James Arthur Williams

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Jim Williams
Jim Williams 1980.png
Williams in the library of Mercer House in July 1980, pictured with a pastel by Henrietta Johnston of John Perceval, 1st Earl of Egmont
James Arthur Williams

(1930-12-11)December 11, 1930
DiedJanuary 14, 1990(1990-01-14) (aged 59)
OccupationHistoric preservationist and antiques dealer
Known forAn early leader in the Savannah, Georgia, historic preservation movement, as well as the main character in the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil book and movie

James Arthur Williams (December 11, 1930 – January 14, 1990) was an antiques dealer and a historic preservationist based in Savannah, Georgia. He played an active role in the preservation of the Savannah Historic District.

Williams is the main character in the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. After four trials for an alleged murder that occurred in his house, he was acquitted.


The historic Mercer House in Savannah, Georgia.

Jim Williams was born in Gordon, Georgia, to Arthur Costlar (1907–1984)[1] and Blanche Brooks Williams (1907–1997).[2] He later moved to Savannah, where he became a noted antiques dealer and historic preservationist. He was active in the preservation of Savannah's historic district. In 1955, at the age of 24, he bought and restored his first three buildings: the single-level houses located at 541, 543 and 545 East Congress Street.[3] Over the following 35 years, he restored more than fifty homes in Savannah, as well as in the low country of Georgia and South Carolina. Notable Savannah houses he restored include the Odingsell House, the Merault House, the Hampton Lillibridge House, James Habersham's Pink House and the Armstrong House.[3]

In 1969, Williams purchased Mercer House, which was originally built for General Hugh Mercer, great-grandfather of famed American songwriter Johnny Mercer. At the time of the purchase, the house had been vacant for almost a decade since its former occupants, the Shriners organization, had used the building for their Alee Temple.[4] Over two years, Williams restored the house. After the restoration, it became his residence and he ran his antiques restoration business from the carriage house located behind the mansion.[3]

Arrest and trials[edit]

Williams was arrested on May 2, 1981, for the alleged murder at his Mercer House home of 21-year-old Danny Hansford, with whom he had been having a sexual relationship.[4] At his arraignment his bond was set at $25,000, which he posted.[4] After the subsequent four trials, a record in the state of Georgia,[5] Williams was finally acquitted by a jury in Augusta, in May 1989, eight years after his conviction.


On January 14, 1990, eight months after his acquittal, Williams died unexpectedly in his home, at age 59, from pneumonia and heart failure. He was discovered by Doug Seyle, one of Williams' employees, who let himself in after receiving no response at the front door.[6] Reportedly, Williams collapsed in his study, near where Hansford also fell. Other sources state he died in the foyer outside of the study where Hansford was shot. Williams is buried next to his mother, who survived him by seven years, in Ramah Church Cemetery, Gordon, Georgia.[7] Williams' father, who died six years before him, is buried in Danville, Georgia.[1]

In popular culture[edit]

The book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, about Hansford's murder and Williams' subsequent trial for the killing, was written by author John Berendt and published in 1994. A New York Times' Bestseller and finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction, the book was adapted into a movie directed by Hollywood veteran Clint Eastwood in 1997. "Kevin Spacey played Jim Williams -- badly," Berendt said in a 2015 interview. "He didn't even come close. I had offered [Spacey] recordings so he could to listen to Jim Williams talking to me, regaling me with stories while sitting in his living room in Mercer House. [Spacey] said he'd already heard Williams on tape talking during one of his trials. But when I saw the movie, I was perplexed by the way Spacey portrayed Williams, because he did it as if he were asleep. He talked as if he were in a fog or sleepwalking. Then I realized what had happened, and I thought it was hilariously funny." Berendt believes Spacey listened to tapes of Williams during the third trial, when he had taken Valium.[8]



  1. ^ a b Arthur Costlar Williams at FindAGrave.com
  2. ^ Blanche Brooks Williams at FindAGrave.com
  3. ^ a b c Kingery, Dorothy (1999). More Than Mercer House: Savannah's Jim Williams & His Southern Houses. Savannah, Georgia: Sheldon Group, LLC. ISBN 0-9672187-0-5.
  4. ^ a b c "Williams Charged: Antiques Dealer Posts $25,000 Bond - Savannah Morning News, May 2 1981
  5. ^ "Justice, forgiveness and Jim Williams" - LaGrange Daily News, December 17, 2018
  6. ^ "30 years after death of Jim Williams, his iconic Savannah home is being restored" - Bluffon Today, January 17, 2020
  7. ^ Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3d ed.: 2 (Kindle Location 19770). McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  8. ^ "Author of 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil' returns to Savannah" - The Island Packet, March 3, 2015


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