Behind every photograph, there is a story.
In 1993, Savannah Georgia photographer Jack Leigh was hired to photograph an image for the cover of John Berendt’s book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Leigh’s photograph of the now-famous “Bird Girl” statue became an immediate publishing sensation and put Bonaventure Cemetery on the map. Soon people began flocking to Bonaventure Cemetery to see the sculpture. Due to concerns about the amount of traffic at the gravesite, it was removed from the cemetery and relocated.
Supposedly, Leigh spent ten hours in the darkroom dodging and burning the photograph to impart a moonlit feel while accentuating the halo around the statue’s head. Leigh died in 2004 and was buried at Bonaventure, which I find poetic.
Bonaventure has a strong reputation as being one of the most haunted locations in the United States. Unquestionably, I felt a strong spiritual vibe and energy as I leisurely walked around the cemetery grounds looking at the various historic gravestones in search of a suitable photographic subject. While I was disappointed that the “Bird Girl” statue had been removed, I happened upon a gravestone statue that I felt was equally as powerful, if not more so. Her name was Gracie Watson. And I was moved to be in her presence. Maybe it was because she was the only child buried in this hauntingly beautiful cemetery?** Or maybe it was the tragic quality of her life and death and the fact that I have a young daughter of a similar age?
The inscription on her gravestone reads, “Little Gracie Watson was born in 1883, the only child of her parents. Her father was manager of the Pulaski House, one of Savannah’s leading hotels, where the beautiful and charming little girl was a favorite with the guests. Two days before Easter, in April 1889, Gracie died of pneumonia at the age of six. In 1890, when the rising sculptor, John Walz, moved to Savannah, he carved from a photograph this life-sized, delicately detailed marble statue, which for almost a century has captured the interest of all passersby.”
According to local folklore and legend, Little Gracie Watson is among the most haunted spirits residing at Bonaventure and in Savannah. Visitors will leave toys for her to play with, and some claim she will cry tears of blood if her playthings are removed. There is always a collection of toys near her grave area, especially around Christmas, but no sign of tear stains running down her porcelain “doll-like” marble face. There is also a belief that if you place a quarter in Gracie’s hand and encircle her statue three times, the coin will disappear. Like the “Bird Girl” statue, little Gracie Watson has become very popular, and the grave is now fenced off in wrought-iron to prevent further damage.
Pulaski House Hotel was frequented by Savannah’s elite, and Little Gracie Watson often played the role as hostess at the various high society parties that were held by her mother. Gracie quickly endeared herself to Savannah’s elite, and loved being the center of attention. When she became bored, she would often retreat to play underneath the back stairwell of the hotel. After her death in 1889, her mother and hotel staff claimed to be able to still hear little Gracie laughing and playing underneath that stairwell. Although the hotel has since been torn down, the location of the original hotel still boasts many haunted sightings. The haunted echoes of Little Gracie can still be heard laughing and playing where the old staircase would have been located. And some people even have reported seeing a small girl run past them in period dress.
To this day, my visit with Gracie is still strongly etched on my soul. For hours and without any other interruptions other than the humming sound of a distant lawnmower in the background, Little Gracie and I bonded. Like a father to his precious daughter, we shared many conversations and moments, and I shed tears for her. While her beautiful young life was cut way too short, she left her mark in the physical world—and now leaves her tiny footprint in the spiritual one. The world is a better place because of Little Gracie and I am honored to have met this young lady on this one particular and mostly uneventful quiet Spring day.
** In a post-story correction, an informed reader of my blog rightfully pointed out that Gracie is not the only child buried at Bonaventure. Maybe I was confused because it is possible that Gracie is the only one with a statue? To clear up any confusion on my part, I contacted Lee Maltenfort, Chair of the Bonaventure Historical Society. Lee was kind enough to send the following response: “There are, according to best estimates, some 28,000 buried at Bonaventure. No one has ever surveyed, either visually or through the new database, how many of them are children. But, considering the high infant mortality rates and other health issues that affected young people over the years, a couple of thousand (give or take a few hundred) might be a reasonable estimate.” I stand corrected and appreciate the clarification.