Dawn in the Garden of Good and Evil

Georgia’s founding father knew best, but Savannah didn’t stay unsinful for long

James Oglethorpe
James Oglethorpe Wikimedia Commons

"Savannah, Georgia, used to be like any number of great aunts in any number of Southern families," Patricia O'Toole begins her story. "Everyone knew of her existence, maybe even had heard tell of her good looks and idiosyncrasies, but few roused themselves to make her acquaintance. Then came John Berendt." A writer from New York, Berendt spent months learning Savannah's charming, shady and decadent secrets. When he confided them to the world in a murder mystery called Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the book sold off the charts for years, breaking all records and spawning "Midnight the movie, Midnight the television documentary, and in Savannah, Midnight the bus tour and the gift shop."

But in 1733, when Savannah started out as the first city in the new English colony of Georgia, it was the squarest of the square, a strait-laced community designed to bring poor folk from London slums and "give them land and seed money," improving not only their condition, but their morals and work habits as well. The high-minded architect of all this was Georgia's founding governor, an English aristocrat and soldier named James Oglethorpe.

The new colony prohibited the use of hard liquor. It also banned the use of slaves, partly for humanitarian reasons, partly because Oglethorpe thought that having slave labor would promote laziness. But right next door lay the flourishing colony of South Carolina, where hard liquor and other temptations were plentiful and the real work in the broiling sun was done by black slaves. Oglethorpe gamely struggled to keep both out of Georgia and his infant city of Savannah, but human nature being what it is, he failed. The rest is history.

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