The story that I tell today is one of Charleston’s oldest and most colorful legends, a story I heard at age 6 when my father told me the story of Charleston’s favorite serial killers, John and Lavinia Fisher. But to properly tell the tale, I need to reference Charleston’s most haunted structure. It sits on a notorious site. First, it was the site a paupers graveyard, but in 1772 they built a gunpowder storage facility, a powder magazine, on the site . Eight years later, in May of 1780, when the Patriots surrendered to the British, terms of parole demanded that they surrender their firearms and gunpowder at the Magazine, and someone dropped their pipe! The magazine went up with a huge explosion that liquidated 29 men and sent body parts flying across town. They claimed that the imprint of a body was left in the steeple at the Unitarian church! The building I speak of was built in 1803 on that very site. It stands today as a tall, gaunt, crumbling Gothic castle. We know it as the old County Jail on Magazine St.
Without a doubt it is Charleston’s most haunted structure. Through its years of service from 1803 to 1937 there were 35,000 registered deaths in that building. No small wonder then that it is claimed as Charleston’s most haunted structure. Fittingly, it also holds Charleston’s most terrifying specter; a floating ghost in white that haunts the long vaulted hallways… But I digress, back to John and Lavinia Fisher.
The Fishers were innkeepers, the name of their inn was the Six Mile House, located some 6 miles up Meeting Street Road. The year was 1819, and 6 miles up Meeting Street was pretty far out of town. I guess you might say that the Fishers were running a country Inn. Today, when we think of a country inn we think of fresh flowers and mints on the pillows. But in the old days a country inn was called a roadhouse, and a roadhouse typically had 2 rooms. The ladies slept in one room, the gentleman in the other, and the beds—the beds slept 3 each! I guess they had different expectations of privacy back in 181
But John and Lavinia Fisher were ahead of their time. You see, the Fishers had a private room with a single bed reserved for wealthy guests traveling alone, and traveling alone was the operative term. Those wealthy guests got the very best the Fishers had to offer… the best food, the best drink. And at bedtime they got a very special nightcap which put them to sleep…a sleep from which they never awoke! A poison draft so to speak. And the bed, they claim that even the bed was special, that is, if you can believe the old tales, they claim that the bed was really a platform, and the platform had a latch. They would lift the latch and spin it. The bodies would drop to a lime pit beneath the house! No muss, no fuss, no evidence!
Over a period of 14 months, a dozen wealthy lonely travelers disappeared from the neighborhood of the Six Mile House and, finally, stolen goods belonging to two of those gentlemen were traced directly back to John and Lavinia Fisher, who, at that point, found themselves with a new address, and that address was the old County jail on Magazine St
The people of Charleston did not want to convict Lavinia Fisher of murder. She was, after all, a married woman. In the social expectations of the time it was assumed that a good wife would never commit murder unless coerced by her husband. But Lavinia Fisher gave them no choice; she showed no sorrow, she showed no remorse for her actions. Lavinia Fisher boasted of her exploits from the witness stand! Indeed, Lavinia Fisher was convicted of murder. Her sentence was to hang by the neck until dead.
To give you an idea just how difficult she made it on the community, one of her requests for her execution date was the she be allowed to wear her wedding dress. Because, to quote Lavinia Fisher,
“I shall be Satan’s favorite new bride in Hell!”
And so, Lavinia Fisher’s execution date arrives. The community has an answer to the scandal of executing a married woman. You see, they hang husband John first. That made Lavinia Fisher a widow! So now they can proceed with Lavinia Fisher’s execution, without stain of scandal. The minister leads her to the gallows, he leads her with prayer. As she mounts the platform the minister turns to Lavinia, he pleads,
“Sister Lavinia, wilt thou repent!?!”
Her answer to the minister, and to the silenced witnesses?
“If you’ve got a message for the devil, give it to me now, I’ll carry it.”
At that, witnessed by the horrified crowd, Lavinia Fisher , with the rope around her neck, pulls the lever, the trap drops and Lavinia Fisher hangs herself. ..
But here in Charleston, we don’t believe that Lavinia Fisher ever met the devil. You see Lavinia Fisher is Charleston’s most terrifying specter. It is she who haunts the long vaulted hallways of the old County Jail where she appears as a floating specter in a white dress. And for those unfortunates who meet Lavinia , she rushes forward at them down the hallways, screeching and pulling her hair. Why, Lavinia Fisher turns her neck sideways, to show the rope burns.