As a premier antiques dealer in Savannah, Jim Williams had it all: style, culture, charisma, and sophistication. But three decades of hard work came crashing down the night he shot Danny Hansford, his wild young lover. Jim Williams stood trial four times over the next decade for premeditated murder.
While Clint Eastwood’s movie—starring Kevin Spacey and Jude Law—and the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt portrayed the natives of Savannah as remarkably decadent, exotic characters, they missed the surprising dark side of Jim Williams himself. He was a smooth predator whose crimes could have put him behind bars long before the death of Danny Hansford.
After Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is Marilyn Bardsley’s continuation of the story, which includes crucial testimony recreating the courtroom drama between a gifted prosecutor and a brilliant defense attorney as they battle over the future of a self-made aristocrat. More than forty photos and revealing insider interviews bring new life to the vivid cast of characters in this unique southern crime story.
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Good and Evil
A decade ago, I abandoned manic, impersonal Washington, D.C., and escaped to the quiet calm of semitropical Savannah. As the executive editor of Court TV's Crime Library website, I had the luxury of working anywhere with a good Internet and cell phone connection.
Savannah is a truly lovely city where atmosphere hangs as heavy as the Spanish moss on the giant live oak trees. The elegant, seductively beautiful historic district, with its spacious porches, walled gardens and intricate ironwork, is a glimpse of a treasured past, now lovingly restored. Traveling around the historic downtown, one encounters a shady square with gardens and monuments every few blocks. But the city is so much more than an antebellum grand dame. It is a unique state of mind: discreetly scandalous, insular, stubbornly resistant to change, and resplendent with eccentric charm and perfect manners.
Rosemary Daniell, a prominent Savannah writer, aptly described the special character of her city: "Despite this city's pastel beauty, it also has a dark underside. Within its hothouse atmosphere, the present runs concurrently with the past; events that happened decades before are discussed as though they happened yesterday, including a number of scenes of sex and violence extreme enough to rival any dreamed up by Tennessee Williams."
After a few months, I found myself fascinated by Jim Williams, one of Savannah's most memorable characters. Like many others, I had read John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and watched Clint Eastwood's movie, starring Kevin Spacey as Jim Williams and Jude Law as Danny Hansford, the lover that Williams shot.
As the publisher of more than 700 Crime Library stories, I found the case unique. Jim Williams spent the better part of a decade and more than a million dollars defending himself in four separate murder trials, punctuated by a two-year stint in a substandard county jail.
To get to the heart of the Williams case, I began a series of some 50-plus interviews: socially prominent Savannah "bluebloods," antique dealers, drag queens, hairdressers, attorneys, bartenders, and others who rubbed elbows with Jim Williams and Danny Hansford.
What emerged is the story of a charismatic man with astonishing talents to whom the city of Savannah owes an enormous debt. Jim Williams was a highly talented artist and entrepreneur who saved many of the grand old houses of Savannah from the wrecking ball. However, I unexpectedly found a man who indulged in clearly unethical and illegal activities that could have put him behind bars well before he shot Danny Hansford. Jim was often an arrogant man with a surprising predatory streak, who had no qualms about exploiting people at any level of society.
Ironically, the intersection of these conflicting currents in Jim Williams' personality gave birth to his greatest contributions to Savannah: The notoriety of Danny Hansford's shooting and the four trials, John Berendt's book, and Clint Eastwood's movie put Savannah squarely on the tourist circuit, generating millions of dollars of revenue, which flowed into the city for more than a decade and, most likely, will continue to do so well into the future.
I invite you to come along with me into the very complicated world of Jim Williams, but first, let's take a look at the influences that shaped the character of this man.
Most Likely to Succeed
Some have characterized Jim Williams' life as a Horatio Alger story. Not so, said Kenneth Worthy II, an antiques dealer and friend of Williams. According to Worthy, Jim's parents were never poor. They weren't cash-rich, but they were quality people with decades of good breeding. Jim personally enjoyed researching and writing about his family's English heritage and its journey in the New World from Boston to central Georgia. They were a family of prosperous farmers.
James Arthur Williams was born December 11, 1930, in Gordon, a small mining and farming town east of Macon in rural Georgia. His father, Arthur Williams, was a barber and his mother, Blanche Brooks Williams, was a secretary for a local kaolin mining company. Jim's thick dark hair and good looks were a gift from his rakishly handsome father. He had one sibling, a younger sister, Dorothy, whom he nicknamed D.O., which was short for Dorothy Ollie.
In 1983, Jim wrote fondly about an idyllic childhood in a close-knit family of grandparents, uncles and aunts, who frequently got together at his grandparents' farm at Turkey Creek, some 18 miles from Gordon. Ultimately, his father and mother divorced and his father remarried, but his father and his new wife lived in close proximity to the children. A number of Jim's writings about the history of his family, his early interest in saving disappearing Georgia architecture, and stories about restoring homes in Savannah and South Carolina are captured in Savannah's Jim Williams and His Southern Houses by his sister, Dr. Dorothy Williams Kingery.
The entrepreneurial spirit was strong in Jim as a youngster. Worthy told me that even at the age of 14, Jim was buying and selling antiques he thought were valuable or could expand his knowledge. Jim's strong business sense and work ethic so impressed his school principal that once he let the teenager out of school to close a transaction. To encourage Jim's love of wooden furniture, his father built him a wood shop, which is still standing in an old tobacco barn, according to Worthy.
From his youth onward, Jim had a deep love and respect for history and its survivors, antique pottery, and furniture. It greatly pained him to see the destruction of so many fine old rural houses as enormous areas were cleared to plant pine trees for the pulp and paper industry. Later, this early fascination with history expanded beyond what he saw and found in central Georgia, even beyond colonial America, to the antique treasures of Europe and Asia that he would ultimately possess.
First, he had to go to college to get the credentials he needed to become a credible architectural preservationist. With the help of his mother's salary, he enrolled at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, to study interior design. At the same time, he studied antiques, architecture, and old houses. While at school, he also studied piano and organ. The normal program for an interior design certificate was three years, but he only attended for two, from August 1948 to May 1950. After art school, Jim studied at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. Then he went to work with an interior design company in New Orleans, He was even in the Air Force for a short time before he settled in Savannah.
In 1946, Britain's Lady Nancy Astor said during her visit, "Savannah was a beautiful lady with a dirty face." Her comment shamed Savannah, but not enough to do anything about it. Preston Russell and Barbara Hines summed up the problem in their history of the city: "Prominent businessmen who cared nothing for old architecture assumed there was little to save."
In 1952, Jim left the Air Force and decided to stay in Savannah during a time of economic growth and pride in America's future. He fell in love with the city and the architecture, and was greatly disturbed at the loss of houses in the historic district, which were destroyed to make way for parking lots and garages. It seemed like every week, another house in the historic or Victorian district was torn down. Ironically, the value of the old Savannah gray bricks as building construction material was often greater than the value of the house, so some houses were torn down just so the bricks could be sold.
To make ends meet, Jim became a salesman for Klug's Furniture Company at the corner of Victory Drive and Abercorn Street. For a while, Jim invested his time and impressive knowledge of art and antiques in a joint venture with his friend Jack Kieffer. Kieffer put up the money and Jim put up the expertise, but the venture did not survive. Even though Kieffer remained a lifelong friend, Jim told close associates that Kieffer made out much better financially in the venture than he did.
Jim's dream was to restore important historic homes in Savannah. What was going on in downtown Savannah was happening to cities everywhere in the country. The inner city had become crime-infested, and affluent people moved out to the suburbs, leaving lovely large homes to fall into disrepair. These homes in the historic and adjacent Victorian districts became tenements rented to multiple large families, which further accelerated the decline in property values. Wealthy families built their mansions in suburban Ardsley Park. Two decades later, as executives from northern states with harsh winter climates planned their retirements, many of them were enticed by the gated country club communities on Skidaway Island, like the Landings, rather than settling in a city that was still in decay.
The early 1950s was a watershed time for the city. The Georgia legislature gave the city permission to raze the historic City Market, which was replaced by an ugly parking garage. Finally, the people of Savannah woke up, and although they couldn't save the old City Market, an influential group created the Historic Savannah Foundation in 1955. As one foundation member explained, "We needed one crisis, one central issue that would focus attention on the downtown area. This happened to be it."
The decline of Savannah's historic district worsened in the 1960s as suburban shopping centers and Oglethorpe Mall, Savannah's first shopping mall, made it unnecessary to go downtown. Savannah's banks, like banks all over the country that faced a deteriorating inner city, redlined the area. In other words, they would not lend money for restoration projects. Downtown property values plunged, and large stately homes in the downtown and midtown districts could be purchased for less than $5,000.
For a man like Jim Williams, brilliant, ambitious, and absolutely hell-bent on becoming a major force in restoring Savannah's architectural jewels, the funding problem was very challenging. The wealthy families of Savannah and the city's financial institutions were extremely hesitant to invest any money in risky downtown restoration ventures. The fledgling historical foundation was a good start, but it wasn't going to further the dreams of Jim Williams anytime soon.
Ever the businessman and opportunist, he came up with an ingenious — but unethical and ultimately illegal — solution to the problem of getting his restoration projects funded and increasing his friendships with important people. Jim was a very masculine gay man with a trim body, a handsome face, thick dark hair, and penetrating dark eyes. Moreover, he was extremely intelligent, poised, an expert in antiques and architectural design, and blessed with exquisite taste. Jim was remarkably persuasive and struck most people as being extremely trustworthy. In short, he was one attractive and desirable bachelor.
Jim quickly learned that a number of wealthy and influential gay and bisexual men were locked into the married life that Savannah society required its upper crust to embrace. Some of these men were at the top of important financial institutions and businesses that would ultimately determine whether or not there would be funding in the future to restore historic Savannah.
Jim understood the conundrum that these men faced. They may have dreamed about young gay boys as sexual partners, but the risk of seeking out such relationships was fraught with risks. Yes, many young male hustlers hung around the Bull Street squares, but engaging them was far too dangerous. There was great potential for scandal, extortion, blackmail, and even personal injury if these men engaged in homosexual relationships. As a very cultured, handsome man with enormous charisma and persuasive abilities, developing sexual relationships with influential gay men was not difficult for him. Jim represented a "safe" relationship for men whose married life and reputation demanded the utmost discretion.
To a businessman like Jim, the conundrum for these men represented an opportunity to insinuate himself into Savannah's old-money crowd and coax his new influential friends to fund his restoration projects. He cultivated the spouses of his new male friends with his knowledge of interior design to charm his way into Savannah's high society.
Jim didn't work this avenue solely with his own charms. Some of his gay married friends longed for sexual partners much younger than Jim, but could not afford to be seen cruising gay bars or making sexual overtures to employees or acquaintances. Opportunist that he was, Jim found a way to serve the needs of his friends. Unfortunately, the service Jim provided — which I stumbled upon early in my research — was immoral and very illegal.
I was having some painting and wallpapering done at our home when Buddy, our wallpaper guru, overheard me talking about Jim Williams.
"My mother hated him," he blurted out. "She was the manager of the Burger King at the bus station back then."
My thoughts focused on the downtown Greyhound bus station. There was only one in Savannah.
"She'd watch him [Jim] as the buses came in from rural Georgia and South Carolina," Buddy continued. "He'd look over the teenagers coming off the buses and go talk to the good-looking ones."
"Then what did he do?" I said.
Buddy shrugged. "My mother saw him walk away with the boy he chose, but she didn't know where they went." He paused for a moment. "She knew what guys like that were up to. You see that kind of thing when you work at the bus station. He didn't do that once or twice. He was around a lot, looking for runaways."
Seeing Jim month after month checking out boys in their mid-teens and often leaving the station with them disgusted her. She assumed that he befriended the boys for his own pleasure, and that was partly true. Jim loved sex with young men and boys.
What she didn't know was that Williams also vetted the kids back at his house. If they had left their small town because they were gay or were desperate enough to make some money satisfying Jim's friends, he kept them around for awhile to make sure that they weren't a liability. Once he decided they were reliable, Jim would introduce them to his friends.
Later, when he was much more successful, Jim didn't have to hang around the bus station looking for young talent for himself or his friends. All he had to do was to go out into the squares around Bull Street and persuade some of the teenagers to come to home with him. He got to know which ones he could trust.
Confirming this aspect of Jim's character was very challenging. Although many in the gay community knew what Jim was doing, locating victims who would agree to an interview was difficult. Many of the boys that Jim had exploited were dead from AIDS, drugs, or urban violence, but eventually, I was able to interview two who are still around. One is a hairdresser and the other is a performer. Jim would invite them to his fabulous Mercer House for a drink. They were 15 or 16 years old, poor, absolutely awed by the opulence of the house, and desperate for money.
It is unlikely that Jim procured boys for wealthy clients for money. What Jim sought in exchange was influence. He needed acceptance into a level of society that normally would have been closed to him because he was not from a distinguished old Savannah family, nor was he from "old money." Gradually, because he was helpful, charming, and did not appear gay, Jim was able to use his interior design expertise, knowledge of antiques, and discreet sexual services to insinuate himself into the upper reaches of Savannah society. Savannah is very tolerant of sin in the rarified reaches of society, as long as it doesn't become the subject of conversation at the exclusive Oglethorpe Club.
One can most accurately characterize Jim Williams' early years in Savannah as very lean. He had only one suit to his name and frequently borrowed money for routine expenses. His longtime friend, Joe Goodman, met Jim when he was just 11 years old. They were both living around Washington Square in downtown Savannah. Jim was 18 years older than Joe and became like a father figure to him. Joe's father was a merchant marine and frequently worked away from home. Jim was on a subsistence budget, so Joe's mother frequently fed Jim, as did the Saseen girls who belonged to the Saseen Bonding Company family in Savannah. Joe explained that Jim was broke for quite a long time in those early years. He bought a lot on credit and borrowed frequently.
Jim began restoring homes in 1955, when he bought three row houses on East Congress Street for very little money. Eventually he bought the whole block, rented the houses, and then sold them for a reasonable profit. Joe remembers those times vividly. Jim built his young restoration work crew from Joe and his friends that lived around Washington Square, paying them when he could.
"Want to start making some money?" Jim boomed as he enthusiastically rounded up the boys in the neighborhood. They did things like tearing down walls and putting in new plaster. They all liked him and never suspected he was gay.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "After Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"
Copyright © 2013 Marilyn J. Bardsley.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Good and Evil,
Chapter 2: Most Likely to Succeed,
Chapter 3: Overcoming Obstacles,
Chapter 4: Lean Times,
Chapter 5: Things That Go Bump in the Night,
Chapter 6: The Gods Smiled,
Chapter 7: Jim's Gay Savannah,
Chapter 8: The High Life,
Chapter 9: Shady Dealings,
Chapter 10: Racing Down a Dead-End Street,
Chapter 11: Storm Clouds Gathering,
Chapter 12: The Beginning of the End,
Chapter 13: Crisis — Jim's Story,
Chapter 14: Gone but Not Forgotten,
Chapter 15: The First Trial,
Chapter 16: Wait A Minute!,
Chapter 17: Second Time Around,
Chapter 18: Not Again!,
Chapter 19: Augusta!,
Chapter 20: Some Thoughts on the Shooting,
Chapter 21: Aftermath,