Lavinia Fisher

Legend has held that the first widely recognized first female serial killer in the United States is Lavinia Fisher, born in 1793, but, the location of her birth, her maiden name, or any information about her childhood, is unknown. Historical records do not agree with all of the legend [see Beyond the Legend], but in the end,  Fisher was hanged for her crimes.

The Legend:

Charleston, South Carolina,1902

Charleston, South Carolina,1902

Lavinia grew up to marry a man named John Fisher and the couple lived near CharlestonSouth Carolina. The pair made their living operating a hotel called the Six Mile Wayfarer House, which they managed in the early 1800’s. Mysteriously, men who were visiting Charleston began to disappear. As more and more reports were filed with the authorities regarding these missing men, it was determined that they were last seen at the Six Mile Wayfarer House, which was called such because it was six miles outside of Charleston.

Though the local authorities began an investigation, there was no evidence that the Fishers were involved. This, coupled with their popularity in the town, led to the investigation being dropped.

Lavinia was a very beautiful and charming woman, adding to her popularity in the community and to the business of the hotel. However, it would later be learned that she utilized those characteristics to help her husband rob and kill many male travelers. And, as more and more men went missing, the rumor mill began to do its work.

The locals soon gathered up a group of vigilantes who went to the Fishers in February, 1819 to stop the activities that were occurring there. Though it is unknown what they may have said or done, they were obviously satisfied with their task and returned to Charleston, leaving one man by the name of David Ross to stand watch in the area.

Early the next morning, David Ross was attacked by two men and dragged before a group of men along with Lavinia Fisher. He looked to her for help, but instead, she choked him and smashed his head through a window.  Somehow, Ross was able to escape and alerted authorities.

At nearly the same time, a man named John Peeples was traveling from Georgia to Charleston and tired from his long trip, stopped at The Six Mile House to see if they had a room. He was warmly greeted by the beautiful Lavinia who informed him they didn’t have a room available but invited him in for tea and a meal.

Her company was so pleasant that he ignored Lavinia’s husband’s odd glances at him and chatted with her, answering her every question. When she excused herself from the table for a moment, she returned with tea and good news. A room had suddenly become available if John still wanted it. He accepted and Lavinia poured him a cup of tea.

But, John didn’t like tea, but didn’t want to seem impolite. So, instead of refusing it or leaving it untouched, he poured it out when she wasn’t looking. Afterwards, she showed him to his room. He then began to wonder why she had asked him so many questions. Why was her husband staring at him all evening?

Suddenly, he felt uncomfortable with all the information that he had provided and worried if he might become a target for robbery. Feeling safer in the chair by the door than in the bed, he dozed until he was awakened by a loud noise. Looking around, he realized that the bed he should have been sleeping in had disappeared into a deep hole beneath the floor. John quickly jumped out the window, got on his horse and fled to authorities in Charleston.

Police then arrested John and Lavinia Fisher, as well as two men they had been operating with.

The Six Mile Wayfarer House was thoroughly searched and the grounds dug up. Filled with hidden passages, the Sheriff reportedly found items that could be traced to dozens of travelers, a tea laced with an herb that could put someone to sleep for hours, a mechanism that could be triggered to open the floorboards beneath the bed, and in the basement, as many as a hundred sets of remains.

Old Charleston Jail in 1937, Frances B. Johnston

Old Charleston Jail in 1937, Frances B. Johnston

The Fishers plead not guilty, but were ordered to stay in jail until their trial. In the meantime, their co-conspirators were released on bail. At their trial in May, the jury didn’t agree with their innocent plea, found them guilty of multiple robberies and murders, and they were sentenced to hang. However, they were given time to appeal the conviction.

During the wait, they occupied themselves making a plan to escape. Housed together in a jail that was not heavily guarded, they began making a rope from jail linens. On September 13, they put their plan in place and used the rope to drop down to the ground. John made it out but the rope broke, leaving Lavinia trapped in the cell. Not willing to go without his wife, he returned to the jail and the two were afterwards, kept under much tighter security.

In February, 1820, the Constitutional Court rejected their appeal and their execution was scheduled for later that month.

A local minister named Reverend Richard Furman was sent in to counsel the pair if they so wished. John freely talked to Furman and is said to have begged the priest to save his soul if not his life. However, the cruel Lavinia would have nothing to do with him.

On the morning of February 18, 1820 the Fishers were taken from the Charleston Jail to be hanged on the gallows behind the building. John Fisher went quietly praying with the minister, whom he had asked to read a letter. Before a crowd of some 2,000 people, the letter insisted on his innocence and asked for mercy for those who had done him wrong in the judicial process. He then began to verbally plead his case before the gathered crowd, but before he was hanged, asked for their forgiveness.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *