For fright's sake I would love to tell you the story of America's first female serial killer. She was hanged February 18, 1820 in Charleston, South Carolina before a large crowd that gathered before the Old City Jail. People worry about the alleyways and boo-hag haunts that lurk between the stout, oppressive public buildings downtown, but I worry about the institutions themselves, the way they loom over our mortal bodies, ready to crumble down and crush any of us at their unforseeable will. But you'd rather hear a story of a real killer, wouldn't you? Well, like the pages of history I must turn over so too we find some very interesting layers to this town's most infamous ghost story.
ROUND 1: Lavinia Fisher Vs. John Peeples
You better believe there was a lot of money to be made in Charleston, SC in the early 1800s. After Eli Whitney's cotton gin took off in 1794, the lowcountry was economically vibrant, maintaining the status of wealthiest colony in America from the 1700s. Where there is money and trade there will also be blood, shed both to intercept and protect the fluid runnings of antebellum capitalism.
John Peeples, nominally and narratively a man of the people, was one fair trader on his way into town. He stopped at the Six Mile Wayfarer House, called so as it was a house for wayfarers, foot travelers, or wagonriders, located six miles outside of the city. Peeples was greeted by Lavinia, a tall, beautiful woman, a striking woman, an unforgettable woman, and her husband, John Fisher. The Fishers provided Peeples his lodging and dinner, as such a place for travelers acted in turn as a bed and breakfast. It was during their quaint dinner when Peeples became suspect. All throughout the meal Lavinia was the perfect host. Moreover, she was charming, attentive, almost flirtatious. Peeples would no doubt have felt more than at home with her, except for the fact that John said practically nothing at all during supper. Instead, he had been staring at Peeples, slowly looking the traveler up and down. Many men might have ignored such an odd husband, or merely taken his silence as cowardice.
The traveler refused his tea. It was a courtesy, no doubt, and though Lavinia offered again and again, Peeples simply refused the traditional delicacy. He'd prefer not to. Nonetheless, the Fishers showed Peeples to his room and all parties departed to bed. Now Peeples was a family man, and a good one at that. He was thrifty and cautious, attentive to his young son and daughter, in turn so helpfel they were to him back home on the farm. And his wife too, a good one, all knew. Perhaps it was this foundation of solitude that heightened the anxiety stirring in Peeples' very core. The heart cannot explain; Peeples was vexed by the behavior of Lavinia and her husband. Why her so forthcoming, endearing, and visibly persuasive--the husband so stationed, not as a lover but more like an accomplice? Peeples turned over in his, now that he was thinking of it, rather comfortable bed. Still, he could not sleep, rose, and began pacing the room in his pajamas. He stirred, crossing the floorbeds. Then the crack of a heavy lever shouted for the bed fell backwards through the floor and into the darkness of a cellar full of bones. Peeples froze.
It was, perhaps momentarily-- in those brief, elongated moments when you see you've just barely escaped death at the hands of a madman, waiting to hatchet your limbs off and leave you along with the other corpses of wayfarers-- difficult to decide whether or not to escape through the window. There were fatal gators in the swamps, just behind the house, and no certainty of survival for any abled man. But then the door to Peeples' room swiped open, and with Lavinia Fisher, the beautiful Lavinia Fisher, standing there in the doorway, butcher knife in hand, Peeples was out of the window, sprinting the six miles straight to Charleston, in his underwear.
When he got to town and told the story, its fantastical details about Lavinia's tea being spiked with oleander poison and the skeletons of more than three dozen wayfarers lying in the lime-soaked cellar already taking root, the townsfolk reacted swiftly. A lynch mob was rallid to capture these murderers, under the retroactive authority of Sheriff Cleary. They commandeered the couple, burned down the Six Mile House. Judge Colcock sentenced the couple to be hanged. Lavinia protested that you can't hang a married woman, and John protested everything; he cried and claimed innocence and begged while the much beloved wife stayed strong and fearless and true. So they hanged John first, making Lavinia a widow, and then hanged her too. She requested it be done in her wedding dress, so that bright February morning she may entrance an eager bachelor to save her swinging soul. Perhaps a gentlemen who could see past the legend and know her as the beautiful woman she was. No one did, and so began her blashpheming and cursing and screaming and finally, "Enough with words! Yall got a message for hell you can give it to me, I'll be there in bout fifteen minutes!" and jumped from the gallows herself, robbing the executioner of his duty.
This is the point when you say wait a second, now just wait. How the heck can there be a cellar and a swamp on the same land-- either they're above the water table or they're not. Ain't nobody got a basement in Charleston, let alone one filled with skeletons. Well, you're right. That's just the legend. Let me try again.
ROUND 2: Lavinia Fisher vs. David Ross
Serial killers weren't often a problem in early America, but highway robbers sure were. And you better believe the wealthiest city in the nation was not happy about there being highway robbers lurking around the outskirts of their town. And you better believe Sheriff Cleary in his right mind would have permitted a lynch mob, a term coined after extralegal mobs in the 1780s were justified after-the-fact, when rebel gangs became better known as Patriots. With all the trade in Charleston, rumors of highway robbery, a capital offense at the time, threatened the economic and reputational stability of the once flourishing city. And so a mob set out toward the Six Mile House, and the Five Mile House at that, looking for troublemakers. But the story ain't about John Peeples, who did indeed head into Charleston empty-handed due to the Fishers. It's about a rider in that lynch mob by the name of David Ross. Now David Ross is no John Peeples, no family man who we can all rally behind, no man of his peoples. He was with the lynch mob that arrived at the Five Mile House, accosted the owner, a man named William Heyward, a cousin in fact of John Fisher, and burned the house to the ground. Then they rode on. At the Six Mile House the lynch mob met no one, and left David Ross to stand guard until any inhabitants returned.
After some hours, no doubt with the whole crew of highway robbers waiting out in the woods and watching the house from afar, Ross was greeted by a gang of burly men, beaten, and tied up. In back of this gang Ross saw none other than Lavinia Fisher, her husband, and the rascal William Heyward. Ross begged the beautiful Lavinia for mercy. She went to him, as a silence fell upon the rest of the the gang, her gang it now seemed. She cradled his head in her hands, those beautiful, raven-clutching hands, and began to choke Ross. She strangled him, and with great strength picked him up to throw his head through a glass window. Now at the same time of this eruption, John Peeples was stopping outside the Six Mile House, watering his horse on the way into town. The highway gang attacked him likewise, giving Ross a chance to escape. They robbed Peeples of $40, and both he and Ross returned to town beaten, empty-handed, and soon gave their testimonies to the law on the violent and terrifying Lavinia Fisher.
So the story was written according to the Sheriff, and the Judge, and even Governor Geddes, all stilting their authority on the deposition of David Ross and the legend of John Peeples. Both husband and wife were taken to jail, kept together, and hanged in succession. Now this is really where you have to go wait a second. Lavinia was hanged in her wedding dress, but where would they have gotten that? The lynch mob burned down the Six Mile House, didn't they? Is there any part of this story that's actually true? Well, there isn't, and that's the scary part. Hundreds and hundreds of people watched Lavinia Fisher hanged, but not until recently has the true story emerged.
ROUND 3: The People vs. Lavinia Fisher
A few years back a retired Charleston County detective was thinking about this ghost story that he had heard since he was a little boy, about Lavinia haunting the Old City Jail or brooding on the balcony of city hall. Now with time and expertise he wanted to find out how much of the story could have been true, and began an investigation. The only difference between this case and the ones he was used to was the fact that all witnesses had died over 150 years ago. Yet the truth doesn't stay buried as easily as the bodies do.
If you go to where the Six Mile House once stood, where John Fisher and his cousin collectively owned dozens of acres for their mere squat dwellings, you'll find a federal naval clinic. And whenever the government builds such an enormous building, well there's contracts for the land and the construction and the dealmakers and in good tradition for the wealthiest colony there is good money to be made. In 1819, the governor knew that the federal government was aiming to build a naval depot either in Charleston or Virginia, and he wanted it to be in Charleston. Luckily there were this perfectly suitable land, just five and a half miles outside of Charleston, and luckily by 1820 there were no tenants on the land, for they had been hanged, and luckily there were no proper dwellings nor squatters, for the lynch mob had burned down the houses in their raid.
So it was a land grab, the rest of the story just a story. Of 12 arrested for highway robbery, only the Fishers and William Heyward were executed for the crime. An engineer had appropriated the land as quite valuable, and then served on the jury that convicted Lavinia. No bodies were ever found around the Six Mile House, save for an elderly gentlemen buried next to a young Negro woman. John Fisher was proclaiming his innocence to the very end, as it seemed increasingly less likely he could convince anyone that he was not a highway robber, let alone a Sweeney Todd-esque mass murderer. As for the wedding dress, well it was simply customary to put a white robe over the prisoners. So if Lavinia Fisher was hanged in her wedding dress, so too was John.
Ultimately it was only the last part of the story that's true. Lavinia, no doubt, was furious and frustrated before the crowd of hundreds on the day she was hanged. She stood before a governor, who would not pardon an innoncent woman, a sheriff, who had helped unleashed a mob to capture her, and a citizenry that falsely believed her to be some murdering temptress. So indeed she refused her last rites from the priest. And indeed she spoke before a crowd of hundreds and shouted:
Cease! I will have none of it. Save your words for others that want them. But if you have a message you want to send to Hell, give it to me; i'll carry it.
So it is written.