The first instance of the death penalty in America took place in Jamestown, Virginia in 1608, when Captain George Kendall was executed by firing squad for treason after being discovered as a spy for Spain. Laws varied from colony to colony, but overall America’s use of capital punishment was greatly influenced by the British, who in the 16th century, under the reign of Henry VIII, executed an estimated 72,000 people for crimes as heinous as murder to those as trivial as simple perjury or theft.
American adoption of the Bill of Rights in 1789 included the 8th Amendment, which prohibited cruel and unusual punishment; however, states were free to create their own laws concerning capital crimes, and by today’s standards, some were gruesome. By the mid-Nineteentch century, the abolitionist movement gained momentum, pressing states to reduce their us of capital punishment, but for one of America’s most notorious women, these changes in the legal system came far too late; when after being put to death for the crime of highway robbery, the reality of her crimes became infused with fiction, fueling the legend that the violent and unrepentant outlaw named Lavinia Fisher was the first female serial killer in the United States. A grim designation that now two centuries later, many believe could be entirely false.
My name is Brandon Schexnayder and you are listening to Southern Gothic.
Lavinia Fisher was born between 1792 and 1793, but much of her origin and early life remain a mystery to this day. Most claim she spent much of her life in the United States, possibly near Charleston, South Carolina, but no known documentation identifying anything about her, or even her parents or place of birth have been found; resulting in Lavinia Fisher, as a historical figure, to seemingly appear from nowhere, fully formed, with her marriage to John Fisher.
In the early 19th century the pair made a living operating an inn, catering to the abundant travelers making their way to South Carolina. It was located approximately six miles outside the city of Charleston, and aptly named the Six-Mile Wayfarer House, or simply, the Six-Mile House.
Lavinia was said to be a very beautiful and extremely charming, characteristics she successfully used in garnering attention and popularity in both the Fisher’s business pursuits as well as the local community. With such a personable demeanor, it was unsurprising that Lavinia would often spend significant amounts of time speaking with the myriad of travelers who came through the doors of the Six-Mile House in search of food and a bed for the night. Yet there was an ulterior motive behind the conversations and the numerous questions asked; to Lavinia, each conversation and interaction with a customer was a way to determine the value of a potential target.
John and Lavinia Fisher were more than just innkeepers, they were members of a large gang of highwaymen who sought to rob vulnerable travelers to and from nearby Charleston. Their ideal marks were wealthy men travelling alone. So Lavinia would use her charm to welcome these guests into the Six-Mile House, entertaining them with dinner and conversation, and if they were determined to be alone and carrying enough money or valuables with them, she would offer her guest a cup of tea before bed. But unknown to the traveler, the tea was poisoned.
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It is this moment where the legend diverges into two differing, but still deadly, versions of the story.
According to some, Lavinia and John Fisher waited several hours until the toxic tea had taken effect, then crept into the room of their mark Not taking a chance that the man in the bed would wake, the Fishers would stab him to death before going to work locating any and all valuables.
Yet the other versions of the story take a decidedly more grisly and evil turn. As before, Lavinia would poison her victim before sending him to bed; yet this tea was not a lethal dose and would only cause drowsiness, putting a man to sleep for several hours at most. The Fishers then waited until their victim was just on the cusp of sleep before taking action; utilizing a hidden lever that when pulled would cause the bed to collapse, dropping out the floor beneath it, throwing the victim into a pit below where he was killed. Some have even claimed that this pit was filled with sharpened spikes, pointing upward to impale their victim.
Although the Fishers specifically targeted lone travelers to avoid any unwanted outside attention, people in the community still talked. Frequent reports were made to the local sheriff’s office about missing persons who failed to arrive at a planned destination. So an investigation was conducted, and although it had been determined that in several instances the missing individuals had been last seen at the Six-Mile Wayfarer House, the authorities were unable to find sufficient evidence to suggest that the Fishers were behind the disappearances. Of course the charming outward appearance of the couple and their popularity in town also likely contributed to the fact that any reports and complaints linking back to the Six-Mile House never amounted to anything concrete.
Yet in spite of this, the violent couple were still highwaymen, and unknown to law enforcement, their inn, which was located in an area known for quote, ‘gang activities’ was being used as a hideout for members of their crew.
In February 1819, it was reported in the Charleston Post and Courier newspaper that locals had gathered a group of men to travel to the Fisher’s neighborhood and put an end to the criminal activities occurring there. Reports do not indicate the size of this group of vigilantes, but it is said they approached several houses believed to be housing a gang of, quote ‘desperados,’ forcing them out of town. And one of these homes was in fact the Fishers’ inn, whose inhabitants were evicted as well. Believing they had accomplished what they had set out to do, the vigilantes quickly returned to their homes in Charleston, leaving a single man, named David Ross, to stand watch for any further criminal activity. But the following day he was attacked.
Ross noted that among the gang of criminals involved, was a woman he recognized, Lavinia Fisher. It is said that he appealed to her for help, hoping the affable pillar of the community would save him; but she did not. Instead he claimed she choked him before slamming his head through a window. Somehow, David Ross managed to escape his captors and flee to the authorities for help.
Almost immediately following the incident involving David Ross, a traveler named John Peeples arrived at the Six-Mile Wayfarer House inquiring about an available room for the night. At first, he is told no rooms were free, but Lavinia still invited for him to sit down and stay for dinner. Accepting the offer, Peeples ate his meal and spent several hours in conversation with Mrs.Fisher; however, he couldn’t help but notice that during all this conversation, John Fisher sat across the room, staring at him with an unpleasant expression the entire time. Eventually Lavinia left for a moment, she returned to inform him that a room was available after all, offering him a cup of tea before he takes it. But John Peeples didn’t like tea, and in an attempt to not appear ungrateful he accepted the cup, only to dump out the liquid when his host was unaware.
Peeples had started to become suspicious, concerned that the odd behaviour of the evenings were signs that he may be robbed in the night. So as not to prove an easy target if his suspicions were to be confirmed, Peeples spent the night in a chair rather than his bed. Several hours later he was abruptly awoken by the loud sound of the bed collapsing through a hole in the floor. His intuition had been correct. Quickly, he escaped out of the bedroom window and rode on to Charleston to alert the authorities.
Between David Ross and John Peeples, law enforcement finally had enough evidence to act. Immediately police were dispatched to the Six-Mile House, where they discovered John and Lavinia Fisher, along with several other gang members. The group had barricaded themselves inside the residence with muskets and gunpowder; yet outside, the law and accompanying citizenry had both greater numbers and significantly more weapons.
On February 20, 1819 The Charleston Courier reported on the events of the standoff and then arrest at the Six-Mile House:
“The Sheriff of this District collected a posse of citizens, and proceeded on Saturday afternoon to the spot, to surround the house, and seized upon its occupants, [three men and two women] after which they burnt the house and out buildings to the ground. [...] The inmates of the housed were armed with 10 or 12 muskets and a keg of powder, but the force which went against them was too imposing to admit any chance of success in a resort to arms. [...] The following is a correct list of the members of the gang who were apprehended and committed to prison on Saturday night. John Fisher, Lavinia Fisher, his wife, Wm. Heyward, James M’Elway, Jane Howard, and Seth Young.”
The stories say that out of love for his wife, John Fisher surrendered the group in an effort to save Lavinia and shield her from any possible gunfire. And later, when interrogated, he would do it again, identifying all members of the involved gang in an attempt to protect his spouse.
After the Fisher’s arrest the Six-Mile Wayfarer House and surrounding property was thoroughly searched by police. It is said that hidden passages were discovered in the walls and underground, allowing the Fishers to move through the property without being seen by anyone. Also said to be found on the property were personal items that could be traced back to dozens of travelers who had gone missing in the area. In addition, the sheriff is said to have located the poison laced tea used to drug victims and the mechanism that opened the floorboards beneath the bed. But most gruesome of all, was the discovery of a basement hiding the remains of upwards of 100 people.
At their arraignment, John and Lavinia both pled “not guilty,” and although the other members of the gang arrested with them were released on bail, the Fishers were ordered to remain in prison until their trial. In May of 1819, the trial jury rejected their claims of innocence to find them guilty on the charge of highway robbery, which at that time was still a capital offense carrying a death sentence. However, the Fishers were allowed an appeal and were to be given a reprieve until the following January.
During those intervening months, still in prison, the Fishers occupied themselves with plans to escape. The couple were held in a 6x8 foot cell in the Charleston jail, now known as the ‘Old City Jail,’ but their cell had a window, and the prison was not very well guarded, so on September 13th, they attempted to escape with a rope made of prison linens. John went first, but before Lavinia could begin her descent the rope broke, leaving John free and Lavinia still imprisoned; yet again John refused to leave his wife and was quickly recaptured.
Although the couple had been granted a second chance with an appeal, the verdict did not change. On February 4, 1820, John and Lavinia Fisher were sentenced to death by hanging. Two weeks later, on February 18, 1820, John and Lavinia Fisher were brought to the gallows erected in front of the jailhouse.
John was scheduled to die first, and in the last few minutes before his execution, Reverend Richard Furman read a letter to the assembled crowd which John had written, it acknowledged his acceptance of Christianity but maintained his innocence, asking for mercy on those who had wronged him through the judicial process.
After the letter was read, Fisher made one last plea of innocence and mercy from the crowd, but then contradicted himself by asking for forgiveness for the wrongs he had committed. Either way, no mercy was granted and John Fisher was was executed by hanging.
As for Lavinia, some legends claim that she insisted on wearing a wedding dress, as she was about to marry the devil himself, but others say it was a way to entice a man to marry her on the spot. This make reference to the tradition that married women could not be executed; and by
having John Fisher die first, Lavinia would no longer be a wedded woman. Nevertheless, no proposal was offered.
Of course infamously, Lavinia did not go quietly to her death. She refused to walk to the gallows and had to be picked up and carried to them, ranting and raving the entire way, and in the moment before the executioner tightened the noose around her neck, Lavinia used her last breath to scream at the crowd
“If you have a message you want to send to hell, give it to me -- I’ll carry it!”
She then jumped off the scaffold herself before the executioner could carry out his job, dying before a crowd of roughly 2,000 people. Several of whom went on to say that they had never seen such a wicked stare or chilling sneer as that on Lavinia’s face at the end.
Following Lavinia Fisher’s death, her legend has grown more and more infamous over time, infused with more fiction than fact. Most notably, Lavinia Fisher has widely become considered the first female serial killer in American history, but many modern historians doubt she ever actually killed anyone in the first place.
Historical records do not support the claim that human remains or a trap bed were ever found in the basement of the Six Mile-House. Several bodies were in fact discovered, buried outside, but no evidence could link them to murderous activities. In addition, when the Fishers were arrested and put on trial, it was not for murder, but rather highway robbery.
As for the story of David Ross, who was left behind to guard the Six-Mile House and then attacked, this tale is true; however the frequently referenced account of John Peeples is not quite accurate. Peeples was traveling away from Charleston in his wagon when he stopped at the Six-Mile House to water his horse. As he was stopped Peeples was accosted by the gang of highwaymen, Lavinia included, and robbed of about $40. After the incident he returned to Charleston to alert the authorities, identifying the Fishers and several others. Peeples did not in fact ever stay at the inn.
Finally, as visually impactful as Lavinia standing on the gallows in her wedding dress is, this too did not actually happen. This part of the story is likely a result of a misinterpretation of the truth. Both John and Lavinia went to their deaths wearing the standard garb for the condemned, a loose fitting white robe worn over their clothes.
Given these inconsistencies, and the fact that the unrepentant never actually confessed to having killed anyone, it makes concretely identifying Lavinia Fisher as the first American female serial killer very difficult. Yet it is likely that the very last words she ever spoke were the true culprit of this ever-growing reputation for crimes that she did not commit:
“If you have a message you want to send to hell, give it to me ---I’ll carry it.” My name is Brandon Schexnayder and you are listening to Southern Gothic.