Occupation: Production Assistant
Residence: Charleston, South Carolina
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/1/20
Primary Language: English
Subject: There was a traveller coming into downtown Charleston everyday to do business during the year… I’m gonna say 1850. He was coming from the North, from around Georgetown, and back in the olden’ days unless you wanted to add like, a couple days to your trip to go up the Cooper River and find a crossing, you’d have to stop… in somewhere that is now Mt. Pleasant and spend the night to cash a boat to get to Downtown Charleston the next day. So sure enough this is what he had to do. He stopped in an inn run by husband and wife John and Lavinia Fisher. And there were always rumors that circled around this couple, but it was mostly just gossip, not much of any real substance. They had a really crazy reputation… The wife- Lavinia- was supposedly one of the most beautiful women anyone had ever seen. Whereas John was this big, quiet, intimidating, imposing presence. No one paid him any attention when Lavinia was at his side. So… this traveller stops in this inn, hitches his horse, comes inside, and is greeted by Lavinia. She takes his coat, John takes his stuff up to his room…um… and the traveller is intrigued at first. He’s like “I’ve heard so many things about this couple, I’m just gonna observe and play along and see if I can tell any gossip to people I’m doing business with tomorrow in Charleston.”
Everything goes smoothly until they sit down for dinner with a few other boarders. And the traveller realizes John and Lavinia are angling their questions mostly at him. Um… and the questions are never innocent questions. They were like… “Do you have a family?” “What is your business in Charleston?” Things like “Is anyone expecting you home and how much money are you carrying?” He started to get weirded out. The boarders all go to bed, John and Lavinia stay up with the traveller. Lavinia then offers him a cup of tea! Not wanting to be rude, he accepts it. And the traveller, so as not to raise any suspicion, pretends to drink it. At this point, he’s unsettled but he also already paid for his room. And he’s thinking, “I could just be freaking myself out because yeah I’ve heard things about these people… about their guests going missing. But like… no one does that! They’re just being nice and I’m being paranoid.” But he goes to bed that night and finds that he cannot sleep. Then he hears footsteps like, outside his room, and he recognizes them as John’s. So he hops out of bed and hides behind the chair in his room. The footsteps go away and he stands up. Then he looks out the window to make sure his horse is still hitched. Then he hears this like, giant clatter, and the whole room shakes. When he looks back to his bed, there’s just an empty void in the floor. So he’s like, “I’m out.” So he hops out his window, jumps on his horse, and just books it to the dock, where he is the first person on the boat a couple hours later.
When he gets to Charleston, he tells the authorities there’s some shady stuff going down in the room. So they authorities go to the Inn, and they find… that all of the beds… are equipped with this mechanism that like… drops their guests into this murder dungeon! And they find like twelve bodies! Like this is real. John was executed, Lavinia had to watch. John’s neck didn’t break immediately, and he struggled for like… minutes. And Lavinia watched. And when it was her turn- by the way as the first woman executed in America- she looked to the crowd of curious onlookers and said… this is crazy… So Lavinia looks to the crowd of curious, morbid onlookers and she says, “If any of you have a message for the devil, tell it to me now, for I will be seeing him soon.” And then that bitch was hanged. And… she apparently still haunts the jail.
Interviewer: Holy shit.
Subject: I know I know! I loved this legend as a little girl. I think my grandma first told it to me. My grandma is like super southern. And like yeah… Lavinia is terrifying but that last line always hit so hard. I think that’s why I remember it so well.
Context: The subject is a 23-year-old white woman born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. She is of French Huguenot descent and her ancestors settled in Charleston, South Carolina and New Orleans, Louisiana. She is currently quarantining at her home in Charleston with her family. She is a close family friend, and knowing she and the rest of her family have deep ties with Southern history and folklore, I called her up over FaceTime and asked if she would mind sharing any legends she knew.
Interpretation: I too was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina, and am all too familiar with the legend of Lavinia Fisher. This particular legend seems to be heavily commercialized in the Charleston tourism industry. I first heard it when I went on a walking ghost tour with three other tourists. Though much of this legend seems to have a factual historical basis, I know that certain elements are dramatized. Lavinia and John actually ran an inn, actually murdered people, and were actually executed. But I have heard differing iterations of the legend from the subject’s version. For example, rather than the subject’s account of Lavinia’s final words, I have heard the version, “I you have a message you want to send to Hell- give it to me. I’ll carry it.” Additionally, the concept of the beds opening up to a deadly dungeon is not necessarily based in fact, and was likely added into the legend through the years for dramatic effect. While the subject mentions only twelve bodies, other accounts mention hundreds. There is also the well known claim that Lavinia wore her wedding dress to her execution. And so on and so forth, the variations go.
Regardless, the most fascinating aspect of the legend is how much of it is based on fact, which is quite a lot of it.
For more on Lavinia, see:
Weiser, Kathy. “Lavinia Fisher.” Legends of America, 19 Dec. 2019, www.legendsofamerica.com/sc-laviniafisher/.