|Death: ||Feb. 18, 1820, USA|
The legend of Lavinia Fisher has been told and retold since her execution in Charleston, South Carolina in 1820 and with each telling it has grown more extravagant and further from the truth. Today tourist pamphlets and web sites will earnestly tell you that Lavinia was America's first female serial killer when, in fact, there is no hard evidence that she ever killed anyone. We do know that she was a violent and unrepentant outlaw, but she earned her fame by being a tough woman with a bad attitude in a town known for its genteel southern belles.
The legend of Lavinia Fisher will vary from teller to teller but the gist of the story told for the last 120 years goes something like this. John and Lavinia Fisher owned an inn, the Six Mile House, on a lonely road outside of Charleston, South Carolina. The building was well maintained and was a welcome sight to weary travelers, but it was rumored that sometimes guests checked in and did not check out. One night a fur trader named John Peoples stopped at the inn and was warmly greeted by the Fishers. The beautiful Lavinia Fisher was especially friendly. Peoples thought the Fishers were being a little too friendly and, suspicious of their intentions, he went to bed early.
People's suspicions grew and he could not sleep. He decided not to lie in the bed but to sit in the corner facing the door so he could see if anyone came in to attack him. His suspicions were confirmed when a trapdoor sprung, dropping the bed into the cellar where John Fisher was waiting with an axe. Peoples escaped and hurried back to Charleston to tell the authorities. John and Lavinia were arrested and their property searched. The human remains were found, including many bodies in a lime pit in the cellar under the trap door. The Fishers were convicted of murder and sentenced to hang.
The unrepentant, Lavinia Fisher went to the gallows in 1820 wearing her wedding dress. John Fisher pinned all the blame on his wife, but he was hanged along with her. Lavinia's ghost now haunts the Old Jail on Magazine Street in Charleston as well as the Unitarian Cemetary.
At Murder by Gaslight we love a good legend, but we love the truth even more. Lavinia Fisher was hanged in 1820 but the crime was highway robbery— a capital offense at the time—not murder. She was a member of a large gang of highwaymen who operated out of two houses in the Backcountry outside of Charleston, the Five Mile House and the Six Mile House. It is not clear whether or not the Six Mile House was a hotel, but it did serve as hideout for a number of outlaws.
Wagon trade in and out of Charleston was a profitable business and an important part of the city's economy. In 1819 trade was disrupted by a gang of highwaymen stopping wagons on the road and stealing goods and money. Since the victims were unable to identify their assailants the authorities were powerless to act. A group of Charleston citizens decided to take matters into their own hands and if necessary invoke "Lynch Law." According to the Charleston News and Courier:
A gang of desperados have for some time past occupied certain houses in the vicinity of Ashley Ferry; practicing every deception upon the unwary and frequently committing robberies upon defenseless travelers. As they could not be identified, and thereby brought to punishment, it was determined, by a number of citizens, to break them up, and they accordingly proceeded, in a cavalcade, on Thursday afternoon, to the spot, having previously obtained permission of the owners of some small houses, to which these desperados resorted, to proceed against the premises in such manner as circumstances might require.
The cavalcade proceeded first to the Five Mile House where they gave the occupants fifteen minutes to vacate the premises before they burned it to the ground. At the Six Mile House they evicted the occupants and left a man named Dave Ross behind to guard it. Believing their work was finished, the cavalcade returned to Charleston.
The next morning, two men from the outlaw gang broke into the house and assaulted Dave Ross, driving him outside where he was surrounded by a gang of nine or ten men and one woman, the beautiful Lavinia Fisher. Ross looked to Lavinia for help, but she choked him and shoved his head through a window. Two hours later, John Peoples was heading out of Charleston in his wagon and stopped near the Six Mile House to water his horse. He was accosted by the gang, including Lavinia Fisher. They stole about forty dollars from him.
Peoples returned to Charleston and this time he was able to tell the authorities the identities of his attackers. He did not know all of their names but he had…
"Just cause to believe that among them was William Hayward, John Fisher and his wife Lavinia Fisher, Joseph Roberts, and John Andrews."
This, along with Dave Ross's story, forced the authorities to act. Sheriff's deputy Colonel Nathanial Green Cleary got a bench warrant from Judge Charles Jones Colcock and set out for Six Mile House. John and Lavinia Fisher, along with several members of the gang, gave up without a fight and were taken to jail in Charleston. Over the next several days many other gang members were arrested. John Peoples identified them as the group who robbed him. John and Lavinia Fisher were charged with highway robbery—a hanging offense at the time. While they were awaiting trial, a grave containing the remains of two human bodies, was found about 200 yards from Six Mile House. They were believed to be the bodies of a white man and a black woman, dead for at least two years. With so many people in and out of Six Mile House during that time, it was impossible to identify their killers and no one was ever charged with their murder. Only two bodies, no more, were found at Six Mile House.
Trial: May 1819
The Fishers pleaded not guilty to the charge of highway robber, but the jury thought otherwise.
Verdict: Guilty of highway robbery.
John and Lavinia planned to appeal their conviction to the Constitutional Court and while they awaited the hearing they were kept in the Charleston jail. Because they were a married couple, John and Lavinia were kept in the debtors' quarters in the upper part of the jail rather than the heavily guarded lower floor. On September 13 they attempted to escape through a hole they made under the window of the cell. John went first down a rope made of blankets but it broke before he reached the ground. He could have escaped alone but chose to stay behind with Lavinia.
Their motion for a retrial was rejected by the Constitutional Court and the Fishers could do nothing now but wait for execution. The Reverend Richard Furman would visit them often to help them make peace with their maker. He appeared to make some headway with John, but Lavinia was more likely to curse than pray.
On February 4, 1820 they were taken to a gallows erected on Meeting Street just outside the city limits of Charleston. Each was wearing a loose-fitting white robe over their clothes, possibly the source of the "wedding dress" myth. It was a public execution and everyone, including the fine ladies of Charleston, came out to see Lavinia Fisher hang.
John mounted the gallows peacefully but Lavinia had to be physically dragged to the platform where she beseeched the crowd to help her. According to one historian:
"She stamped in rage and swore with all the vehemence of her amazing vocabulary, calling down damnation on a governor who would let a woman swing. The crowd stood shocked into silence, while she cut short one curse with another and ended with a volley of shrieks." When Lavinia was quiet Reverend Furman read a letter from John Fisher in which he thanked the reverend for "explaining the mysteries of our Holy Religion." John then told the crowd he was innocent and blamed Colonel Cleary for coaching the witness who accused him.
The legend of Lavinia Fisher had probably already started but her (true) last words to the crowd at her hanging guaranteed her immortality:
"If you have a message you want to send to hell, give it to me—I'll carry it."
Written stories of Lovinia Fisher are usually accompanied by a painting—at the top of this post— alleged to be a portrait of Lavinia. It begs the question, when did she pose for it? During her life as a highwayman in the squalor of Six Mile House, or in the year she spent in Charleston jail?
The Fishers were buried in a potter's field, not the Untitarian Cemetery Lavinia supposedly haunts.
Lavinia Fisher is included in Murder by Gaslight because of her legend as a murderess. In fact, it is unlikely that she ever murdered anyone.
Specifically: Potters Field, Located at what is now MUSC
Created by: Mike Bell
Record added: Oct 18, 2007
Find A Grave Memorial# 22289637