Lavinia Fisher

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Lavinia Fisher
Born 1793
Charleston, South Carolina
Died February 18, 1820(1820-02-18) (age 26–27)
Cause of death
Criminal penalty
Death by hanging
Victims Dave Ross (escaped), John Peeples (escaped), unknown names for murder victims
Country United States

Lavinia Fisher (1793 – February 18, 1820) is reported by some legends to be the first female serial killer in the United States of America.[1] Her origins are unknown; however, Fisher resided in the United States for much of her life. She was married to John Fisher, and both were convicted of murder and robbery. Historians have begun to question the veracity of the traditional legend and some assert she never killed anyone.


Fisher and her husband resided in Charleston, South Carolina for most of their lives. Together, they owned a hotel, the Six Mile Wayfarer House,[2] which they managed in the early 19th century. The hotel was located six miles north of Charleston, South Carolina, hence the name. After a short period, many reports were made to the local sheriff's department about guests disappearing. Due to lack of evidence, and the popularity of the couple with many locals, these complaints came to nothing. Lavinia Fisher would always invite men to dinner and ask many questions about their occupation, trying to find out if they had money or not. She would send them up to their rooms with a cup of tea that was actually poisoned. Once the men drank their tea and went to bed, her husband would go to the room to make sure they were dead by stabbing them. Another version of the legend was that the tea would only put the men to sleep for a few hours. Then, when they were almost asleep, Lavinia would pull a lever and the bed would collapse and drop the victim into a pit.[2] Some believe that there were spikes waiting at the bottom of the pit.

One day John Peeples asked if there were any vacancies and Lavinia replied that there was unfortunately no room, but he was welcome to come inside and rest and have some tea. John happened to hate tea, and not wanting to seem rude, he dumped it when she wasn't looking. She interrogated him for hours and eventually said she discovered that in fact, they did have a room. He then went to bed. He had felt suspicious about the interrogation and was worried about being robbed, so he decided to sleep in the wooden chair by the door. In the middle of the night, he awoke to the loud sound of the bed collapsing and discovered the Fishers' plan. He jumped out the window and rode to Charleston to alert the authorities .

Lavinia Fisher was hanged in 1820 but the crime was highway robbery— a capital offense at the time—not murder. She was a member of a large gang of highwaymen who operated out of two houses in the Backcountry outside of Charleston, the Five Mile House and the Six Mile House. It is not clear whether or not the Six Mile House was a hotel, but it did serve as hideout for a number of outlaws.

Trial and execution[edit]

Lavinia Fisher was held at the Charleston, South Carolina jail before her hanging. [3] Moments before her execution she is purported to have said to the crowd "If any of you have a message for the devil, tell me now-- for I will be seeing him soon." Much of what actually occurred in the alleged murders at the hands of John and Lavinia Fisher has become wildly exaggerated through time, so factual details are hard to find. However, it is known based on news accounts in the Charleston Post and Courier, that a vigilante gang went to the Fishers' neighborhood in February 1819 to stop the purported 'gang activities' that were occurring there. Satisfied that they had accomplished their task, the group returned to Charleston, but left a young man by the name of David Ross to stand watch in the area.

Early the next day, Ross was attacked by two men and dragged before the gang that had terrorized the region. Among them was Lavinia Fisher, to whom he looked for help. However, rather than help him, she choked him and then smashed his head through a window. Ross managed to escape and immediately alerted authorities.[4]

Immediately following this incident, another traveler, named John Peeples, stopping in at the Fisher’s Six Mile House for Wayfarers was also assaulted, but he likewise was able to escape and went to the authorities. Based on these two accounts, names and identities of the assailants were given, something that law enforcement had previously lacked. Police were immediately dispatched to the location and during the ensuing investigation Lavinia and John were discovered, along with two other gang members. John Fisher surrendered the group in an effort to protect his wife and shield her from the possibility of gunfire. Later, during interrogation, he again attempted to protect Lavinia by giving the identities of all involved in the gang. Nearly a full year lapsed between the time of their arrest and their execution. At their arraignment the Fishers pleaded not guilty but were ordered to be held in jail until their trial which would take place in May while their co-conspirators were released on bail. The jury at their trial rejected their pleas of innocence and found them guilty of highway robbery. However, the judge allowed an appeal and they were given a reprieve until the January session of the court.

During this time the Fishers occupied themselves with plans to escape, as they were housed together in a 6x8 cell and not heavily guarded. On September 13 they put their plans into action and began their escape. Things did not go as planned as the rope they had made from prison linens broke, leaving Lavinia trapped in the cell and John set free. He was unwilling to continue the escape plan and was recaptured. The two were then kept under much tighter security.

The Constitutional court rejected their appeal and both were sentenced to be hanged on February 4, 1820.[5] Awaiting execution, John accepted the counsel of the Reverend Richard Furman, a local minister, but Lavinia became even more vitriolic. Preceding their execution, the clergyman read a letter composed by John Fisher, stating that since he had become a Christian he could not be executed with a lie held to his account. Therefore he insisted on his innocence and asked mercy on those who had done him wrong in the judicial process. After the minister read the letter, Fisher then began to plead his case before the gathered crowd of some 2,000. He then seemingly contradicted himself by asking for their forgiveness. Lavinia argued to the judge that they could not hang a married woman, so they hanged John a day before. It is believed[citation needed] that Mary Surratt was the first woman to be hanged in the United States, however Lavinia was hanged 40 years prior. According to locals just before her hanging, her last words to the crowd were, "If any of you have a message for the devil, say it now for I shall see him in a moment." and then proceeded to jump off the stage and hang herself.[2]


Following her execution, Lavinia was buried in a Potter's Field near to the place of execution which was outside the Old City Jail . Reports of her burial at 150 Meeting Street (The Circular Congregational Church) or at 4 Archdale Street (The Unitarian Church) appear to have been promoted by tour guides.


  1. ^ Petro, Pamela (2002). Sitting Up With the Dead: A Storied Journey Through the American South. New York, New York: Arcade Books. pp. p205. ISBN 1-55970-612-0. 
  2. ^ a b c Mendoza, Patrick (1999). Extraordinary people in extraordinary times: heroes, sheroes, and villains. Libraries Unlimited. pp. 93–96. ISBN 1-56308-611-5. 
  3. ^ Hendrix, Pat; Hendrix, Toni; Spires, Heather; Corbett, Judy (2006). Murder and Mayhem in the Holy City. The History Press. p. 27. ISBN 1-59629-162-1. 
  4. ^ Hendrix, Pat (2006). Murder and Mayhem in the Holy City. Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press. pp. p29. ISBN 1-59629-162-1. 
  5. ^ Phillips, G. (January 17, 2002). "Charlestons Past". The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC). p. 2ZB. Retrieved 2011-03-06.