It’s the middle of October, and we all know what that means: it’s Halloween. We’ve now reached the time of year where it is once more socially acceptable to spend the night in with friends and get scared out of your minds telling ghost stories while eating regrettable amounts of candy. The classics get told every year: the man with the hook hand, the evil clown, and so on and so forth. However, the best stories are often those that have grains of truth in them. Even better are the ones that have local lore embedded in them. One such story that is sure to elicit nightmares this spooky season is the legend of Lavinia Fisher, America’s first female serial killer and a Charleston local.
Lavinia Fisher was born in 1793, but not much is known about her childhood. Historians even debate if much of the legend surrounding her life is true, but for the sake of our story, we will choose to believe for the time being. In the early 1800s, Lavinia married a man named John Fisher and opened up the Six Mile Wayfarer Hotel, where they housed many visitors to Charleston. As time passed, the Fishers became staples in the Charleston community. They were beloved and respected individuals, especially Lavinia. She could often be spotted walking around her hotel and was easily recognizable due to her dark, raven-colored hair and delicate features. In short, she was beautiful. She was also said to have had a way with people. Lavinia would walk into a room and be able to make conversation with anyone. So, when men around Charleston began going missing after visiting her hotel, local authorities quickly dropped their investigation into her. After all, how could such a lovely woman and her husband have anything to do with these disappearances?
However, eventually, the disappearances grew to be too many, and suspicion arose. Locals started a vigilante group to catch the people stealing their husbands and brothers from them and confronted the Fishers. Once they had done so, they left behind a man named David Ross to keep a watch on the Fishers. Unfortunately for Ross, this turned out to be a terrible idea. The next morning he and Lavinia were attacked and dragged in front of a group of men. Fearing this day might be his last, he looked to Lavinia for help with pleading eyes but found none. Instead, she surprised him by standing and choking him, then proceeding to smash his head through a windowpane. At this point, the story gets a little foggy, but we do know that a fight took place, and somehow Ross managed to escape and make it the six miles back into Charleston to alert the proper authorities.
However, the story doesn’t end there. At the same time, a man named George Peeples had finally completed the long and draining trek to Charleston. Exhausted, he stopped six miles outside of the city to find a hot meal and a bed, discovering the small Six Mile Wayfarer Hotel. Inside the door, he found the beautiful Lavinia waiting to check him in, newly made up after her fight with Ross. She warmly led him inside and offered him tea and a meal in place of a bed, as she claimed the hotel had no available rooms. Entranced, he accepted.
Lavinia and Peeples conversed for a long time, with her making most of the conversation. He felt honored that she wanted to know so much about him but was slightly uncomfortable with the glances her husband was shooting him. Soon, she told him there was availability for him and went to the kitchen to make him a cup of tea. However, Peeples was not a fan of tea in general, so, in lieu of drinking it, he poured it out when she wasn’t looking. Later that night, he began to grow anxious. Why had she been so interested in him? The most logical conclusion he could draw was that he was a target for robbery. So, he decided to sleep in the chair next to the door. Much later in the night, when everyone was asleep, he awoke to see the bed he was meant to be sleeping in dropping into a deep hole in the floor. Startled, he jumped out of the window, got on his horse, and rode until he found the authorities in Charleston.
The police came back to the Six Mile Wayfarer House and began their investigation anew. They searched the whole house and found a slew of incriminating objects and evidence that pointed to how the Fishers had been able to kill so many people so easily. First, Lavinia would drug the target’s tea with an herb to make them fall asleep heavily. Then, she or her husband would use mechanics installed into some of the rooms to drop the target into the many secret tunnels under the house, thus creating the perfect murder machine. But possibly the most damning piece of evidence? It is rumored that the police found up to a hundred sets of remains in the basement of the house.
With all of the above as proof, it is no surprise the Fishers were arrested and found guilty of their crimes (they were charged with highway robbery). However, they were given the time to appeal this judgment in the Old Charleston County Jail, which they did together from their cells where they were housed. They quickly formulated an escape plan: they would take the sheets from the beds, sew them together, and escape. Unfortunately for the couple, this plan ultimately failed. John made it out of the cell and onto the ground, onto freedom! But on his way down, the rope broke, leaving his wife stranded in the cell above him. He had the chance to run, to be a free man once again. But, he found he couldn’t leave his wife, so he returned to the prison so that they could face the consequences of their actions together.
In the end, the pair’s appeal was not granted, and they were sentenced to death. However, beforehand, they were each offered counseling from a priest in their last moments. It is said that John begged for his life and his soul, while Lavinia, ever cold and heartless, refused to even see the priest. Despite John’s pleas, the couple was sentenced to hang on February 18th, 1820. John prayed the entire time. Onlookers said he also pleaded his innocence fervently to the viewers, asking for mercy and forgiveness until the end.
Lavinia, on the other hand, went out completely differently. She wore her wedding dress and flat-out refused to walk to the gallows, resulting in her having to be carried to her death. She also ranted and raved the whole time, screaming at Charleston socialites and blaming them for her death. Finally, when she got to the gallows, she screamed her infamous last words: “If you have a message you want to send to hell, give it to me – I’ll carry it.” Then, before her noose had been tightened, she jumped off the gallows, killing herself before anyone else could kill her. Onlookers claimed her stare was so wicked that day that it would live on in their nightmares forever.
Funnily enough, according to local lore, Lavinia has lasted a lifetime. Her ghost is said to float behind the bars of her old cell in the Old Charleston County Jail and the surrounding neighborhood, occasionally even frequenting the Unitarian Cemetery in her wedding dress stained with blood. However, she is not alone in the jail. Many other ghosts are said to contact the living there. They have been known to turn on alarms, choke visitors, change the temperature, push and scratch the living, and do much more.
Whether this is all merely speculation or not is completely unknown. The story of Lavinia Fisher has been told for centuries, but the actual truth has been distorted along the way. We do know, however, that she was a real person who was hanged with her husband in 1820. It is up to the reader to decide whether she truly was America’s first female serial killer and now one of Charleston’s most terrifying ghosts or not. Regardless, her story is an amazing one, especially when one is looking for a good scare!