Friday, August 12, 2011

Is Sweetwater a "Crime?"

The Sweetwater Mansion Debacle

A Guest Commentary By

Sarah Savant

All my life I've been surrounded by people who volunteer to improve the community. I've always worked with various well-established school clubs and when I volunteered to work with Sweetwater Mansion, I expected it to be the same. I couldn't have been more wrong.

My first day as a volunteer was in the middle of August, and the director immediately handed me a camera and told me to take photos inside the house and on the grounds. Cynthia Johnson told me she was specifically looking for orbs that would suggest a ghostly presence. I do believe in ghosts, but I had volunteered to help restore the mansion, not take snapshots of what Ms. Johnson wanted to prove was on the property.

Nevertheless, I followed her instructions, and several of us volunteers took photos for Cynthia. After we finished up, Cynthia told one young man he had captured the image of a werewolf in his photos. She then proceeded to show off what she called her psychic powers by offering predictions to our group. My friends and I thought the whole set up was odd, but we believed that the director really cared about the house so her behavior didn't bother us that much at the time.

When we returned in October to begin the tours, we found that absolutely nothing had been done to restore the old home. These things take time and money, so we told ourselves "Rome wasn't built in a day." Cynthia told us that restoration would begin in earnest in early December, and we still had no real reason to doubt her.

As Cynthia began to tell us about the history of the house, she mentioned she had been William McDonald's personal assistant at one time. We found this impressive, but then she continued to tell us about Susan Leigh Smithson, the property's owner. According to Cynthia, Ms. Smithson had been a high fashion model in her younger days and was now a fashion designer. I consider myself pretty fashion savvy and had never heard of Ms. Smithson, so I decided to Google her when I returned home. I found that Susan owned a shop in Atlanta that specialized in prom dresses and she had some odd comments and reviews attached to her name.

Things definitely weren't adding up. I was left to wonder just what other statements we needed to take with a grain of salt...

Sweetwater's director Cynthia Johnson liked to paint a perfect picture of the supposedly wealthy owner. She never spoke of Susan Smithson without mentioning her great wealth, but by October of 2010, we began considering the source. We soon saw that Susan didn't pay for anything related to the house. Her mother Edith Smithson paid the bills, and we also soon learned that the money earned from any events was paid directly to Susan's mother.

At first I thought this looked shady, but Cynthia said Mrs. Smithson paid the utilities and taxes for Susan. When I asked Cynthia why the plantation hadn't received tax exempt status, she told me she had sent the paperwork to Susan's mother who had lost it. I didn't ask after that.

I did talk with two other volunteers who had similar stories about the finances at the mansion, but there was never a great deal of money involved. I would guesstimate less than four thousand was taken in each year the mansion was open to the public. Still, we thought this money should have gone to restoration rather than to pay Susan's electric or tax bill. We began to think the mansion would never be restored with Cynthia as director.

As the tours took shape, Cynthia told us stories of the original land owner, Gen. John Brahan, practicing voodoo in the basement and other ghost tales which she seemed to relish. About this time I became friends with another local historian who worked there. She shared her knowledge of Mr. McDonald's history of Sweetwater and also many things she had discovered through her own research. She was in possession of some writings of Jane Patton and other first hand material from that era. The two stories were so different, and Cynthia's was so unbelievable.

I began to use the story told to me by my friend when I lead the tours, rather than the more lurid voodoo story that Cynthia had told me to relate. Cynthia then began to follow me around during the tours and "correct" me. I was becoming more and more disenchanted, but Cynthia told me in late October that massive restoration work was set to begin in early December.

I knew that Cynthia had promised this before, but I hoped this time it was true. When I returned to the home after Christmas break, again absolutely nothing had been done. It was then that I decided to call owner Susan Leigh Smithson...

I looked up the number for Miz Scarletts in Atlanta, called, and asked to speak to Susan. I was told Susan was at fashion week in Paris. This was early in January, and I knew the only shows in Paris at that time were haute couture and men's fashion. What prom dress store owner would be invited to something like that? I started laughing, but I did manage to say I worked at Sweetwater and gave them a false name.

Apparently I still gave store personnel too much information because it was only about five minutes later that Cynthia Johnson called me. It seems Susan had called her and was livid. How had I found her "private number?" She related that Susan didn't take calls because she got death threats, was involved in lawsuits, and the list just went on an on. I don't know what any of Susan's personal problems had to do with me, but if I had problems with Cynthia before, I really had them now.

She began telling other volunteers that I was out to get her and wanted her "job." At first I just shook it off, but then something happened that I couldn't just overlook. Cynthia was always relating things using her self-proclaimed psychic abilities, but now she began to tell others that she had a vision of me in the future and in this vision I was being raped.

When I heard this I was angry beyond words; I was sick to my stomach. When I confronted Cynthia she told me she was only concerned for my well being. Apparently she wasn't concerned enough to come to me privately and tell me this. What should I do? I didn't want to be around Cynthia any more, but I really loved Sweetwater, so I decided to stay at least until the Living History Days in April.

I wanted to be sure the stories told during the program were accurate, but Cynthia had her own version of things leading up to the actual event. If anyone ever asked about Susan, Cynthia told them that Smithson was in London working on Kate Middleton's dress for the royal wedding. I wish I could say she was joking, but she was completely serious. If this didn't kill any interest I had in the project, what happened next did.

Things actually went very well for the living history event, and some of us decided to spend the night at Sweetwater. There were only volunteers present, and we were having fun playing with some of the ghost hunting equipment. At least it was fun until two to the committee members got into an argument that turned nasty very quickly.

One of the two involved was my friend who had helped me with Sweetwater's history. She resigned the next morning and most of us were extremely upset. We thought that Cynthia Johnson as director should do something about it. Instead, Cynthia acted as if nothing odd or out of the way had happened. I then decided to distance myself from the project, only dropping by if someone I knew well was going to be there.

Some time later I received a phone call from this friend who had been "thrown under the bus." She had heard that someone was taking up money for Sweetwater at First Fridays and asked that I go with her to the next event and see what we could find out. Before we could go, I heard that Cynthia was accusing me and still another former committee member of being the ones who were collecting the funds. I decided to call Cynthia to ask why she was accusing us. She told me she had received a description of the pair and they sounded much like my male friend and me.

I still love Sweetwater and want it to be restored. I don't know what it will take, but I honestly and sincerely believe that Cynthia Johnson is holding the project back. Volunteers don't stay long and no real work is ever done. If exposing what is really going on at Sweetwater will help, I feel that I have finally accomplished something.

Originally published in Shoalanda Speaks July 28-August 1, 2011.