Lavinia Fisher

Lavinia did not go so quietly. She had requested to wear her wedding dress and refusing to walk to the gallows, had to be picked up and carried as she ranted and raved. Before the crowd, she continued to scream, pointedly at the Charleston socialites, who she blamed for encouraging a conviction. Before her executioners could tighten the noose around her neck, she yelled into the crowd, “If you have a message you want to send to hell, give it to me – I’ll carry it.” Then, before they could finish the job, she jumped off the scaffold herself. Not quite reaching the ground, she dangled down into the crowd. Later, onlookers would say they had never seen such a wicked stare or chilling sneer as that which was on 27 year-old Lavinia’s face.

Though many sources say that the Fishers were buried in the Unitarian Church Graveyard located between King and Archdale Streets in Charleston, this is highly unlikely. There was a Potter’s Field Cemetery next to the jail at the time, where most criminals were buried if their bodies weren’t claimed by family members. Additionally, church records have been searched, indicating no evidence that she was buried there. This tale has likely been perpetuated by tour guides.

Beyond the Legend

Historical records do not indicate that hundreds of remains were found in the Fisher’s basement. There were a couple of bodies dug up on the property, but nothing to tie them to the Fishers for sure, and, according to records, they were never charged with murder. So, while Fisher is claimed to be the first female serial killer in the United States, that distinction likely belongs to Jane Toppan, who confessed to 31 murders in 1901, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity. One thing the records do agree on is the fact they robbed many travelers, and highway robbery was still a hanging offense.  Also called into question is the fact Lavinia wore her wedding dress to her execution, or that she jumped from the scaffold herself.  Sometimes the legend is more fun to tell, and this one has lived on for a while in Charleston lore.

The Charleston Courier provided this article in the newspaper on February 22, 1819 about the Fisher’s arrest.

In Saturday’s Courier we gave some particulars of the conduct of a set of out laws, who have for a long time past infested the road in the vicinity of this city, and whose outrageous conduct had of late become insupportable. We then stated that the occupants of a small house five miles from town, had been driven out, and the building burnt to the ground, and that certain others, in possession of a house one mile above, had been compelled to leave it and another person put in possession of it by the owner. It now appears, that as soon as the citizens had returned to town, the persons who had been thus compelled to leave the last mentioned house, returned to it in the evening, and beat the person who had been put in possession in a most inhuman manner, when he escaped into the woods and made the best of his way to town. The next morning, the same gang stopped a traveler up the road, beat him cruelly, cut his head in several places, and then robbed him of about 30 or 40 in money. These circumstances being made known to the civil authority, the Sheriff of this District collected a posse of citizens, and proceeded on Saturday afternoon to the spot, surrounded the house, and seized upon its occupants, [three men and two women] after which they burnt the house and out buildings to the ground, without allowing the occupants to removed an article of its contents; brought the offenders to town, and committed them to gaol. The posse found in an out house, the hide of a cow, which had been recently killed, and which was identified to be the property of one of our citizens. She had been missing for several days. This accounts for the manner in which the cows are disposed of which are so frequently stolen and never afterwards heard of. The inmates of the house were armed with 10 or 12 muskets and a keg of powder, but the force which went against them was too imposing to admit went against them was too imposing to admit of any chance of success in a resort to arms. One of the leaders in these high handed depredations was arrested into town on Saturday afternoon and likewise committed to gaol. We trust that these decisive steps will restore quiet to the neighborhood, and enable our country brethren to enter and leave the city without the fear of insult or robbery.

The following is a correct list of the members of the gang who were apprehended and committed to prison on Saturday night. John Fisher, Lavina Fisher, his wife, Wm. Heyward, James M’Elway, Jane Howard and Seth Young. It is supposed there are more of them lurking about and is hoped the vigilance of the police and citizens will ferret them out and bring them to justice.

We are informed and requested to state that Mr. John People, who was robbed and unmercifully beaten by the villains mentioned above, is an honest, industrious young man from the country, and had a sum of money entrusted to his care, which the robbers took from him.

The Ghost of Lavinia Fisher

It should come as no surprise with a terrible story such as this, that the ghost of Lavinia is said to still roam in Charleston. Almost immediately following her death, locals began to report seeing her face floating behind the bars of the window where she was held. Then, after the Great Earthquake of 1886, people began to report her wandering around in other parts of the neighborhood, as well as the Unitarian Cemetery just a few blocks away.

The Old Jail building served as the Charleston County Jail from its construction in 1802 until 1939. Way back in 1680, when the city of Charleston was being laid out, a four-acre square of land was set aside at this location for public use. In time, a hospital, poor house, workhouse for runaway slaves, and the jail were built on the square.

The first structures were erected on the site in 1738 when the property was used as a workhouse for runaway slaves and makeshift hospital for “paupers, vagrants, and beggars.” Criminals were also housed here before the Old Jail building was erected, though they were kept separate from non-offenders. Punishments and executions also took place at this location. Criminals faced whippings, brandings, torture, and deprivation of food and water. For horse thieves, their ears were sometimes nailed to a post before finally sliced off altogether. For the worst offenders, they might be burned at the stake, hanged, or drawn and quartered. Over the years, numerous structures were built, demolished, and rebuilt.

When the Jail was constructed in 1802 it consisted of four stories, topped with a two-story octagonal tower. Later changes were made to the building including a rear octagonal wing, expansions to the main building and the Romanesque Revival details. Unfortunately, the 1886 earthquake badly damaged the tower and top story of the main building, and these were removed.

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