1. “The Legend of Lavinia Fisher,”, Oct. 1, 2010.

2. The Charleston Courier, Feb. 20, 1819.

3. Ibid.

4. The Charleston Courier, Feb. 22, 1819.

This essay is adapted from the book, Storied and Scandalous Charleston.

Few tourists leave Charleston without having heard of Lavinia Fisher, often reputed to be the first female serial killer executed in the United States. Much of what one hears about Livinia is merely the stuff of ghost stories and legends, salaciously embellished with each retelling.

Yet even when you strip away the myths, Livinia’s scandalous life has earned her a place among Charleston’s most infamous characters, for she was an unrepentant outlaw, remembered today because of the violent life she led in a place where women are better known for their gentility.

No documentation attests to Livinia’s early years, but most sources put her birth around 1793. She married John Fisher and the young couple owned two properties not far from Charleston (hence their names), the Five-Mile House and Six-Mile House, situated along the trading road that led to the Carolina “Backcountry” further inland. 

The Fishers operated Six Mile House as a tavern and inn, and perhaps Five-Mile House as a similar facility, though details are lacking in the historical record. Such establishments in the early 1800s were places where travelers could stop and water their horses, enjoy a meal and a drink themselves, and perhaps rent a room for the night before continuing on their way. The transitory nature of such places did sometimes lend themselves to other activities such as gambling and prostitution, yet no evidence supports the claim that such was the case at either of the Fishers’ properties.

Trading with Native Americans and early inland colonies was a profitable business in the early 19th century and an important part of Charleston’s economy. Thus it was with a good deal of local concern when, in 1819, this prosperous enterprise began being disrupted by a gang of highway robbers who would accost traders along this well-traveled route and rob them of their furs, deer skins, tobacco, money and other goods. Yet as the culprits were either well disguised or masked, no one had ever been able to identify the perpetrators. 

Law enforcement officials began receiving reports that a number of traders who were believed to have sought lodging at or near the Fishers’ taverns had never returned to Charleston with their pack trains and goods. An article in the Charleston Courier noted, “A gang of desperados have for some time past occupied certain houses in the vicinity of Ashley Ferry; practicing every deception upon the unwary and frequently committing robberies upon defenseless travelers.”2 

Some in Charleston suspected the Fishers were among those “in the vicinity.”

Here we’ll take a moment to put aside some of the popular, but undocumented, myths about Lavinia Fisher. There is no evidence that she was a beautiful seductress who would lure travelers into drinking her drugged tea (or ale, depending on the version of the story you're hearing), causing them to fall soundly asleep or pass out before either she or John stabbed them. She did not crush their skulls between her legs during torrid lovemaking, nor has there ever been any documentation that she lured them to bed, where, after they were asleep, John sprang a trap door that would tumble them down into a pit of murderously sharpened spikes. Hundreds of corpses were never found at Six Mile House, nor anywhere else on the Fishers’ property. An investigation of the area by local law officials failed to turn up any evidence that would substantiate charges against the couple. 

With the officials’ investigations failing to yield results, a vigilante group of Charlestonians took it upon themselves to ride out to the Fishers’ taverns on Feb. 16, 1819, to ascertain for themselves that the robbers were holed up at the Fishers’ taverns. According to the Charleston Courier, “As they could not be identified, and thereby brought to punishment, it was determined by a number of citizens to break them up, and they accordingly proceeded, in a cavalcade, on Thursday afternoon, … to proceed against the premises in such manner as circumstances might require.”3

Sure enough, the citizens’ cavalcade found a group they suspected of being involved in the robberies taking refuge at Five Mile House. They ordered the suspects out of the building before setting fire to it. As Five-Mile House burned to the ground, its smoke could be seen by those at Six Mile House, who likewise evacuated the inn and escaped into the woods before the cavalcade’s arrival. Again, the vigilantes’ search came up with no substantive evidence, but just to make sure things were on the level, one of their members, David Ross, stayed behind at the now-abandoned Six Mile House to keep an eye on things. This did not go well for Mr. Ross.

After the Charleston delegation had left, the robbers returned and Ross was brutally attacked by as many as eight or nine members of the gang. As the men beat Ross, according to his later testimony, he looked to Livinia, hoping that as a woman she might plead mercy on his behalf. Rather than help him, however, Lavinia joined in the fray, choking Ross nearly to death with her bare hands before smashing his head through a window. Despite sustaining serious injuries, Ross jumped from the inn’s piazza and escaped, returning to Charleston with his battered body as evidence for the officials. 

Just hours later, a traveler named John Peeples was robbed and beaten along the road by the same gang, but he too survived and returned to Charleston to share his story. Now, based on the statements and identifications provided by David Ross and John Peeples, officials again headed out to Six Mile House on Saturday, Feb. 20, arresting the Fishers and their business partner, William Hayward, along with several others. 

The Feb. 22 edition of the Charleston Courier related details about the arrests: “In Saturday’s Courier, we gave some particulars of the conduct of a set of outlaws, 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 outbuildings to the ground, without allowing the occupants to remove an article of its contents; brought the offenders to town, and committed them to jail. The posse found in an outhouse, 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 afterward 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 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 jail. 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.” 3

Though the Fishers were initially charged with “mayhem” (roughly equivlent to attempted murder) in the assault of David Ross, that charge was later changed to highway robbery in the case of John Peeples. Neither John nor Lavinia were ever charged with murder, as both David Ross and John Peeples survived their ordeals and no evidence was ever found at the taverns to substantiate a charge of murder. Still, bear in mind that at the time, horse thievery and highway robbery were considered by many to be a crime just as egregious as murder, and perhaps more egregeous than assault and battery. Highway robbery was a mandated capital offense, though murder was not.

At their arraignment, the Fishers pleaded not guilty, but were remanded to the District Jail until their trial in May of 1819, where they were found guilty of highway robbery and sentenced to death. Their appeal of the ruling provided the couple with a reprieve until the next court session began in January 1820 and they were returned to the District Jail.

On Sept. 131819, the Fishers nearly escaped from the Jail by creating a rope out of strips of cloth. John went down first and had almost reached the ground when the rope broke, leaving Lavinia trapped on the Jail’s upper floors. Rather than leave his wife, John remained below Lavinia’s window and was, of course, recaptured.

The Fishers’ appeal on Jan. 17, 1820, was unsuccessful and they were sentenced to be hanged Feb. 4. Some in the community pleaded for mercy so that the couple might have more time to reconcile themselves to God and their destiny. Thus the executions were postponed until Feb. 18, coincidentally the anniversary of their arrest. According to news accounts, John did use that time to seek solace from the local Baptist minister, The Rev. Dr. Richard Furman. Lavinia did not.

Here again, we take a moment to address some of the myths regarding Lavinia’s execution. It is highly unlikely that she wore her wedding dress to the scaffold to either garner public sympathy or to somehow, based on her purported great beauty, seduce a new man to marry her on the scaffold, thereby staying her execution as, the myth claims, married women could not be executed. In the first place, not only did brides not get married wearing wedding gowns as we define them today, but also prisoners of the District Jail wore, and if called for were executed in, standard prison attire, usually a simple shift resembling an unbleached sack. The execution was big news in the local paper, which did not mention anything unusual or dramatic about her attire. As to the illegality of executing a married woman, even if this were true, the technicality would easily be overcome by executing John first, thereby making Lavinia a widow for at least a few moments before her death. 

For a more accurate version of the story, we again turn to the Charleston Courier of Feb. 19, 1820:

“THE EXECUTION of John and Lavinia Fisher, for Highway Robbery, took place yesterday, in the suburbs of the city, agreeably to their sentences. They were taken from the jail about a quarter before 1 o’clock, in a carriage in which, besides the prisoners was the Rev. Dr. Furman, and an officer of the police. They were guarded by the Sheriff of the District, with his assistants, and a small detachment of cavalry. Arrived at the fatal spot, some time was spent in conversation and prayer. - Fisher protested his innocence of the crime for which he was to die to the last, but admitted that he has lived a wicked and abandoned life. He met his fate with great firmness: and expressed his obligations to the new Sheriff for his kindness and humanity. His wife did not display so much of fortitude or resignation - She appeared to be impressed with a belief, to the last moment, that she would be pardoned. A little past 2 o’clock the husband and wife embraced each other upon the platform, for the last time in this world, when the fatal signal was given - the drop fell - and they were launched into eternity. She died without a struggle or a groan; but it was some minutes before he expired and ceased to struggle. After hanging the usual time, their bodies were taken down and conveyed to Potter’s Field, where they were interred. The concourse that attended the execution was immense. May the awful example strike deep into their hearts; and may it have the effect intended, by deterring others from pursuing those vicious paths which ended in infamy and death.” 4

Though some tour guides claim that the Fishers were buried either in the churchyard of the Circular Congregational Church (which, because of its location, can coincidentally can be included on ghost tours after dark per city tourism ordinances) or in the Unitarian Church (which everyone agrees is easily the creepiest-looking graveyard in town), the Courier’s account makes it clear that the couple’s bodies were buried in “Potter’s Field.” Two potter fields were in use at the time, one at what is now St. Luke’s Chapel located on the campus of the Medical University of South Carolina, and the other behind the Old District Jail. Having died not only poor, but also a condemned criminal, it is likely that Lavinia’s corpse was returned for interment at the Jail.

Today, the Naval Hospital sits on the former site of Six Mile House. The Native American foot path and trading route by which it was located is now State Highway 52, better known locally as Rivers Avenue.

Details of the arrest, trial and execution of the Fishers can be found in contemporary local newspapers.
Six-Mile House was located about where the old Naval Hospital is today, off Rivers Avenue.