Charleston’s Old City Jail and the Truth About Lavinia Fisher by Sarah Agre
Updated: Oct 19
Charleston, South Carolina, founded in 1670 has been witness to lots of amazing history. The entire city has a strange and enchanting vibe to it. This could be because many structures in town are built over cemeteries, with only the headstones being removed. It is a city filled with the dead. Located on 21 Magazine Street, the Old City Jail is a testament to the barbarism of the colonial justice system. On a sweltering hot summer evening I had Old City Jail the opportunity to tour the prison. During this tour I learned of the many horrors and injustices that befell prisoners in the building. It was also the first time I was exposed to the true story of Lavinia Fisher. Lavinia’s story has managed to get very muddled up in the outlandish legend that people tell about her. This tall tale has been floating around Charleston for years, and in recent times has made its way onto many TV shows, including Ghost Adventures. Lavinia’s legend also appears to be a favorite story of local ghost tour guides. The previous night, I had been on a ghost tour where the guide, with wild hand gestures, explained just how deranged Lavinia was. Although there are countless versions of the legend, it goes something like this: In 1819, John Fisher and his wife Lavinia owned the Six Mile House, located six miles north of Charleston. Merchants traveling to and from Charleston were frequent guests of this inn. On the way out of town merchants had empty carts and pockets full of cash. These people were the primary victims of the Fishers. Lavinia would invite these merchants to stay at the inn and to have dinner with her and her husband. During the dinner she would charm them with her beauty and grace, while getting the victim to talk about themself to find out if anyone was going to miss them. At this dinner Lavinia would give the unsuspecting victim a cup of tea. After dinner the victim would head upstairs to lay down in their bed, as they began to feel the effects of the oleander tea, which is a deadly poison. Later, when Lavinia had felt enough time had passed, a trap door would open up on the bed and the victim would slide down into the basement. John would then proceed to see if the victim was still alive. If the oleander tea had not yet killed them, he would butcher the victim. One of Lavinia’s victims became suspicions at dinner one night. The dinner conversation seemed strange. He took a small sip of the tea and thought it tasted odd, so he only pretended to drink the rest. In his room upstairs he was feeling so unnerved by the situation that he decided to sit up all night in a chair. Some hours later the trap door on the bed was activated. The intended victim witnessed this, and then managed to flee into town and alert the authorities. The authorities arrived at the Six Mile House and arrested John and Lavinia. When the premise was searched the basement was discovered to be filled with bodies. The Fishers were imprisoned at the Old City Jail. Because they were caught red-handed they were quickly sentenced to death by hanging. At the execution John Fisher professed his innocence and blamed everything on his wife. Lavinia decided to make a spectacle of herself during the execution. She wore her wedding dress and viciously struggled as they took her up to the platform. As the minister attempted to save her soul, she cursed and raved at him. Finally she loudly proclaimed her last words, “If you have a message you want to send to hell, give it to me—I’ll carry it.” Suddenly, she jumped from the platform, taking her own life. This story is fantastical and embellished. Stories such as this seem to pop up all around famous hauntings. For some reason, many ghost hunters take them at face value and make no effort to discover if the story has any validity. Lavinia’s real story begins with the times she lived in. Even though the Bill of Rights had been in place since 1789, in 1819 judges and other enforcers of the law still chose to mostly ignore the existence of this document. In the city of Charleston, colonial justice was still being used and that involved two forms of punishment: corporal or death. The Old City Jail opened in 1802 and was one of the first five reform prisons in the country. Although reform prisons were supposed to be distancing themselves from colonial justice, that is not what happened at this prison. The most common offense people were imprisoned for at this jail was disorderly conduct. The sentence for that offense was usually two weeks. During their stay, prisoners were treated to beatings, while restrained in a device called the triangle. Prisoners referred to the device as the crane of pain. This punishment always took place outside, so other people could view it. The feet of the prisoner were strapped to the ground and their hands were placed in slipknots, so that it would get tighter as they struggled. Prison guards then pulled on the ropes for hours in an attempt to dislocate the victim’s arms. While in this device the prisoners were beaten with a cat o’ nine tails; the knots located every few inches on the whips served to peel the flesh from the recipient’s back. The open wounds on the prisoners often turned fatal due to the conditions inside of the prison cells. Concrete floors were covered with wood shavings. In the early years prisoners were expected to sleep on and use the shavings as a bathroom. People at this prison lived much like hamsters. The most violent prisoners were kept chained to the floor. This included the mentally disabled because there was no insane asylum in town. Another travesty is that women prisoners were not separated from the general prison population during their stay. That made life at the Old City Jail a special kind of hell for women. There were larger cells that held up to ten people, but usually many more prisoners than that were kept in them. Another kind of cell was a small cage that even two people would not be very comfortable in. During the Civil War as many as eleven people were kept in those cages. By far the most luxurious cell to be locked in was the debtors’ prison cell. It was considered the gentlemen’s quarters and they 95 FATE / SPECIAL EDITION GHOST ISSUE were given hammocks to sleep on. The hammocks were taken away after the prisoners kept strangling each other with them. Not only were the people who could not pay their bills kept in this cell, but also the people who witnessed crimes. Locking up crime witnesses made certain they would be in court. Luckily, at that time many trials would occur as quickly as only a few hours after the crime took place. Another horrific punishment at this prison was the hot box. It was an iron coffin. When prisoners were placed in it during the summer they would cook to death in the sizzling heat. Many prisoners who managed to make it out of the death trap that was the Old City Jail would bear permanent markings of their ordeal. Some prisoners were branded with the first letter of their conviction. Others simply had their right hand burned. This is how the tradition of raising a right hand while swearing on the Bible in court came about. People in the courtroom would know if a person was a criminal if their right hand was burned. The treatment of cropping was also used for prisoners. Parts of ears and even the nose could be cut off, as part of a punishment. Life expectancy at this prison was around two months, with many small-time offenders not even living through their allotted two-week sentence. It is thought that as many as 10,000 people died at the Old City Jail. All of this Charleston’s Old City Jail and the Truth About Lavinia Fisher 96 Back of Old City Jail boils down to the fact that at the time Lavinia Fisher was imprisoned, human life was not valued very highly. So what really happened to John and Lavinia Fisher? In reality, a completely different story from the legend is what unfolded in the days before John and Lavinia Fisher were arrested. In February of 1819, an angry mob set out from Charleston in an attempt to put an end to merchants getting robbed traveling to and from town . Not a single robbery victim could identify their attackers. The fear of the townspeople was that if merchants continued to be robbed, they would take their business to a different town. The first location that the mob arrived at was the Five Mile House owned by William Hayward. Dealing out mob justice, they demanded that everyone in the Five Mile House vacate. Of course people in the Five Mile House did not want to leave on the whim of a mob, so they resisted. In retaliation the mob burned the building down. The mob moved on to the Six Mile House, and everyone in that building immediately fled the mob. From their location they could see that the Five Mile House was on fire and did not want to meet the same fate. After the angry mob went back to town, the occupants returned to the Six Mile House, joined by William Hayward. David Ross, a member of the vigilantes was left to stand guard over the inn. According to David, the group attacked him and beat him unmercifully. He managed to escape them and run into the woods, just as shots were fired at him. Keep in mind even if this account were true, this man was trespassing inside of their business and was one of the people who unlawfully threw the guests out. Many people would have had a similar reaction to David Ross. A few hours later John Peoples was leaving Charleston and stopped near the Six Mile House to give his horse water. He was then beaten and robbed by a gang of 12 people. His return to town and sworn statement, along with that of David Ross’s, prompted Sheriff Nathanial Greene Cleary to finally go to the Six Mile House and begin making arrests. John and Lavinia Fisher, along with three other people, were arrested that night. The sheriff did a quick search of the house, finding only a cowhide that a neighbor claimed must have been from their cow that had been stolen. After searching the Six Mile House and finding no evidence of robberies or murders, the sheriff burned the building to the ground. At a later time William Hayward was also arrested. Charges ended up being dropped on everyone, except for Hayward and the Fishers. The only crime that was sent to trial and convicted on was assault 97 FATE / SPECIAL EDITION GHOST ISSUE on David Ross, with the intent to murder.
Hayward skipped on his bail and was on the run, so only the Fishers went on trial. With their lawyer John Davis Heath, John and Lavinia pleaded not guilty. Even so, the jury convicted them, but John Heath did his best to appeal the charges. After the trial John and Lavinia were sent back to jail to see if the case would be appealed or if they would be sentenced. Finally, many months later, they were summoned for sentencing, with Judge Gantt. They were sentenced to be hanged for the crime of highway robbery. This is a highly strange turn of events, because that was not even the charge they were convicted of at the trial. Was their trial just for show, if the judge could just randomly change the charges that they were convicted of? The execution of John and Lavinia Fisher took place February 18th, 1820, in Marion Square. Contrary to the legend, Lavinia did not wear her wedding dress to the execution. Both John and Lavinia had loose white garments on over their clothing. John, although deeply troubled by his impending doom, climbed up the platform to the noose on his own. Lavinia, on the other hand, began throwing a tremendous fit. She had to be carried to the noose. There she alternated between professing her innocence, begging the crowd to save her, and cursing the governor for hanging a woman. The sheriff held a piece of paper in his hand, and Lavinia thought it was the pardon from the governor she had been hoping for. After the sheriff informed her that she had no hope of a pardon and was really going to die, Lavinia stopped her crazed fit. The Fishers were silent as the hangman placed hoods over their heads. Soon after that the platform dropped from beneath them. Lavinia died instantly, but John took awhile to slowly strangle to death. Later that year in August at the Old City Jail, William Hayward also met his fate at the end of a noose. What happened to John and Lavinia was convoluted. Author and retired police detective Bruce Orr of Charleston spent three years researching this case. He released a book titled Six Miles to Charleston: The True Story of John and Lavinia Fisher. Orr believes that the Fishers and William Hayward were all innocent. It is highly suspect that only the property owners were executed. In the book he theorizes that political corrupCharleston’s Old City Jail and the Truth About Lavinia Fisher 98 tion is the most likely reason why those three people were executed. Orr’s first suspect in political corruption was the governor of South Carolina, John Geddes. He theorizes that Geddes wanted the land owned by the Fishers and William Hayward to convert for military use. If that was what Geddes was up to, he got his wish many years after this event. The Charleston Naval Hospital is located right where the Six Mile House once stood. Geddes was a corrupt person. He even made his own son stand in for him during a duel. At one point the governor became involved in a land scam when he attempted to buy Key West, Florida. The other suspect brought forth in the book was the sheriff, Nathanial Greene Cleary. Around the time of this event, he was coming up for reelection and needed someone to blame for the merchants being robbed. The Fishers were ultimately hanged for John Peoples’ complaint of being robbed. That turned out to be a rather sketchy affair. Peoples could not identify any of his attackers. He was from Augusta, Georgia, and did not really know the names of anyone from Charleston. The names at the bottom of his statement were written in a suspiciously different handwriting from the rest of the statement. Furthermore, Orr also explores in his book that fact that John Fisher mentioned that durint the identification line-up for Peoples, Fisher could hear the sheriff informing the victim of everyone’s name. If Sheriff Cleary was looking for reelection through the conviction of the Fishers, it did not work—he ended up losing anyway. In the end it appears that the true story of Lavinia Fisher is that she was an innocent victim of a corrupt system. She was not America’s first female serial killer, as many people claim. Today the Old City Jail is an architecture college called the American College of the Building Arts. Students still see Lavinia’s ghost. My tour guide even had an encounter with her in 1994, when he was a horse patrol police officer. It was June around 6:00 pm when his horse suddenly threw him, as he passed the Old City Jail. As he got up off the ground, he noticed that the horse was looking fearfully in the window on the top floor of the jail. In the window he saw the ghost of a woman staring out at him and his patrol partner. Not believing his eyes, he questioned if his partner could see it too. The partner did see it and they decided to promptly leave. The most compelling detail about this account is that the window where Lavinia was seen has no floor below 99 FATE / SPECIAL EDITION GHOST ISSUE In the window he saw the ghost of a woman staring out at him and his patrol partner. it, so it would be impossible for any normal, corporeal person to be looking out of that window. Being executed is a dreadful way to die, even for the guilty. It becomes much worse when the person is innocent of the crime. Lavinia has many reasons to be haunting the Old City Jail. Besides being executed, Lavinia had to deal with an irreparably tarnished reputation. She was also imprisoned in that jail for a year; horrific things must have happened to her even before the execution. After her death an even worse injustice befell her. Lavinia was interred in a potter’s field cemetery for the poor. That cemetery was eventually built over, and now her grave is now located under a hospital with an entire wing named after the judge who sentenced her to death.