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Lavinia Fisher’s Loophole

 

I just returned from work in Charleston, South Carolina. While there I also took one of their historical bus tours. The picture here is the old jail. Because of preservation laws, it cannot be torn down. So, it sits unoccupied except for periodic tours.

The jail comes with many stories that include the story of one former occupant, Lavinia Fisher. According to our tour guide, how she got there and her resulting death has become a merger of history and legend.

 

Lavinia Fisher and her husband owned and managed a hotel named the Six Mile Wayfarer House. It was located about six miles outside of Charleston. The Fishers were also known for making money by coming to town to sell things.

After a short time, several reports were made to the local sheriff’s office about motel guests disappearing. Of course, the Fishers simply said that the guests had left and their whereabouts were unknown to them.

One day, a John Peeples went by for a room and was told that there were no vacancies. The Fishers did offer him tea. Despite Peeples not liking tea, he did not want to offend their hospitality and accepted a cup. While Lavinia was not looking he poured it out.

While sitting with the Fishers during this time, he was quizzed about his life and work. Lavinia’s husband kept giving him odd looks during the conversation. After a period of time, Lavinia left the room and soon returned with great news; they now had a vacancy. So, Peeples was given lodging.

When he went upstairs to his room, he could not get the curious looks and conversation out of his head. So, instead of sleeping in the bed, he slept in a chair near the door. In the middle of the night, there was a large bang, as his supposed bed went crashing through the floor and out of sight. Peeples immediately leaped out the window, climbed on his horse and rode quickly to town.

The Sheriff returned to question the Fishers. He still believed that something was going on there, due to the prior disappearances. Now, he had someone claiming that  the Fishers had tried to rob him.

Through investigation, it was determined that Lavinia had been drugging or poisoning the travelers that would stay at the motel. Then, when those unsuspecting guests went to bed, if they had not died from the tea, the collapsing bed would ultimately kill them. The sheriff found several items in his preliminary search that revealed a connection to the missing travelers. Then a full search of the house found the remains of several bodies in the Fisher basement.

The Fishers were tried and convicted of highway robbery, which was a capital offense at that time. Both of the Fishers were convicted and sentenced to death by hanging.

At the time, a woman could not be executed if she was married. Lavinia argued that a sentence of death was against the law. So, the Judge informed her that her husband would be put to death first, so that she would not be married at the time of her hanging. When hearing that, she asked the Judge to allow her to be hanged in her wedding dress and to be able to say some final words at her hanging. Those strange requests were granted.

Sure enough, her husband was hanged the day before Lavinia. So, when she was taken before the crowd to be hanged the next day, there she stood in her wedding gown. The assigned priest was next to the gallows. Lavinia came up with a loophole for the law.

History records that she was a woman of great beauty. She stepped forward and called out to the men present and invited any man to marry her. If someone took her up on the invitation, she could not be hanged. When no one stepped forward for her hand in marriage, she angrily began screaming and pointing to the local socialites and blamed them for her conviction. Then, she shouted out, “If any of you has a message for the Devil, tell me now… for I will be seeing him in a moment”.

Then, she jumped from the gallows without waiting for the executioner. In doing so, she committed suicide. Legend says that she was kicking and screaming for over 15 minutes before the noose finally choked her to death. She was unable to convince anyone to help her take advantage of that legal loophole. Instead, she still faced the real loophole.

On February 4, 1820, Lavinia Fisher became the first woman to be hanged in the United States. Witnesses record that 27-year-old Lavinia Fisher never showed any remorse. Instead, she went to her death with a chilling sneer and wicked stare at onlookers.

For pic o’ day, I wanted to somehow mention the great Charleston hush puppies. One restaurant was even giving them out on the street. Guess that’s why there are T-shirts that say this:


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