Many flock to Savannah's historic district to hear haunting tales of spooks and specters that roam the city streets in the still of the night. But a new tour called the Dark Crimes of Savannah sheds some light into the murky darkness of the city's gruesome and ghastly true crime history.
"They say that the truth is stranger than fiction," said Dark Crimes tour guide Chuck Norras. "In the case of this tour, that's really true."
The tour was developed by Savannah Cultural Heritage Tours and Events, an organization that also runs ghost tours called Savannah Ghost Walks. But the Dark Crimes tour has mined all of its stories from newspaper articles and police reports, giving its tales of terror a factual basis that's sometimes lacking in ghost tours.
"With paranormal evidence, even with the world's most sophisticated gadgetry, you can have two people who completely disagree," said press manager Morgan Towers. "With dark crimes, there's no disagreement when you see a photo of a body with blood coming out of it."
Towers said the tour emerged from nearly 30 years of research into Savannah crimes and might be the first of its kind in the area. The crimes covered span decades, with the earliest in 1735 and the most recent in 2006.
The tour starts in Madison Square and makes its way through a few important locations in Savannah's crime history, including the Hilton Savannah De Soto Hotel and Colonial Park Cemetery. In each of these seemingly harmless landmarks lies the grisly true tale of everything from axe murders to dismemberments. Towers said there's even the possibility that some of the transgressions have a connection to organized crime.
"We changed the names of some of the guilty to protect them and to protect us," he said with a chuckle. "We are not interested in finding ourselves at the bottom of the Savannah River."
The last stop on the tour is a building that used to house a distillery in 1904 and has since been transformed into a gastropub called, appropriately enough, The Distillery. But it was a pharmacy in 1909 when three women had their heads smashed in with an ax at a boarding house close by that has since been demolished. The Distillery's old-fashioned atmosphere and its connection to this triple ax murder, which you'll have to take the tour to find out more about, make it the perfect place to wrap everything up, Towers said.
"By the time we end up at The Distillery, you might need a drink," he said.
The Dark Crimes tour is a different breed from its ghost tour cousins not only in content, but also in the tour's general vibe, Towers said.
"Most people who are now giving ghost tours have their shtick," he said. "This is more of a probing, investigative, evidence-based experience that's fun, but it'll still give you the creeps."
With a heavy emphasis on the creeps, according to tour guide Chuck Norras.
"It's not a tour that people walk away from with a happy feeling," he said bluntly. "And I'm not going to apologize for that. That's not the kind of tour this is."
In keeping with the sinister and sleuthing ambience, the Dark Crimes tour keeps its numbers low, capping groups at 12 people. Towers said this is to boost interactions, whether between the guide and the patrons or between patrons themselves.
"We really want to give people a higher caliber, cozier, creepier experience," he explained.
Some portions of the Dark Crimes tour may sound familiar to those who have taken a ghost tour. Towers mentioned ghost tour staple Alice Riley, who was allegedly the first woman to be executed in Georgia. The Dark Crimes tour turns the hypothetical of ghost stories like this one into the factual reality of the crime at hand.
"Why not take (the story of Alice Riley) and reclaim it with the facts of the story that we do know?" Towers said. "Whether she haunts Wright Square or not, that's a subjective thing."
Even so, the Dark Crimes tour has plenty of fresh stories to tell and Towers insisted that it has something new to offer everyone, from ghost tour veterans to Savannah history buffs.
"These are places that people have read about and heard about, but never actually stood in," he said. "There's nothing like standing in the spot of the crime."
The tour has been active about a month. Towers said the operation has been relatively successful so far, even without an official marketing campaign. He attributed the success to the growth of the "dark tourism" industry, in which people are increasingly interested in exploring the "underbelly" of a seemingly idyllic place like Savannah.
"People want to look beyond the 'moss curtain,'" Towers said, referencing a collection of Savannah ghost stories called "Behind the Moss Curtain" by Murray M. Silver Jr. "They want to look at the actual situation as it is. ... Once you go behind the romantic image of Savannah, you get to the darker pieces of history."
Norras said he thinks the draw is the same thing that glues people to their televisions watching investigative crime shows.
"It seems like people are interested in hearing stories of that nature," he said. Norras himself is a fan of that television genre and has been interested in murder mysteries since he was a child, when he read all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.
The Dark Crimes tour originally included "noir" in its title, a nod to the crime fiction genre that evolved from the likes of Doyle's Holmes. Towers drew similarities between the stories on the tour and the post-World War II pulp novels of authors like Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett.
"There's a lot of very dark material (in noir)," he said. "And in a place like Savannah where you have juxtaposition in the physical presence of dark and light, it just makes sense."
The Dark Crimes tour is just one example of the kind of niche events that Cultural Heritage Tours and Events are interested in creating, Towers said. He mentioned the possibility of having a "roaring '20s" party, held somewhere like the House of Mata Hari near River Street.
"We can't allow ourselves to get locked into one way of seeing (Savannah)," he said. "This place is so rich. ... It's kind of like archaeology in a way. There are a lot of layers and you have to dig to get access."