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Charleston’s Old City Jail and the Truth About Lavinia Fisher

by Sarah Agre

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.

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