Too good to be true, mayhem on the highway turns into a ghost story from Old Charleston and the legend of Lavina Fisher

Charleston City Jail, Charleston, South Carolina c. 1790-1802

Charleston’s Old Jail, where Lavina Fisher and her husband John were held and executed.

Though she’s been dead for almost 200 years, Charleston is in love Lavina Fisher. Or rather the legend of Lavina Fisher.

According to legend, Lavinia had a way with men, particularly her husband John. John and Lavinia ran the Six Mile House, located as stated, six miles north of Charleston. Travelers heading in and out of Charleston would stop over for refreshments or a room for the evening. Lavinia loved to bring the men into her parlor for tea and conversation. The particularly tasty ones – as Lavinia had a taste for gold – were the rich ones, who got an extra dose for their tea. A lethal one.

As the poison would take hold, Lavinia and John would help the suddenly weary traveler to a bed in the back. Once he was out, John would spring a lever, a trapdoor was sprung and the bed, occupant and all would fall into a pit below the house. If the poison and the fall didn’t kill him, John would finish him off, relieve the corpse of all valuables, put the bed back and dispose of the body.

One evening a fellow by the name of John Peoples stopped over. Lavinia took him to her parlor and offered him tea. Peoples didn’t particularly care for tea, but was a kind soul, so when Lavinia had her back turned, he poured the contents of the cup into a nearby plant. Over the course of the conversation, Lavinia started giving Peoples the willies. The presence and quirky behavior of John didn’t particularly help. Wanting to get away from the couple, John Peoples feigned tiredness, made his excuses and found his way to his bedroom.

Glad to be out of the company of the Fishers, John found he wasn’t tired enough for bed, so set himself up in a chair by the door. As he sat there, the bed collapsed, falling into the pit. Startled, he leapt from the chair and threw open the door of his bedroom to summon help. Standing there was a very confused looking John Fisher, with Lavinia behind him, startled to see Peoples so active. Freaked, John Peoples slammed the door closed and bolted out the window, where he ran all the way to Charleston and reported what had happened to the police. Who of course investigated, noticed several reports of missing travelers along that stretch of road, and located the bodies of numerous victims.

And I might add, making Lavinia Fisher the first female serial killer in United States history.

See? A great story – one that gentile Charleston can trot out to tourists, particularly when escorting them around the gloomy and fascinating Unitarian Cemetery, where her ghost has been reported.

But too good to be true. What really happened is this …

Charleston police had a number of reports about robberies out along the highway by Six Mile House. Charleston lived and breathed commerce, and the highways were of vital importance. So they took highway robbery seriously. The noose.

First the police went to Five Mile House, obviously located one mile from John and Lavinia’s inn. They burned that, then came to Six Mile House and evicted the Fishers. In their place, they left a fellow by the name of Dave Ross. The next day a gang shows up at the inn, who drag Ross outside where he sees Lavina. Oh how sweet she must have looked, and Ross looked to her for help. Lavinia instead choked Ross, then rammed his face through a window.

A couple hours later, the gang accosted the aforementioned John Peoples on the road and relieved him of about $40. Peoples went to the police and reported the crime, which along with the testimony of Ross was enough to get Lavinia and John Fisher hauled before the authorities. Charged with highway robbery, they were sentenced to be hung and sent to Charleston’s Old Jail.

Since they were married, they were kept in the upper floors in a room together, from which they nearly escaped. John in fact, made it outside of the jail, but Lavinia couldn’t get out, so the loyal John allowed himself to be recaptured.

In South Carolina at the time, married women automatically escaped the death penalty, and Lavinia had hoped to escape the gallows by that. The judge squashed that plan however, telling her that they’d hang her husband first, which would make her a widow and eligible to hang.

John mounted the gallows peacefully enough, but his loyalty to Lavinia broke when he suddenly proclaimed his innocence, then just as suddenly asked for forgiveness for his crimes and that was it for John.

It’s said that Lavinia wore a wedding dress to her hanging, hoping her beauty and the pitifulness of her state would cause some man in the crowd to swoon, and marry her at the last moment. Evidently, when she realized that wasn’t going to happen, her mood soured. They had to drag her up on the gallows, kicking and screaming. According on one historian at the time:

“She stamped in rage and swore with all the vehemence of her amazing vocabulary, calling down damnation … The crowd stood shocked into silence, while she cut short one curse with another and ended with a volley of shrieks.”

“If you have a message you want to send to hell, give it to me I’ll carry it, Lavinia said,” and a legend was born.

And no, it’s not Lavinia Fisher who is seen roaming the tombstones at Charleston’s Unitarian Church. Her and her husband were buried in potter’s field near the Old Jail. Which by the way, is another place where Lavinia’s spirit is thought to haunt. Lavinia’s ghost, and several other odd experiences have been reported in her cell at the Old Jail, including sightings of her apparition from outside, through the window.

A lot of strange things are seen on the streets of Charleston. With the Spanish moss hanging from the oaks, and the humidity of the summer thickening the air, it’s the story that counts most, to while away the praline sweet minutes.

Unitarian Churchyard and the Unitarian Church of Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston’s Unitarian Church Cemetery, where Lavina’s ghost is said to walk.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Breanna Jones April 8, 2012 at 4:34 am

I went to Charleston when I was in eighth grade and we went on one of the ghost tours and I loved it. I saw Lavina at the courthouse. My friend Amy also saw her. We walked past and my and her looked up and she was staring at us. She looked very angry. I wish I could go back.

Reply

Breanna Jones April 8, 2012 at 4:37 am

We also heard about the harbor ghost, the jail ghost, the cemetary ghost, and much more.

Reply

Christiane Silvas April 28, 2012 at 6:16 am

I just got home from my first ghost tour. My husband and I went to the 10pm Charleton Jail tour. The gentleman who was giving us the tour stated for us to take lots of pictures.. Well I took many witht he flash and I didn’t find anything interesting.. Then when we were in the room on the 2nd floor where John and Lavina were held captive for a year before their execution.. Well I took two pictures without the flash and I didn’t see anything but a black screen… Well when I got home I was looking at pictures and uploaded them to my FB… I saw the black picture and noticed two VERY CLEAR faces.. One seemed to be standing in front of the other… Both have different faces!! Its such a good picture its almost to good to be true!! Feel free to go onto my page and see it.. I have the original picture on the memory card.. This is not photo shopped.. Could this be John and Lavina Fisher???

Facebook.com/christiane.deleon The picture is on my (Daily life of the silvas family) you can’t miss it

Reply

Amy Lloyd- Locklear September 6, 2012 at 1:47 am

My family has lived in Charleston for over 70 years. While nothing paranormal has happened to myself we have been taught that we always state we are to be left alone and I hope anyone who has walked on hollowed grounds or haunted places that you shake your hands and release any spirits that may attach to you.

Reply

abby December 9, 2012 at 2:49 am

hanged, not hung

Reply

Gloria Brooks February 13, 2013 at 1:15 am

Just read this a amzing story can’t wait to come to charlerston to see if the legend is true I hope so I really want to see lavinia and her husband I plan to video everything to see if I can capture their images.

Reply

John Adams August 1, 2013 at 1:27 pm

I live in Charleston and have seen the Ghost Bride. Not Lavinia but a bride with long dark hair that disappeared in front of me and my friend. On South Market near the Customs House.

Reply

neida April 9, 2013 at 3:20 pm

There was an episode on “Ghost Hunters” about Lavina Fisher but its said thAt when tours are held at the Jail on the floor Lavina was in women happen to be scratched and sometimes have the feeling they are being chocked. in fact one of the girls in the crew of the “ghost hunters” was being scratched several times.

Reply

Hannah November 13, 2013 at 6:18 pm

This story could hold a lot more credibility if the author knew how to spell Lavinia correctly…

Reply

gothiccurios November 13, 2013 at 6:46 pm

Thanks for the heads up. Am I looking all credible now?

Reply

Josh April 23, 2014 at 2:44 pm

Unfortunately, there was no scaffold in Charleston where Lavinia was hung, so there was nothing for her to jump off of during her execution. The old city jail used an upright jerker during that period, which used a counterweight to “jerk” the body upwards into the air to a standard hanging position. The counter weight is still believed to be buried below the parking lot but funds have not been raised to look for it in the vicinity of the old gallows. She also did not walk to the gallows in her wedding dress. Criminals were sent to the gallows in white prison gowns, which may have resembled a white dress. She would never have been afforded the wedding dress option by the jailers.

Additionally, Lavinia and John were buried at a potter’s field for criminals near the city jail, not at the Unitarian church as has previously been promoted by tour guides. Church records have been searched and researched to verify this. (I’ve personally seen a Fisher plot at the Unitarian Church, but this is not where John and Lavinia Fisher are buried.)

I invite you to check out the book 6 Miles To Charleston, a book written by Bruce Orr that digs into the true documented (and less sensationalized) history of John and Lavinia Fisher:
http://www.amazon.com/Six-Miles-Charleston-SC-Lavinia/dp/1609491173

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 2 trackbacks }