True Crime Sunday: The Legend of Lavinia Fisher

Welcome back to True Crime Sunday! Last week we talked about Jane Toppan, the murderous nurse who may have been America’s first female serial killer. This week we’re going to talk about the intriguing story of another woman who may hold that title. However, there may be more… or less to the story.

Historians seem to agree that Lavinia Fisher and her husband John ran an inn called the Six Mile Wayfarer House about six miles outside of Charleston, South Carolina. It had connections to the Five Mile House. Both places were headquarters for a gang of highwaymen. The story goes that when travelers arrived at Six Mile, the Fishers would chat with them. If it seemed the traveler had money, Lavinia would offer them some of her special (read: drugged) tea. Once the traveler was safely in his room, John Fisher would go upstairs to beat their guest nearly to death and rob them.

Eventually, enough travelers disappeared from the inn that the sheriff got word of it and was sent to investigate. However, there was no evidence and the couple was quite popular, so nothing came from the reports.

In February 1819, a vigilante group went to Six Mile House to put an end to the illegal activities. After they’d accomplished their task, they left one of their men, David Ross, at the residence to keep watch. Sometime in the night or early morning hours, Ross was attacked by two men and taken to meet the rest of the gang. It is alleged that he was beaten and Lavinia put the man’s head through a windowpane.

Shortly after the incident with the vigilantes, a traveler named John Peeples arrived at the inn. He chatted with the proprietors and was soon offered some tea. Lucky for him, he didn’t care for tea and dumped it out when Lavinia wasn’t looking. Feeling unsettled when he got up to his room, he decided to sleep in a chair near the door rather than sleeping in the bed. During the night, he awoke to a loud sound. He noticed the bed he should have been in had disappeared into the floor. Peeples escaped through the window and filed a complaint with the authorities.

The sheriff searched the house and found items that could be linked to some of the missing travelers. The Fishers were arrested and found guilty of highway robbery, which was a capital offense at the time. Their appeal was denied and they were sentenced to hang.

In February 1820, they were taken to the gallows. John had found God before the hanging and asked for mercy and forgiveness from the observers. Lavinia, however, had another take on the situation. She allegedly said, “If you have a message you want to send to hell, give it to me. I’ll carry it.” She then jumped off the scaffold and hanged herself.

In the exaggerated legend of Lavinia Fisher, the travelers were not just beaten. Some say the authorities found hundreds of bodies in the basement of Six Mile House and mechanisms that would cause the beds to drop into a trapdoor. Historians haven’t found any evidence to back up claims of hundreds of bodies and trapdoors, but those claims certainly make for an exciting story.

Thanks for joining me for another True Crime Sunday! What case will we cover next week? There’s only one way to find out!

Looking for more?

Six Miles to Charleston: The True Story of John and Lavinia Fisher by Bruce Orr

The Six Mile Inn by Lee Martin (fiction)

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