The 1819 crime itself was not so unusual for that time: highway robbery and murder. The waylaying and killing of travelers on the desolate roads leading into Charleston was not […]
The 1819 crime itself was not so unusual for that time: highway robbery and murder. The waylaying and killing of travelers on the desolate roads leading into Charleston was not encouraged but also was not uncommon. The murderers, not the murders, made this trial noteworthy.
Lavinia Fisher has been called South Carolina’s most famous mass murderer—although only two bodies were found buried near Six Mile House tavern (located north of Charleston where Old Dorchester Road crosses Goose Creek Road at Ashley Ferry). Other gangs of highwaymen prowled the north roads, preying on upstate trappers and farmers bringing goods into Charleston. But, unlike run-of-the-mill highwaymen, Lavinia earned a spot in Charleston legend. By all accounts, she was tall and strikingly beautiful, though no one describes whether she was fair or dark. Her husband John was tall and handsome, and together they commanded a ruthless band of ruffians. Lavinia, the most ruthless of all, dispatched her victims by poisoning their breakfasts. Another tale—but unsupported—tells of a collapsing bed that dumped bodies into the tavern basement.
On February 18, 1819, mounted vigilantes rode out to capture the notorious Fisher gang. Not knowing which tavern housed the gang, the posse burned Five Mile House, then proceeded to Six Mile House where the Fishers and others were captured.
They were jailed in the old Magazine Street Jail until their trial and hanging for the crime of highway robbery. Judge Elihu Bay—a colorfully eccentric jurist, elderly, deaf, and beset by a painful stutter—presided at the trial.
Lavinia, ruthless in life, was not brave in the face of the hangman’s noose. She and John used every delaying tactic available–even gaining a respite from the governor to give them a few extra days to “meet their God.” (Dr. Richard Furman–Furman University is his namesake–prayed daily with the Fishers and even walked with them to the gallows.)
The ladies of Charleston rallied to Lavinia’s cause, petitioning to spare her. In the end, she mounted the scaffold, apparently still expecting a reprieve. It didn’t come. Stories say she screamed to the crowd: “If you have a message you want to send to Hell, give it to me–I’ll carry it!” and carried herself into Charleston legend.
See also, Caskey, James, Blog: “The Top 10 Lies Told About Charleston’s Lavinia Fisher” (October 17, 2014) [http://www.jamesbcaskey.com/2014/10/lavinia-fisher-charleston/]
Excerpt from: Pickens, Cathy, Charleston Mysteries (2007)