Rene Rondolier in Savannah
The Ghost of Rene Rondolier in Savannah
Is the ghost story of Rene Rondolier in Savannah really true? Rene was the seven-foot killer who terrorized Savannah in the early days of the 1800’s, It is a tale that has become a Savannah tradition. Many different versions have been told throughout the years. His name sometimes varies, too: Rene Rondolia, Rene Asche Rondolier, etc. Some storytellers have likened the story to a real-life monster, elaborating on the central theme of Mary Shelley’s misunderstood (and fictitious) killer in her seminal book Frankenstein. Others have compared him to Lenny, from Steinbeck’s classic book Of Mice and Men. But exactly how much truth does Rene’s story contain? And does it really have ties to classic literature?
The Legend of Rene Rondolier
If you were to take a Savannah ghost tour, you’d likely hear a variation of the following story:
On the far eastern side of Savannah in the early 1800’s, there was an area that used to be known as Foley’s Alley, existing near East Broad Street around Warren and Washington Squares. It was the blue-collar district, where the tradesmen (carpenters, shipbuilders, iron workers, brick masons, etc.) lived. The terror began there, because in September 1804 a doctor was summoned in the middle of the night to Foley’s Alley to deliver a child. Now in those days, doctors did not deliver children; that was a job for midwives. But this woman, Maria, was in agony. She had been in labor for 3 days, and she began begging for the doctor.
The doctor arrived, and had no idea what to do for this woman. He had to perform a very crude form of surgery on Maria that night. He had to break that poor woman’s pelvis in order to deliver her child. A lot of whiskey was doubtlessly involved– both for her, and for the doctor. The reason he had to break her pelvis is because her child weighed in at nearly sixteen pounds. Rene Rondolia came into the world under strange circumstances that evening.
Rene was a big baby. He grew into an even bigger boy. At the age of 15, he stood at over seven feet tall, and weighed over three hundred pounds. Simple-minded, he spoke no English. He knew a few French phrases he learned from his mother, who was descended from a French Huguenot. Rene roamed the back lanes and streets of Foley’s Alley at night. He didn’t understand right from wrong, or concepts such as ‘dead’ and ‘alive’. He would catch animals– cats, small dogs, or squirrels, anything he could get his hands on– and play with them. Because he didn’t know his own strength, he would break their necks.
The people of Foley’s Alley tolerated Rene Rondolia. But this changed when the body of a young child was found on Warren Square, the western edge of Foley’s Alley. Her neck was broken. General consensus was that Rene had caught this young girl and murdered her. The people of Foley’s Alley, already angry over the great fire that had devastated Savannah in 1820, dragged him to Warren Square, where they hanged him from a live oak on the southwest corner. The tree that they used still stands today. It took several men to haul Rene off of the ground, and it took a long time for Rene to strangle on the rope. His neck did not break.
Imagine the shock and horror of those people responsible for the execution of Rene when those child killings continued into 1821. Was it Rene? Could he have come back from the grave and continued to kill? Or did they put an innocent person to death?
Many people, including several prominent Savannah citizens, have reported seeing someone walking out at night in Foley’s Alley. This person is reported to be over seven feet tall, and when he reaches Warren Square, he will look to the tree on the southwest corner of the square and then fade from sight. Others have reported seeing just a hulking shadow moving across the grass.
Is the Rene Rondolier Story True?
So how much of this terrifying story is true? Did a real-life golem once lurk the streets of Savannah, murdering animals and small children?
In short: no, Rene was not a real person. The story is entirely made up. None of the wild tales told about this supposed murderer of kiddies and kittens hold up to historical research. Every historian I asked about this particular ghost story had the same thing to say, namely: “It never happened.” One history professor in particular asked that I not include this story in my book Haunted Savannah. When pressed for a reason, she explained that the last name ‘Asch’ was the name of a prominent Jewish family in Savannah, and to tack their name on the end was disrespectful. But I am confident that it is more instructive to discredit the story, instead of simply omitting or ignoring it. I have found in the past that to leave out stories that I know to be false simply encourages unscrupulous guides to fictionalize.
As I referenced before, some storytellers have credited the story of Rene Rondolia/ Rondolier as being an influence on Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein. The story goes that Shelley met Joseph Bevan, Savannah socialite and historian, through his friend and her father, William Godwin, and Bevan recounted the tale of Rene to Shelley.
The problem is, there is no historical evidence to support this theory. In fact, Bevan visited Godwin during a time when Shelley and Godwin were estranged. A meeting between the author and Bevan is unlikely. Shelley, oddly enough, dedicated the book to her father, and it shows his influence. Shelley never mentioned a Savannah connection to the book, not even in her journal. Since no serious scholar has ever made a connection between a bit of Savannah folklore and Mary Shelley’s work, we must believe the experts. Shelley was influenced by her father, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. So even a claim that the fictional story of ‘Rene’ inspired some fiction is, itself, utter hogwash.
Putting a Famous Savannah Ghost Story to Rest
This tale of Rene Rondolier in Savannah is exactly that: a tale. Amongst local folklore, this particular campfire tale is about as famous as the ‘bloody hook on the car door’. It was more than likely used to frighten children and warn them against the dangers of staying out too late. Credit the story of the ponderous and deadly Rene with inspiring more sleepless nights on camping trips than any other story in Savannah.
Our Savannah ghost tour, the Savannah Ghosts and Folklore Tour, does not focus on the false tale of Rene Rondolier at all. Instead, we concentrate entirely on the TRUE and documented hauntings of Savannah.