Thursday, May 28, 2020

Where No Mercer Ever Lived

It might seem counter-intuitive to discover that a residence called The Mercer House would be a home where no one named Mercer ever lived. In learning more about Savannah's Mercer House, though, we do discover not only some details about the Mercer family, but also far more than we bargained for.

From its start, the Mercer House seemed destined as host of a series of unfortunate events. The man who built it—unsurprisingly named Mercer—secured the architectural guidance of a New York City mason and builder, John S. Norris, whose recent completion of the Savannah Customs House had led to numerous contracts in this Georgia city. His task in this contract was to create a residence in the Italianate architectural style.

The man who had commissioned the building was a Savannah resident by the name of Hugh Mercer. Like the instances we have already seen with the Mercers I've been trying to trace for my Tison family history, this Hugh Mercer came from a long line of Mercers who chose to repeatedly bestow upon their descendants that same given name. His father—the senior Hugh Mercer—had been born in Virginia and had married well, connecting him to Cyrus Griffin, who figured prominently in the early years following the Revolutionary War. His grandfather, yet another Hugh Mercer, once served as a general in George Washington's army and is listed as one of the D.A.R. Patriots.

The Mercer House Hugh, however, did not boast quite so illustrious a military career. It took a presidential pardon to restore this Hugh Mercer to good graces after his indiscretions during the West Point Military Academy "Eggnog Riot" leading up to the Christmas of 1826. He did graduate in 1828, resulting in a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Artillery, and eventually a first lieutenant. Serving mostly in Georgia, he later resigned his commission, gained employment at a Savannah bank while concurrently serving in the Georgia militia, married, and in 1860, began oversight of construction of the house where he presumably would settle after its completion.

A little something in 1861 interrupted progress of his building project. With the beginning of the Civil War, Hugh Mercer enlisted in the Confederate Army, eventually being promoted to brigadier general. Following the Battle of Atlanta in 1864, Mercer became ill, was briefly imprisoned at the close of the war, and though he was able to resume banking following the war, never did regain his health.

Presumably in the course of these misfortunes, Mercer saw the necessity of giving up his vision for the construction of the house that bore his name. The house was completed around 1868 by a new owner, and no Mercer family member ever lived in that residence.

The house had a lingering history of its own, though. Still standing in the subsequent century, it was no longer used as a residence. It served for a time as a Shriners' temple, then lay vacant until 1969.

In that year, two things happened involving the Mercer House. One was the unfortunate occurrence of a dreadful—and fatal—fall of an eleven year old boy from the roof of the building onto the prongs of the iron fence outlining the southern side of the property. The other was the purchase of the property by a man known in Savannah circles as an antique dealer and historic preservationist.

That man, James Arthur Williams, eventually provided inspiration for the "nonfiction novel" which has become the longest-standing New York Times best seller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. Mr. Williams also attained the dubious distinction in Georgia jurisprudence of having undergone an unprecedented four trials for murder, after which he was acquitted in May, 1989—eight months before "unexpectedly" dropping dead in the home which he had so painstakingly restored.

The Mercer House still stands in Savannah—as does the iconic Bonaventure Cemetery "Bird Girl" statue featured so prominently on the cover of Berendt's best seller. While I can catalog the many Mercer family members who have been buried at that cemetery and the same names who once lived in that southern city, I am still stuck on those numerous George Mercers and have not quite tied them in to the many Hugh Mercers of this bereft building's history.

Most important, however, is my need to remember the rabbit chase that brought me to this end of a tangled trail in the first place: the newspaper clipping about another murder involving a Mercer—the story of the kidnapped George Mercer IV. If that unfortunate Mercer was somehow connected to the songwriter Johnny Mercer, who was, in turn, connected to the Hugh Mercer of Mercer House, am I chasing a rabbit trail that will eventually lead me to an answer? Or am I just orbiting a giant family history hairball? 



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