Dance With The Devil In The Charleston Moonlight


She stood erect before the mob which had gathered to watch her die.

Inches away, a noose hung idle, waiting for its moment. The people of Charleston were here to see one thing.

Was it just bravado which gave her such assurance, moments from the event which would snuff out a life shot through with infamy?

She was going to speak. The crowd craned forward. Some shushed each other.

“If any of you,” rang out the bell-clear voice with the Southern twang, “have a message for the Devil, tell me now. For I shall be seeing him soon.”

That much is documented, bona-fide fact. As is the fact that she was held and executed at Charleston Gaol; and buried in a field nearby. And the fact that she was hanged on February 4, 1820, 40 years before any other documented case of a woman being hanged in the United States of America.

The rest may be real, or it may be legend: we have no way of telling.The tour guides have made free with her life and times.

We don’t know where Lavinia Fisher was born. But for much of her life, she lived very near Charleston. The history books say she was hanged for being part of a ruthless gang of highway robbers; but I love the grim fairy tale better.

Which goes like this.

Six miles north of Charleston, on the road travellers took to get there, in the early 19th century stood a hotel. It was imaginatively dubbed the Six-Mile-Wayfarer-House, and it seemed as good a place to stay as any.

Unless, of course, you were a lone male of means.

Lavinia and her husband were the proprietors. Lavinia would welcome gentlemen and quiz them as to their means; and then send them upstairs with a cup of tea laced with poison.

The work-a-day conclusion to their dastardly doings is that husband John would rush in, late at night and stab the poisoned corpse just to make sure it was dead, and the two would take the proceeds and keep an eye out for another unsuspecting victim.

But one account suggests that Lavinia had a much more efficient way of disposing of the bodies.

John Peeples was tired and ready for rest when he arrived at Wayfarer House. Lavinia said she didn’t have a room; but she invited him in for a cup of tea and a rest.

She sat him down and questioned him for hours, his account goes. And having ascertained that he had considerable wealth on his person, she suddenly found that she did have a room, and asked him if he would like to stay.

What she didn’t know was that John Peeples hated tea.

He had found an unsuspecting pot plant and dumped the cup early on in the conversation, and he went to bed compos mentis, and really rather worried about what Lavinia had planned. He took an oak chair, pulled it over to the door, and slept there.

He awoke in the night to hear the incongruous sound of ironwork grating. Unable to believe his ears and eyes, he watched as the bed in the middle of the room collapsed. Legend has it that it deposited bodies into a pit below. Possibly (Grimm indeed) with spikes at the bottom.)

Of course he jumped out of the window and onto his horse and rode hell-for-leather to Charleston. Arrest and imprisonment followed: they were both holed up in a 6×8 room at the gaol, and one night knotted sheets and hung them from the window to escape. John got away but the sheets couldn’t stand the pressure, and he wouldn’t leave Lavinia.

She argued they couldn’t hang a married woman, so they hanged John the day before and settled for hanging a widow.

They say the old jail is haunted.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised.







31 thoughts on “Dance With The Devil In The Charleston Moonlight

  1. Kate: Know the story of Six-Mile, but didn’t know its connection to the Jail….Six-Mile is still here (two miles beyond Four-Mile, and a couple more miles beyond Cool Blow), but the hotel is not.

    1. Hi MTM! We still have that story of yours ringing in our ears. The kids were telling it again, gleefully, this evening. One of these days I might have to make a ghoulish little trip to Six-Mile. With a history like that the hotel would have found it impossible to thrive. What an atmospheric building that was, even standing outside win the brilliant sunshine and intense heat of that Charleston Saturday morning! I found myself wondering if Lavinia was buried under the council houses….thank you again for that walk. I hope by now you will realise just how memorable it was for all of us.

    1. There I was, on a tube on my way home from the British Museum, with a great big grin on my face after reading this comment, Lou. Thank you. Everyone should have a little cheerleading in their day.

    1. I know exactly what you mean, Tammy. For me, it was the vision, the final piece of drama which prompted her to utter those words. Like a piece of diabolical poetry. It would stick in the minds of the listeners forever, and guarantee her, even if she had lost her life horribly, a kind of immortality.

  2. Lavinia Fisher – one of my favorite restless ghosts! This legend is a favorite, too. Long before I knew of it, I read a short that must have been based on it. I believe the inn in the ghost story was called The Traveler’s Rest, an ominous moniker in light of what happened to the poor weary travelers! I’d forgotten about it, and now shall have to try to find it and its author again.

    1. It would have suited the Charlstonians, who had their very own Tea Party in 1774, dumping a number of chests of East India tea into the harbour! By the time the tea-murders were happening coffee must have become a little more popular.

  3. Chills up and down my old spine, dear Kate, and here you go, again telling a tale so well told – and just after I finished my cup of tea. Such a pair were Lavinia Fischer and her “accommodating” husband.

    1. I trust this answer finds you well, Penny, and that you have not encountered any dastardly mechanical beds since your comment. Accommodating indeed: the Fishers always had room for more cash….

    1. It really is, Debra, or we might never have had this story to pick over and ponder. The killings may just have faded undiscovered into the fabric of time. Mr Peeples had his uses 😀

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