Many, many ghost stories are told in Charleston, South Carolina. My favorite Charleston ghost, hands down, is Lavinia Fisher, the killer innkeeper of old Charleston’s Six Mile House. I first heard her story on that lamented History Channel series, HAUNTED HISTORY.
According to the late Margaret Rhett Martin, who told Lavinia’s story in her book CHARLESTON GHOSTS (1963), no one has ever learned where Lavinia Fisher and her husband John came from, or if those were even their real names. What is known is that, sometime after 1815, they arrived in the Charleston area and set themselves up as innkeepers, building an inn and naming it Six Mile House, since it was located in a swampy area six miles outside what was then the city limits. No physical description of John Fisher remains, other than that he was tall and strong. Lavinia is another matter entirely; her beauty is emphasized in every telling of the story. Although it is in dispute all these many years later whether she was a blonde or a brunette, it is indisputable that she was a stunningly lovely woman, with a wide smile, brilliant longlashed eyes, and a body whose curves could not be concealed even by the clothes fashionable in those days. She was young, too, in her mid-twenties.
Their inn was a success from the beginning. And yet—there were strange stories told all over Charleston of missing travelers whose last known stop was the Six Mile House. The Fishers, however, were at a loss to explain this, always saying that the travelers had left their establishment safe and sound. Perhaps, they suggested, they had lost their way in the swamp and ended up sinking in muck, with no help nearby.
In truth, none of those travelers ever left the inn alive, for John and his lovely Lavinia were systematically finding out which ones carried the most money and the most sellable goods, robbing and murdering them, and when the coast was clear dumping the bodies in the swamp. Others were concealed in a pit beneath one particular bedroom of Six Mile House.
In 1819, a trader in hides named John Peeples stopped at Six Mile House. Like other travelers before him, he was seduced into disclosing how much money he carried and how many hides he had for sale over an intimate supper with beautiful Lavinia. Unlike other travelers, he did not drink the hot tea, laced with a powerful narcotic herb, that she served him; he was not a tea-drinking man. And so it was that he woke in the middle of the night to hear John and Lavinia at their kitchen table, counting the money in his stolen wallet and calculating the sales value of his unsold furs. Peeples slipped from his bed, leaving a dummy made of pillows and sheets in his place and retreating to the darkest corner of the room. He watched in horror as Lavinia and John entered his room and squabbled over the best way to kill him, Lavinia advocating poisoning him over breakfast; she didn’t like John’s way because it took so long for the men to die. John, however, used a lever to dump the bed’s contents into a deep pit filled with human remains.
At that point, Peeples made an unceremonious exit through a window. Making his way to the stables, he threw himself onto his horse and rode bareback into Charleston, where authorities took a deep interest in the story he told; they now had proof of murder and robbery at Six Mile House.
John and Lavinia Fisher and five accomplices—their servants—were arrested and put on trial. The couple were sentenced to death for two murders, although they were believed to have committed many more. John accepted his fate; Lavinia, however, believed right up until the moment she mounted the scaffold that the fabled chivalry of southern men would kick in and she would be saved by her beauty, perhaps by someone marrying her once John was out of the way.
Needless to say, that scenario did not play out, and on February 18, 1820, she walked up the thirteen steps, barefoot and wearing her wedding gown. Looking out over the crowd who had come to see her hang, she said her last words:
“If any of you have messages for the Devil, give them to me. I’ll be seeing him soon.”
(There is no certain text for her last words; that one happens to be my favorite version.)
She died, only twenty-seven years old, but her ghost has never left Charleston. The gallows were set up just outside the jail, in an area near the old Cooper River Bridge; she has been seen strolling in that area many many times over the years. She also haunts the strangely spooky little Unitarian Churchyard, where she lies buried near the judge who condemned her to death.
She does not haunt Six Mile House. It burned to the ground in a mysterious fire within days of the Fishers’ arrest in late 1819.
I’ve always admired her, in a perverse way, for her ballsy last words.