Is the legend of Lavinia Fisher nothing more than a tall tale?
Lavinia Fisher— if you’re a fan of serial killer documentaries or are a Charleston local, you’ve probably heard of her. She’s credited with being America’s first female serial killer and as the story goes, Lavinia + her husband John Fisher were a sadistic murdering duo.
Using her beauty + charm, Lavinia would lure men to their inn– the Six Mile House. She would then serve them tea poisoned with oleander (a deadly plant that would make the guests feel ill and force them to retire to bed early). And once the doomed guests were ‘asleep,’ John would murder them. Assuming you’re reading this at 6 a.m., we’ll spare you some of the more gruesome details.
The pair were arrested, tried, and sentenced to hang at the Old City Jail here in Charleston. At the public execution, Lavinia 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 the executioner could hang her, she jumped– taking her final moments into her own hands.
And that is the tale of America’s first murderess. Or is it? Is this really what happened? What if we told you everything you think you know about John + Lavinia Fisher is wrong, and the pair never actually killed anyone? If this is just the legend, then what is the truth?
The true tale of John + Lavinia Fisher takes place in Charleston in 1819. The couple’s inn (located six miles outside of Charleston, hence the name) was attacked by a mob, and they, along with several others, were forced to flee. The mob left behind a man to watch the inn, but later the Six Mile House gang returned to take back their property. A brawl ensued, but no one was killed. Later the Fishers, plus ten other members of the group, were arrested + taken to the Old City Jail to await trial.
This is where things get fishy: Out of the twelve arrested, only the Fishers, along with a man named William Heyward (co-owner of the Six Mile House), were sentenced to hang. Why is this? Even fishier, they were arrested + tried for assault with intent to murder, but then are sentenced to hang for highway robbery— a completely different crime for which they were never tried for or convicted of.
An alternate perspective
In the book Six Miles to Charleston: the True Story of John and Lavinia Fisher, former homicide investigator Bruce Orr contends that not only were the Fishers innocent, they were actually victims of political corruption.
Since only the owners of the Six Mile House were executed, Orr presents an entirely new theory: that maybe they were “taken care of” so the government could take the Fisher’s property and use it as a new naval base. Indeed, the Charleston Naval Hospital in North Charleston sits on the land once occupied by the Six Mile House.
A haunted legacy
Many ghost tours claim Lavinia haunts the Old City Jail since that’s where she + John were executed and spent the last year of their lives. People also tell of ghost sightings in the Unitarian Church Cemetery, with some claiming she was buried there.
However, Lavinia Fisher was not buried in the Unitarian Church cemetery. She was actually buried in a potter’s field after her execution. The potter’s field was eventually built over to make room for the Porter Military School, and in 1964 the military school was replaced by the Medical University of South Carolina.
So, as her body rests somewhere beneath MUSC, she truly has no business haunting the Old City Jail or the church cemetary– contrary to what most tour guides will tell you.
Of all the falsehoods surrounding the Fishers, the one detail confirmed to be true is that Lavinia did indeed yell the famous line about delivering messages to Hell during her execution. (John, on the other hand– used his last words to apologize to anyone he’d hurt.)
Perhaps, then, it was nothing more than a 200-year-long game of telephone that led to a woman who merely possessed a rebellious attitude to be depicted as a torturous murderer. There are certainly two sides to every story.
What do you think? Do you believe the legends, or do you think the Fishers suffered a huge injustice? Let us know in the comments below.
– Grace, Digital Media Intern