One of the most perplexing characters from South Carolinian history is Lavinia Fisher. Fisher and her husband had once been the owners of a hotel, aptly name the Six Mile Wayfarer House since it was located just six miles outside the city of Charleston. What makes Fisher such an interesting woman wasn’t her role as an innkeeper, nor was it her alleged connection to highwaymen who crisscrossed their way across the dusty trails looking for weary travelers to take advantage of. Lavinia Fisher was alleged to be not only the first convicted female serial killer within the United States but also rumored to be the first woman to be executed for her crimes. While historians have disputed both of these claims, her legend is a sordid one which continues to capture people’s imaginations even today.
The Legend of Lavinia Fisher
Fisher’s notorious reputation wouldn’t begin until sometime in the early 1800s. Running the Six Mile Wayfarer House, along with her husband, John, rumors began to swirl that many men last spotted at the inn had vanished under suspicious circumstances. According to the legend, Lavinia would lure men, particularly rich men, into her parlor for tea and company. It was during these meetings that Lavinia would drug the men and then put them to bed. The bed that Lavinia placed these men in would be connected to a secret trap door, which led to the basement. The men’s possessions would be stripped and they would be left for dead.
Other versions of the legend depict Fisher as an early femme fatale. In this version, Fisher had quite the way with men and would use these charms to lure rich men into bed, in spite of being a married woman. There she would squeeze her victim’s head between her legs until he perished before tossing his body into the basement and making off with whatever money the man had.
Though none of these allegations could ever be proven, The Fishers were believed to be connected to a notorious gang who had been known to beat and rob travelers who happened to cross their path. The Fishers happened to be operating one of the two inns that these highwaymen used as hideouts. Though the law had been aware of some of the criminal activity, without names or evidence, there was little that could be done to prosecute the Fishers, nor the highwaymen they were allegedly connected to.
Naturally, the news about the attacks near the hotel came as a shock to the people of nearby Charleston and a vigilante gang was formed to put a stop to the purported criminal activities. The group felt that they had sufficiently run off the highwaymen, but had left behind group member David Ross to keep an eye on things for a while.
This decision would prove to be a mistake on their part. A day after the group departed, Ross was attacked by the highwaymen. Ross did not realize that Fisher had been involved with the group and hoped that the kindly woman from the inn would help him. Ross, however, was not well received by Fisher. Fisher proceeded to attack the man, choking him before smashing his head through a window. Ross somehow remained conscious and was able to escape.
Just as Ross had been making his way back to Charleston to report the attack, a trader by the name of John Peeples came to the hotel in hopes of securing a room for the night. Lavinia informed Peeples that there were no vacant rooms, but welcomed him in to rest and share a cup of tea with her. Fortunately for Peeples, he was not a fan of tea, but he accepted it anyway as to not to seem rude. After a few hours of chatting, Lavinia left Peeples alone for a moment and he used the opportunity to immediately dump the tea into a nearby plant.
When Lavinia returned, she told Peeples that a room had suddenly become available. Peeples retired to the room but had been concerned that Lavinia had planned to rob him. Peeples decided that rather than sleep in the bed he would keep watch in a wooden chair instead. Peeples had dozed off eventually but had been abruptly awoken by the sound of the bed collapsing, revealing to him a basement full of horror. Peeples immediately hightailed it out of the bedroom window and made his way to Charleston to tell the police of his undoubtedly terrifying ordeal.
The local Sheriff responded to the reports immediately. Police arrived at the hotel by the following day and reported finding dozens of bodies in the basement that John Fisher had chopped up with an axe. The Fishers were arrested and executed for their crimes, making Lavinia Fisher the first female serial killer to be convicted within the United States.
According to reports at the time, Lavinia Fisher requested a wedding dress to wear to the gallows in anticipation for her marriage to the devil. As she stood with the noose around her neck, she looked out at the crowd and yelled, “If you have a message you want to send to hell, give it to me – I’ll carry it.” before leaping from the scaffolding prior to the lever being thrown.
What Really Happened
While the legend makes for a far better story about what went on at the Six Mile Wayfarer House, what actually happened to the Fishers is equally as fascinating.
Though the Fishers were arrested and hanged for highway robbery based on the testimonies of both Ross and Peeples, there was no evidence to prove that the Fishers had been behind any murders. During the initial investigation, there were two bodies were unearthed near the property of the Six Mile Wayfarer House, but even that was not conclusive on whether or not either of the Fishers had put them there. According to Bruce Orr, author of Six Miles to Charleston: The True Story of John and Lavinia Fisher, not only were the Fishers probably not murderers, but most of what we know about them couldn’t be further from the truth.
A group of men embarked near the area of the Six Mile Wayfarer House after hearing reports that an unidentified gang had been terrorizing and robbing travelers who happened to pass through the area. Though no one had any clue as to who these highwaymen were, the men were determined to put an end to it and with the permission of several area homeowners had been allowed to temporarily take up residence.
As the men made their way down the road in hopes to find these alleged robbers, they came across an inn known as the Five Mile House. Inside the hotel, they found a group of people congregating and sharing the local gossip. The men gave the group a 15-minute warning to vacate the premises. The group refused to cooperate with the men and in retaliation, the building, along with several adjacent buildings, were burned to the ground.
The men then pushed on towards the Six Mile Wayfarer House. The same orders the men gave at the Five Mile House were given to the occupants at the inn, but unlike the events that had transpired down the road, the group complied as quickly as possible.
After the building was vacated, David Ross was ordered to stay at the inn and keep watch over the place. Clearing out the two inns where the men were convinced that the unknown highwaymen had been hiding out had been satisfactory enough and they rode back to Charleston.
When the inhabitants of the Six Mile Wayfarer House, including the Fishers, believed that the men had left they returned to the hotel, only to find that Ross was still in the building. The group confronted Ross and chased him out of town by force. According to Ross’ sworn deposition,
David Ross being duly sworn deposeth that on yesterday about the hour of nine, William Hayward came to Six Mile House of which he was in possession, accompanied by another person, whose name in unknown by him, that the said Hayward cursed him, collard him violently, and pushed him out of the doors. The deponet then again reentered the house, and asked to take away the few articles that belonged to him; Hayward put his hand into his bosom, and said you damned infernal rascal, if you lay your hand on anything, I will blow your brains out.–By this time Fisher and his wife Lavinia Fisher came up, with two other men, whose names are unknown to him–that Lavinia Fisher laid violent hands upon him, choaked [sic] and boxed his head through a pain [sic] of window glass–whilst I was endeavoring to get away from them, Hayward and Fisher beat him unmercifully, with loaded whips aided and assisted by the other two men, whose names are unknown to him, there was also another woman, who aided and assisted, whilst they were beating him, the deponent leapt out of the piazza, and crossed the road through the woods then he got to the Four Mile House, but just as he had entered the woods, they fired at him, he got at least into the main road and on his way to town, near Freightous Bridge, he saw the whole party coming to town, Fisher exclaimed several times, you damned infernal rascal if I ever catch you, I will give you a hundred lashes.
Around the same time, as stated in the legend, John Peeples also provided a sworn deposition about his experience at the Six Mile Wayfarer House.
John Peeples being duly sown deposeth that on yesterday forenoon, the 19th into about eleven o’clock as he was returning home from town to his residence in the country he stopped near the forks of the road about 6 miles from town to water his horse that whilst his horses were watering a man came out of the 6 Mile House and told a boy who was with him that he must give him his bucket as he wanted to water his horse, the boy refused to give him the bucket saying he wanted it himself, he swore he would have it and immediately nine or ten persons, among them a tall, stout woman, came out of the same house to the place where he was armed with clubs, guns, and pistols, and immediately made a violent assault on him, some of them beating him with sticks and with their guns, and several times they flashed their pistols at him, that the woman appeared to be the most active in beating him, cutting him over the head and eyes with a stick–that after a while they left him, and reentered the same house, and the deponet proceeded about two hundred yards on the road where tow of the same men came up to him on horseback, and stopped his waggon [sic]–and said to him that they would kill him, both of them presenting pistols to him and snapped them at him and demanded of him his money, they then searched his pocket, and took out his pocketbook, which contained his money amounting to between thirty five and forty dollars and then rode back towards the house from whence they came, the Six Mile House–the deponent then came back to Charleston–the deponent doth not know the names of those persons who hath so cruelly beat him and robbed him but that he hath just cause to believe that among them was William Hayward, John Fisher and wife Lavinia Fisher, Joseph Roberts and John Andrews.
The testimony of Peeples describes a ruthless robbery but varies wildly from the legend in where he stumbles upon a macabre chamber full of bodies just below the bed he was given to sleep in before leaping from the bedroom window. Author Bruce Orr also points out that this deposition is written in several different handwriting styles, which was also noted on Ross’ deposition. Another discrepancy is the spelling of Peeples’ name, which had been spelt both “Peeples” and “Peoples” within the document, leading him to believe that someone else had altered this deposition and added in the names of the Fishers, as well as others, after the fact.
Authorities immediately surrounded the Six Mile Wayfarer House and the Fishers surrendered without a struggle. Taken into custody along with the Fishers were James McElroy, Seth Young and Jane Howard. After their arrest, the hotel and adjacent outbuildings were burned to the ground.
No bodies were found in the home and of the dozens of stories written on the case, only one report in the Charleston Courier made mention of any human remains possibly connected to the hotel after two corpses were unearthed in the woods. One of these bodies had been fresh and was believed to have been shot by robbers, but was most likely to have been killed after defending himself from the lynch mob that had recently been in the area. The second body was a young African American woman, believed to have been a slave as it was common practice for slave owners to bury their deceased slaves on the property in unmarked graves. No one was ever charged for the murder of either of these individuals, including the Fishers.
Within days, 10 people who were connected to both the Five Mile House and the Six Mile House were arrested and charged with the assaults on Ross and Peeples. Of these 10 people, two of them were female, in spite of the legend claiming that Lavinia Fisher had been the only woman involved with the gang.
The Fishers would go on to be tried separately from the rest of the group. The official indictment included the assault and attempted murder of David Ross, which both of the Fishers pleaded not guilty to. They were found guilty of the intent to murder Ross and were sent back to jail to await their sentencing. Months later, their charges would change from attempted murder to highway robbery and both were sentenced to hang together on February 4, 1820. This date would later be changed as to not conflict with the horse races, but Orr also believes this date may have changed because the Fishers’ guilt began to come into question.
The Fishers began to gain supporters in and around Charleston, particularly Lavinia because it was considered by some to set a dangerous precedent if the governor would allow the hanging of a “white female.” As the Fishers counted down their final days, a sense of doubt began to wash over the citizens of Charleston. Though many of their supporters tried their best to convince the local government to grant the Fishers a retrial, the sentence stood.
Lavinia Fisher was hardly the stoic woman she was portrayed as in the legend. On the day of their hanging, The Fishers dawned white garments they had both supplied at their own expense. Walking to the scaffolding arm in arm, John Fisher shook nervously as took his final steps to the gallows. Lavinia refused to budge and had to be dragged as she cursed and begged for the crowd to save her. As John attempted to comfort his wife and encouraged her to accept her fate, Lavinia refused and instead turned to the crowd to yell out the words that would forever live in infamy, “Cease! I will have none of it. Save your words for others that want them. But if you have a message you want to send to Hell, give it to me; I’ll carry it.” Many believe that she had held onto the hope that her execution would be overturned up until the moment that the rope had been slipped around her neck.
John’s final words were far less dramatic, taking the time to apologize to anyone he had offended in life and to proclaim his and Lavinia’s innocence before the lever was released and the couple perished. Their bodies were then taken and buried in a nearby potter’s field. Lavinia’s restless spirit is said to haunt the Old City Jail to this day.