- The expansive cast of the new production.
IF YOU'RE looking for spine-tingling tales, it doesn’t get more macabre than Savannah in 1820.
A fire had left half the city in ruins, there was no electricity, and almost a quarter of the population was dying of yellow fever.
It was also the year that artisan Isaiah Davenport built his Federal-style mansion on Columbia Square, and the chaos of the time imbues a certain solemnity to the property, which was the first to be saved by the Historic Savannah Foundation and became a museum in 1963.
Almost every October since 2003, the staff of the Davenport House has presented a historical re-enactment of the yellow fever epidemic of the 1820s to provide context to its year-round programs—and also to amuse those looking for a ghoulish experience beyond the downtown’s ubiquitous entertaining (and unprovable) ghost stories.
“It’s the show we built our reputation on,” says museum director Jamie Credle. “When people hear ‘yellow fever,’ they think ‘Davenport House.’”
This October, the enterprising historians have created an entirely new living history show, and it’s even creepier: “Stranger Than Fiction: An Exploration of the Extraordinary in Old Savannah” is based on actual events that took place in Savannah in 1820, culled from newspapers and books of the time by playwright and documentarian Raleigh Marcell.
A seasoned veteran of Davenport House programming who helped create “Yellow Fever,” Marcell believes “Stranger than Fiction” provides an in-depth and indispensable background for enjoying those ghost tours.
“So many people come to Savannah in October to look for ghosts and apparitions,” says Marcell, who has co-produced the museum’s fall program since its beginning.
“We thought, ‘Why not give them the rest of the story?’”
The drama begins inside the old Kennedy Pharmacy, where participants are immersed in a visual and audio presentation narrated by Marcell. The supernatural was on everyone’s minds in the 1820s, which isn’t too different than our current cultural obsession with zombies and vampires. Travelling shows that assuaged the appetite for the otherworldly included “Animal Magnetism” (performed at the Savannah Theater in 1821 for 75 cents,) and “Phantasmagoria,” a collection of projections depicting skeletons, witches and skulls designed to scare folks out of their hoop skirts.
“We forget how novel this must have been—we are surrounded by images every day, but back then people were seeing these things for the first time and it was terrifying,” regales Marcell.
Also chronicled are the revolutionary practice of hypnotism and the introduction of the first solar microscope, which allowed people to view the unseen world of amoebas and bacteria for the first time—a crowded universe deemed “Monster Soup.”
“Savannah was in touch with all of the biggest ideas of the day,” says Marcell.
After setting the scene in the pharmacy, the audience is led across the courtyard into the candlelit corridors of the grand house itself. Within the preserved rooms, actors play the parts of historic figures debating the existence of ghosts and specters as well as musing on the nature of the soul and the superstitious beliefs of the 19th century.
- While slavery is often presented as a parallel or separate from the mainstream historical narrative, the Davenport House makes great effort to champion inclusivity.
Professional tour guide and show co-creator Jamal Touré returns to the attic with “The Other Half of Savannah,” an exploration of the enslaved African experience of the supernatural. While slavery is often presented as a parallel or separate from the mainstream historical narrative, the Davenport House makes great effort to champion inclusivity. Told with lively style and acute accuracy, Touré’s popular presentations have been part of the October programs since 2003.
“He’s always been the star,” commends Credle.
For “Stranger than Fiction,” Touré and Marcell have teamed up once again to highlight history’s fascinating elements and leave audiences with more than a few goosebumps. The 90-minute show is recommended for those 12 and older, and participants must be able to walk up and down stairs.
It’s bound to thrill as much as accounts of murderous apparitions on the squares, except that everything you’re going to see and hear is absolutely true.
“This is not a haunted house. There are no ghost stories,” clarifies Marcell.
He adds with a grin: “But I can’t guarantee you won’t want to look over your shoulder as you’re climbing the candlelit staircase.”