The Williams-Mercer House

The World Is Your Crime Scene (Part II)

This is Part 2 of a two-part series and was inspired by our previous series on film locations. I’ve long been a firm believer that you can learn more about history by visiting where it took place. This can be especially true of crime

Boston Massacre Site (Boston, Massachusetts)
The more things change, the more they stay the same. On March 5, 1770, fueled by a few previous skirmishes with British soldiers and loyalists (the latter of which resulted in the accidental shooting of an 11 year-old boy), angry colonists went after a lone British solider, pelting him with snowballs, ice, and rocks. More troops showed up and tensions escalated, with the patriots bearing clubs and daring the redcoats to fire. The shooting started by accident and five colonists were killed. The soldiers were defended (and won acquittal thanks to) future president John Adams. The site is one of many on Boston’s Freedom Trail, which is marked by a red line on the sidewalks. There’s a round marker in the street directly in front of the Old State House. Little remains of how it looked 250 years ago, but like many historical locations, just standing on the spot certainly makes it feel more real. And not just a tale in a history book.

Salem Witch Trials (Salem, Massachusetts)
Like Liverpool, England, Salem is famous for one thing. And they know how to use it to their advantage. They even have a witch logo on their police cars. And a red line on the sidewalk (same as Boston) connecting all the sites in town. The Salem Witch Museum walks you through the events of 1692, introduces you to the people involved, and tries to make sense of it all. The Witch Dungeon Museum presents a brief re-enactment of the witch trials, then takes you downstairs to a re-creation of the dungeon where the accused were jailed in tiny cells just big enough for one person. And were forced to pay for their confinement.

Z. Smith Reynolds Murder or Suicide? (Winston-Salem, NC)
Zachary Smith Reynolds (who went by Smith) was the youngest son of tobacco kingpin R.J. Reynolds and his beloved wife, Katharine. Following the deaths of both parents, Smith married, divorced, attempted to fly around the world, and married famous torch singer, Libby Holman (“Moanin’ Low”). All before he turned 21. On July 6, 1932, after a long weekend of partying with friends at the family estate, Reynolda, Holman ran to the upstairs balcony and shouted, “Smith’s killed himself!” First it was considered a suicide, then it looked like murder. Holman and Smith’s best friend, Ab Walker, may have been having an affair. The gun was mysteriously found in a previously searched room. With the media circus that ensued, the Reynolds family pressured the DA to drop the case. It remains unsolved. Today Reynolda is a historic home and art museum. You can visit the room in question (which only houses paintings), but they won’t talk about it on the tour. You’ll have have to research it on your own.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil House (Savannah, GA)
It’s nearly impossible to enter a single shop in Savannah without finding a copy of John Berendt’s famous book somewhere on a shelf. In our previous series, The World Is Your Movie Set, we covered the famous Bird Girl statue from the book cover and movie poster. On May 2, 1981, antique dealer and preservationist Jim Williams got into a heated argument with his sexual partner, Danny Hansford. Williams lived in the historic Mercer House (from the family of songwriter Johnny Mercer). Williams shot Hansford in the study and claimed self-defense. After four trials he was finally acquitted, but collapsed and died in his home eight months later. In the study. The Williams-Mercer House (as it is now known) is open for tours, and though they generally don’t discuss the famous case, there are plenty of ghost tours that will.

Alice Riley Hanging Square (Savannah, GA)
Much of Savannah was built on graveyards where they just moved the tombstones. The most famous of the city’s many ghost stories is that of Alice Riley. And every ghost tour includes a stop at Wright Square, where she was hanged in January of 1735. Riley and her common-law husband, Richard White, were both indentured servants of William Wise, a despicable and bedridden cattle farmer. Who’d passed a prostitute off as his own daughter on the voyage from England. Riley and White, who barely survived the voyage from Ireland with the rest of their ship, were assigned to care for Wise, which included bathing him every day. The two were captured on the run after Wise was found strangled with a neckerchief and his head in a bucket of water. Both were convicted of murder and White was hanged immediately. Riley was pregnant, however, so her sentence was delayed until after she gave birth. Her newborn son died soon afterwards.

Delphine LaLaurie Mansion (New Orleans, LA)
Perhaps the most notorious locale in New Orleans (a city full of them) is the LaLaurie Mansion on Royal Street in the French Quarter. The original two-story home was built by Delphine LaLaurie, a New Orleans socialite who was married three times, twice widowed, and known to mistreat her slaves. She’d previously had to forfeit nine slaves for cruel treatment following the death of a young girl who’d fallen from the roof trying to escape punishment. But managed to purchase them back through a family intermediary. On April 10, 1834, a fire broke out in the kitchen. Police and firemen found the 70 year-old cook chained to the stove. She’d started the fire to commit suicide. Bystanders found seven more slaves chained in their quarters who’d suffered horribly from starvation and torture, two of which died following their rescue. More were found buried on the grounds. The house was burned down by a mob and, sadly, Delphine escaped to Paris, where she eventually died in 1849. The home that stands there now was built in 1838.

Bugsy Siegel Murder (Beverly Hills, CA)
These last three are loosely connected, as they all involve the Los Angeles Mafia. First up is Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (a nickname he hated). After building the Flamingo resort/casino (inventing modern Las Vegas), which ran millions over budget (partially from him and his mistress, Virginia Hill, skimming off the top), Benny ran seriously afoul of his Mafia bosses. On the night of June 20, 1947, Siegel and three friends returned to Hill’s N. Linden Drive home after dinner. He was not alone as depicted in the Warren Beatty movie. Two retired upstairs, while Benny and fellow gangster Allen Smiley sat on the couch. Nine shots ripped through the window. Siegel was struck twice in the head. Smiley dove for the fireplace and only suffered a hole in his coat sleeve. The house is still there, but is privately owned, so you can’t go in. But the outside looks much the same as it did almost 75 years ago.

Mickey Cohen House (Los Angeles, CA)
Following Siegel’s death, all of his operations were assigned to his lieutenant, Mickey Cohen. Who’d already been running them for some time while Benny was distracted in Vegas. This didn’t set well with the Italian Mobsters, who really didn’t like Jews in their organization. So they decided to kill Mickey, but were unsuccessful after several attempts. Which helped earn them the name the “Mickey Mouse Mafia.” Three of those attempts happened at Mickey’s modest Brentwood home on Moreno Avenue, where notorious germaphobe Mickey had installed a hotel water heater so that he could spend hours in the shower. One was an ambush, but Cohen sped out of his circular driveway and escaped. He also found a bomb that had failed to detonate. A second bomb was successful, but the explosion went off under his closet safe, which shielded much of the blast, and only managed to destroy his extensive wardrobe. Mickey was also in his wife’s room at the time (they had separate bedrooms), at the other end of the house. Afterwards, the neighbors petitioned for him to leave. Mickey’s former home still stands, but it too is a private residence.

Lana Turner House (Beverly Hills, CA)
Our final stop occurred just a few blocks away from where Bugsy met his end. After Mickey went to jail for tax evasion, his handsome young bodyguard, Johnny Stompanato, made the rounds in Hollywood by dating both Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. His relationship with Turner was quite volatile and the two fought constantly. Often in front of Lana’s teenage daughter, Cheryl Crane. According to Cheryl, on the night of April 4, 1958, at her home on N. Bedford Drive, Stompanato attacked Turner over a suspected affair with Sean Connery. Cheryl grabbed a knife from the kitchen and stabbed him. The death was ruled a justifiable homicide, though Cheryl spent several troubled years in juvenile detention and psychiatric care. Again, Lana’s former home still stands as a private residence.