I always find the evolution of legends to be fascinating. How did they become the way they are today? What have been the different variations along the way? And, of course, what was the original truth? Over the years as a Ghostorian, I’ve had the pleasure of digging into a number of these stories, including the Skirvin Hotel and the “Gore Orphanage,” and this has cropped up yet again while researching a topic for a recent episode of Friday Night Ghost Frights. This time, her name is Lavinia Fisher.
It is said that Lavinia Fisher was America’s first female serial killer, that she and her husband, John, murdered over 100 people, and that when she was hung at the gallows she was wearing a white wedding dress. The legend includes a trap door bed in and inn that they ran in which sleeping travelers would meet their peril. One version of the legend has the trap dropping the victim onto a bed of spikes and impaling them. Another version of the legend as the trap dropping them into the basement where John killed them with an axe. It is also said that Lavinia would poison the tea of unsuspecting travelers.
That’s the legend. So what’s the truth?
The truth is that Lavinia Fisher and her husband, John, were two members of a gang of outlaw highway men who were convicted and sentenced to death for highway robbery, at that time a capital offense. The elusive gang would stop wagons traveling into and out of Charleston, South Carolina, and steal their goods and money, thereby damaging the Charleston economy. They worked out of the Five Mile and Six Mile Houses, the former of which was burned to the ground by a cavalcade looking to bring the gang to justice. At the Six Mile House, the occupants were evicted and a man named David Ross was left to guard the premises while the cavalcade returned to Charleston. The next morning, the gang arrived and assaulted Ross, including Lavinia Fisher who Ross looked to for help, but she answered his pleas by choking him and smashing his head through a window.
One legend had stated that John Peoples thwarted a murder attempt at the inn of the Fisher’s by sleeping in a chair rather than the trap door bed, then escaped and turned the Fisher’s into the authorities. It’s true that Peoples did identify members of the gang, including Lavinia and John Fisher, but this was after a hold up near Six Mile House when he stopped to water his horse, far from the legend that had him escaping a death trap. Unglamorously, the Fisher’s and several other members of the gang gave up without a fight after the Sheriff arrived at Six Mile House with a warrant for their arrest for highway robbery.
No one was ever charged with murder as the legend frequently claims. Two bodies, one of a white man and one of a black woman believe to have been deceased for about two years, were found about 200 yards from Six Mile House. It was impossible at that time to deduce who had killed them and nothing ever came of it. There were no accounts of 100 murders.
At the gallows in 1820 just outside of the Charleston city limits (not at the jail) following their conviction of highway robbery, John and Lavinia Fisher wore loose-fitting white robes over their regular clothes. This likely grew into the legend of the white wedding dress supposedly worn by Lavinia — imagine “they were wearing white” morphing over time: “she was wearing white” … “she was wearing white as if she was at her wedding” … “she was wearing a white wedding dress.”
To their deaths, John went peacefully, claiming he had found God, while Lavinia was dragged up to the gallows kicking and screaming, launching a tirade of obscenities at the crowd. One part of her legend is true — Lavinia’s final words to the throng of spectators: “If you have a message you want to send to hell, give it to me — I’ll carry it!”
Since her death, stories about Lavinia Fisher’s ghost being seen at the old jail have surfaced as well. It’s possible she haunts there, although it’s not where she died. Perhaps she developed some sort of attachment to the location while incarcerated there, however, Lavinia doesn’t exactly strike me as the sentimental type. There are plenty of other reasons for the jail to be haunted. Not only did it operate for 137 years, but prior to its construction in 1802 the location served as a workhouse for runaway slaves, as a makeshift hospital, and even as a holding area for criminals, a foreshadowing of its future use.
Catherine Maria “Kitty” Fisher by Nathaniel Hone in 1765
A final mystery of Lavinia Fisher’s legend… is the painting that is commonly associated with Lavinia Fisher truly a painting of the notorious highway robber? After all, when would she have had time to sit for this painting and the money to commission the work? Alas, a little digging reveals that the painting is titled “Kitty Fisher and Parrot” painted by Joshua Reynolds in 1763. Kitty Fisher was a prominent British courtesan who died at the age of 26 in 1767, only fours months after she was married. Any relation to Lavinia Fisher is extremely doubtful and it seems the use of the painting is an advent of the legend continuing on today in modern times, as someone likely searched for paintings of a woman named Fisher to use as a substitute for a Lavinia article. It wouldn’t be the first time this has happened in history, after all… since there are no known paintings of Elizabeth Bathory, substitutes close to her likeness have been used to represent her. Did Lavinia Fisher resemble Kitty Fisher? It is yet another mystery of the legend.
On a final note… the band All The Little Pieces has a haunting album specifically themed for Lavinia Fisher titled “The Legend of Lavinia Fisher.”
Music from this album can also be heard on Enigma Underground Radio, and is regularly featured on its Friday Haunting Hour at 9:00 PM Eastern / 8:00 PM Central.