A Charleston Ghost Story: The Ghost of Lavinia Fisher
A Violent Mix of Greed and Beauty
Charleston exudes an eerie calmness that can be felt on many nights. The cobblestone streets of this historical port city have seen their fair share of drama and mystery. The tragic stories of the past and notable, intriguing characters haunt the spaces between the stately architecture.
One of the most compelling of these characters is Lavinia Fisher. She set a violent precedent, making herself a legend as the country’s first female serial killer. The spirits of Lavinia and her partner in crime, her husband John, are said to haunt the streets of Charleston where they were hanged two centuries ago.
Lavinia was born in 1793 in Charleston, the same city she would face death by execution twenty-six years later. Little is known about her early life, making the circumstances leading to her short life of crime a mystery. She married John Fisher and the couple made Charleston their home.
Lavinia and John ran an inn just outside of Charleston known as The Six Mile House, now the site of the Old Navy Hospital. It was a temporary home to travelers visiting the area on their way to trade goods. They were often returning from doing business and carrying loads of cash for the goods they sold. Many of the guests didn’t realize upon their arrival that it would be their last stop.
The proximity to town also made the inn a popular choice for gangsters and highwaymen. Add to that these villans were welcomed in by the Fishers, creating a recipe for turmoil and tragedy. The hangout became a breeding ground for the gangsters to begin cheating innocent guests out of their money during poker games.
But those paltry pots weren’t enough for Lavinia and John. They knew the guests that frequented their rooms were businessmen and tradesmen that often carried lots of cash and valuable belongings. Together, they devised a complex plan to profit from the fortune of their guests.
Legend has it that Lavinia was quite the seductress. She would lure male visitors to stay at the inn with her stunning beauty and flirtatious appeal. Chatting them up in her comforting way made them trust their hostess and let their guard down.
Lavinia served them comfort food and tea laced with oleander. Infused with the toxic shrub, the tea induced warm sleepiness in her guests. Lavinia would then play the ever-gracious host, refilling their mugs and turning on the charm. The men would eventually fall into a deep slumber.
That’s where John came in. Seduced by the opportunity for an easy jackpot, he would rob the patrons in their sleep. Some likely overdosed on the potent tea though those that didn’t would be stabbed to death by their host. To cover his tracks, John would hide their dismembered bodies in the cellar of the inn.
It was also rumored that a trap door was installed into the floor under the guest’s beds. When men would become drowsy and retire to bed, the door would drop them to the cellar below. They would plunge to their deaths, allowing John to pillage their cash piles.
Though the Fisher couple was well-liked in the town, suspicions started swirling as more and more men continued to disappear. Locals gathered that the common factor was the victims’ last known whereabouts at the Six Mile House. They were also getting fed up by the nature of the illegal gang-related activity and highwaymen’s cheating that was taking place at the inn.
The First Eye-Witness Account For The Fisher Couple
The growing suspicions led to the formation of a local group to investigate the activity in February of 1819. They visited the Six Mile house to inquire about the gang activities that were going on and to put a stop to them. Being optimistic that they succeeded and eliminated the rough crowd, they decided to retreat the six miles back to town. However, they left David Ross to monitor the area for a resurgence of the highwaymen.
The very next morning, Ross himself was the victim of an attack. He found himself face to face with two of the highwaymen he was tasked with surveilling. Upon seeing the familiar face of Lavinia Fisher, he was hopeful she would aid him in his escape. He quickly realized that she was working in cooperation with the two men.
Her violent actions shocked and surprised him. Instead of the help he initially expected, Lavinia choked him before smashing a windowpane with his head. He recounted that the men continued to beat him and even fired a gun as he was able to wrangle free. After this glimpse of Lavinia’s evil side, Ross was able to return to Charleston to share the story of her blind outrage.
A Second Survivor from Lavinias Attemp of Murder
Mere hours later, trader John Peebles arrived from Georgia looking for a room. Despite the recent chaos, Lavinia calmly explained that there were no vacancies. However, she graciously invited him in for a break from his travels. Even though Peebles despised tea, he courteously accepted the cup that Lavinia offered. Patiently waiting until she was distracted, he discretely poured the toxic tea into a houseplant.
John Fisher was quickly growing impatient and wondering why the tea hadn’t affected the man and given him his opportunity for an easy robbery. Lavinia continued to stall and ask Peebles countless questions and making polite chit-chat, hoping for her potion to finally take effect. When it was obvious that Peebles remained wide awake, Lavinia knew she had to switch tactics. She suddenly stated that a room had spontaneously become available and that he was now welcome to stay.
In the quiet of his room, Peebles began to reflect on the series of suspicious events of the evening. Why had Lavinia asked so many questions while her husband eerily looked on? The more he thought about it, the more his suspicions that he was a target for robbery irked him.
His instincts prompted Peebles to sleep in the room’s chair for the evening. It was located near the door and would give him the opportunity to remain more vigilant. A loud crash woke him abruptly from his light slumber.
Peebles was shocked and thankful when he opened his eyes to see that the bed intended for his night of sleep had disappeared into the floor. He fled quickly through the window, not looking back until he arrived on horseback in Charleston. He was eager to tell law enforcement about the terrifying occurrence.
Peebles provided a detailed deposition to authorities that showed similarities in the violence that David Ross had experienced. These accounts were enough to prompt law enforcement to arrest Lavinia and John Fisher, as well as their two accomplices.
A Long-Awaited Arrest For Lavinia Fisher
The sheriff’s office raided the Six Mile House and thoroughly searched for any evidence of the missing men. The grounds were torn apart and possesions of the disappeared visitors were uncovered. Lavinia’s sleeping potion and trapdoor apparatus were even discovered, making the pair’s MO clear and obvious.
Over time, reports have faded and the recounts of the findings have become inconsistent. Some say that the basement was littered with the remains of hundreds of travelers. Others say that no bodies were found at all. One thing that is consistently true, is that it’s believed that those missing guests never made it out of the inn after the fateful night of their stay.
A Prolonged Prison Stay
Lavinia and John Fisher adamantly claimed complete innocence. Though they pled not guilty, they were not given the opportunity for bond and forced to await their trial in prison. However, their two violent accomplices were released on bail.
Finally, in May of 1819, their trial began. Though a murder conviction was the ultimate goal, the jury hung in disagreement. However, based on the number of possessions found in the basement, the jury was able to convict the Fishers on multiple highway robbery charges. This was a capital offense at that time, punishable by hanging.
John And Lavinias Butchered Escape Plan
After requesting an appeal, John and Lavinia returned to their small, shared prison cell. The wait for the next court session was long, giving them time to orchestrate their escape with two other prisoners, completely undetected by the guards. In September, they were unsuccessful in breaking out of prison thanks to their flawed plan.
They had spent their time creating a hole in the prison wall and crafting a rope out of the linens in their cell. John was able to use the knotted rope to climb out of the prison walls before the rope broke. The two other prisoners also escaped, however, Lavinia then remained trapped alone in the cell. The ever-loyal husband, John returned to his wife in prison and the guards increased their watch over the crafty couple.
Lavinia Fishers One Last Appeal
In February 1820, nearly a year after their encounters with their escaped victims, a Constitutional Court was called to hear their appeal. The court rejected the couple’s appeal, leaving them with no further options. Their execution was scheduled for later in the month to allow the couple time to make peace with God.
The Reverend Richard Furman was tasked with saving the couple’s souls. John pleaded with the Reverend to help him rid his spirit of evil. Lavinia, however, avoided any efforts to redeem herself of her heinous crimes.
Lavinia And John Fishers Execution Day
On the fateful morning of February 18th, 1820, the couple were led on their final walk to the gallows behind the jail.
John carried his newly found peace and spirituality and asked the reverend to read a letter that he had penned to the crowd of 2000 waiting for his execution. In it, he persisted to say that he was completely innocent of any crime and claimed that he was a victim of the broken judicial system. Then, desperation set in and he emphatically begged the crowd for their forgiveness.
Lavinia, however, refused to go quietly to her death, desperate for a last-minute pardon. She made quite a show and had to be forcefully carried to the gallows. Insisting on wearing her wedding gown she caused a loud, profanity-filled, dramatic scene. Her stomping, screaming, and violent refusal was a stark contrast to the peaceful acceptance that her husband showed.
Instead of asking for forgiveness or pleading for her life, Lavinia blamed the local socialites among the group for their influence over her conviction. Her rambunctious behavior made it difficult for the executioners to properly tighten the noose around her neck.
In one final act of defiance, Lavinia leaped from the platform by her own will, hanging lifeless over the crowd of onlookers, but not before she shouted her last bold words.
“If you have a message you want to send to hell, give it to me. I’ll carry it.”
The stunned crowd was left with these last words. The wicked smile on Lavinia’s face as her soul left the gallows would be engraved in their minds. Witnesses would recount the tale ending with her empty, dead stare for years to come.
The couple’s bodies were likely laid to rest at the nearby Potter’s Field Cemetary. This was not unusual for convicted criminals with no family to lay claim to their remains. It is said that Lavinia’s ghost still haunts the Old Charleston jail today, her angry spirit restless by the wrong that was done to her by the people of the town.
The Infamy of Lavinia Fisher
Lavinia would live on in infamy as the first female serial killer in the United States. Like the oleander she used, her beauty was stunning yet deadly. It was a useful tool that gained her husband’s intimate access to their victims. John’s greed and ruthless violence would ensure that the men were robbed, killed, and never checked out of The Six Mile Inn. Together, their evil scheme would change the history of Charleston forever.
The mystery surrounding Lavinia’s early life and the dramatic way she ended it make her a compelling and interesting character. Her emphatic claim of innocence, up until the very end, can cause doubt and conspiracy theories. What remains true is that Lavinia hung angrily from the gallows of Charleston, leaving a troubled spirit that is reluctant to leave.
Other Theories On Lavina Fisher
In his book, Six Miles to Charleston: The True Story of John and Lavinia F, Detective Bruce Orr claims that the couple was nothing more than common thieves. His research has not revealed enough evidence that they were, in fact, serial killers. The number of bodies actually uncovered at The Six Mile Inn has been questioned.
His findings say that only two bodies were found in unmarked graves near the inn shortly after the arrest of the Fishers. One, a recently shot white man, was freshly dug at the time of discovery. The other, an African American woman, was from a couple of years earlier and remains unexplained.
Though even as a skeptic, Orr admits that he has felt and heard an eerie presence when at The Old City Jail. He also reveals that he has photographs with questionable images, eluding to their ghost-like features. Whether all of the facts of the legend are true, it’s likely that Lavinia still has a bone to pick with the town for her unjust hanging.
Other Charleston Female Ghost Sightings
In a city that dates back over three centuries, ghost sightings aren’t an uncommon occurrence. Charleston has its fair share of spiritual encounters and spooky happenings. The old streets have many a tale to tell and long-hidden secrets they yearn to reveal.
Nettie Dickerson is another famous female legend in the charming city of Charleston. She’s been sighted in her scarlet frock multiple times at the Dock Street Theater in the French Quarter. She enjoyed many romantic rendezvous at the former Planter’s Hotel that is now the theater building. Legend has it, one stormy night, she retreated to the balcony and was killed by an unfortunately timed bolt of lightning. Like Lavinia Fisher, she ended her life while casting snide remarks at the Charleston high social class that shunned her.
Head to Poogan’s Porch for a meal with a spooky twist. The spirit of Zoe, a schoolteacher that lived in the building, has become a regular at the eatery since her death in 1954. Her furry friend Poogan’s ghost joined her when he died almost two decades later.
Graveyards are infamous for ghost sightings and the one at The Unitarian Church is no different. The oldest church in the South, it has seen many lives come and go. Many believe that Annabel Lee, the subject of the infamous Edgar Allen Peo poem, haunts these very grounds.
Visiting the Ghost of Lavinia Fisher
A visit to Charleston gives you the unique opportunity to see the spiritual relics of one of crime’s biggest mysteries. An encounter with the ghost of Lavinia Fisher can give you a glimpse into the true story of her life. Was she just a petty thief skilled in highway robbery? Or was she truly barbaric and ruthless enough to be the first female serial killer our country has ever seen?