Text of the feature article in The Skinnie
Sept 30, 2011
Although no person is entirely bad or good, we’re easily biased to believe that the people whom we dislike have many failings and the people whom we like are wholly decent human beings. Contrastively, individuals of explicitly ambiguous character present complexities that challenge this dichotomy and our judgment with it. One such person is Savannah’s most famous alleged murderer, Jim Williams. “I think I would have liked him,” says true crime author Marilyn Bardsley. “He’s an unusual character in the criminal world: for all his weaknesses, Williams also had tremendous strengths. He was a brilliant, charismatic, cultured entrepreneur who did a lot of good for Savannah. He had so much going for him… but then, he also had a streak of evil a mile wide.”
“After Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” one of Ms. Bardsley’s more recent studies, presents a balanced picture of Jim Williams. Drawing on forty-plus interviews, Ms. Bardsley sought to recreate the real man as best as she could. Like so many others, Ms. Bardsley had read John Berendt’s popular book, “Midnight in the Garden of Evil” and seen the film, both of which anchored Savannah as a definitive tourist destination. Although Ms. Bardsley had originally set out just to write a crime story about the unique murder case that resulted in four trials, her investigation introduced her to a multifaceted character who merited further examination.
Lacking old money and lacking old family, the ambitious Jim Williams used dishonorable means in addition to his expertise and charm to reach the heights of society and the forefront of the historical restoration business. Moral and legal concerns presented no obstacle to Williams, who pimped out lost young men he found to the influential closeted men with the power to fund his projects. Though Williams was able to appreciate and supply such “discreet” relations to his powerful friends, he was less successfully able to do so for himself, given his weakness for “wild young things.” Williams became fixated upon his lover, the “untrustworthy, dangerous redneck” Danny Hansford, whom he shot and killed in purported self-defense.
Prosecutor Spencer Lawton described the relationship between the two men as “mutually exploitive, but not equally so. Hansford, in his naïve, coarse and reckless youth, no doubt thought he was taking advantage of Williams, who gave him money, clothes, car, jewelry and magnificent surroundings. But in the antique dealer he had met a pro, one who held all the cards. Williams was a sophisticated manipulator who could easily bestow money … [and] trips to Europe; but he could just as easily withhold them. And Danny Hansfords could be had at a dime a dozen.”
Mr. Lawton produced two documents of nearly 150 pages on the case, of which Ms. Bardsley provides excerpts in “After Midnight,” along with supplementary bracketed notes. To her surprise, she found that the opportunistic Mr. Williams had defrauded a number of clients who were impressed with his expertise and clueless about the value of their antiques. Still, Williams’ friends characterized him as the consummate southern gentleman with a positive, pragmatic attitude and a genuine interest in people. Although Mr. Lawton’s notes are solid, from Ms. Bardsley’s perspective, there was a reasonable case for self-defense or manslaughter. “With two armed men—one violent and intoxicated and the other afraid for his life—any number of spontaneous trigger events could have caused the shooting.”
Ms. Bardsley has had a lifelong interest in investigating crime, starting with her Nancy Drew collection in childhood, from which she graduated to her father’s stash of mystery novels. She soon discovered that the truth, however, is so often stranger than fiction. Indeed, when asked if she watches the popular TV show, “Dexter,” about the loveable psychopath who only takes his murderous impulses out on killers, Ms. Bardsley scoffs that she concerns herself with the real psychopaths. Working as an editor for a business publication while writing screenplays and novels in her free time, Ms. Bardsley got her start in writing true crime with the story of the Cleveland Torso Murders, investigated in the 30’s by the young hotshot safety director Eliot Ness of “The Untouchables” fame. “There is something in the mystery of an unsolved series of murders that stimulates the imagination,” she says, something that drove Ms. Bardsley to take out an ad in a major newspaper requesting evidence to convict the suspect, and leading to a feature article. Ms. Bardsley then found herself endangered, as she was pursued with threats and questioned, “Why did you start this up when Bob Sweeney was running for county commissioner?” Though initially dumbfounding her, the spy inadvertently gave her the name she sought– the prompting of which caused the case’s court psychiatrist Dr. Grossman to reveal that the suspect, Dr. Francis Sweeney, had been protected by ties to his powerful cousin, Congressman Martin Sweeney. In the meantime, Bob Sweeney, the suspect’s nephew of otherwise unscrupulous political dealings, pulled out of the race. “And that’s how I started my life of crime,” she says.
As the founder and executive editor of Court TV’s Crime Library, Ms. Bardsley personally wrote and researched some of the most popular criminal biographies, frequently giving interviews on these cases as well as on major cases in the news. Before Time Warner took on a different direction, replacing Court TV with the bikinis of reality programming group Trutv, it was the premiere crime site, featuring over 850 major stories counting forensic experts, detectives, law librarians, psychologists and investigative journalists among the authorship. She continued Crime Library independently and found a new direction of her own this Spring. Her company, DarkHorse Multimedia, Inc., launched a new online publishing business with RosettaBooks LLC, a leader in electronic books. Under the name Crimescape®, they have released six digital true crime titles, including Bardsley’s “After Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” The books are being promoted by Amazon Kindle on the Exclusives page and also on the Mystery and Thriller page as the “Crimescape® Series,” having all have made the Kindle bestsellers lists, with more to come. There are always more true stories to be written.