of Savannah, luring people from all over. His iconic legacy lives on in his restorations of buildings, such as the Olde Pink House on Abercorn Street and the Hampton Lillibridge House on East Saint Julian Street. In 2020, it was announced that the Mercer Williams House Museum would receive a thorough external restoration.

While watching the movie starring Kevin Spacey as Williams, Savannah residents will notice more than familiar architecture, statues and the overall feeling of the Deep South captured in all of its undeniable southern charm, oddities and colorful characters. But without the life of Jim Williams, who knows what Savannah would look like today?

Laura Nwogu is the quality of life reporter for Savannah Morning News. Contact her at lnwogu@gannett.com. Twitter: @lauranwogu_

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Savannah's Jim Williams' legacy lives on through film, a murder case and historic buildings