My experience in the Old City Jail, Charleston, South Carolina
I sat with my feet dangling in the water of a pool at a house on the South Carolina coast. My friend had moved there from the mountains and was settling into a new routine of ocean life. An avid gardener, she told me about the trials and tribulations of Lowcountry vegetation.
She pointed to a shrub the lined the tall, iron fence around the pool. “The oleander needs trimming all the time.”
“Where does it grow?”
“Everywhere. It’s hard to contain.”
A few days later, I was touring the Old City Jail in downtown Charleston, learning about Lavinia Fisher and how she allegedly used oleander tea to earn the title of the first female serial killer in American history.
Her name and spirit have graced the production of many ghost hunting shows. Thousands of tourists line up each year to walk the empty rooms of the penitentiary where Lavinia spent her final year before being hanged for highway robbery. Scores of people perished in unspeakable conditions in one of the oldest cities in America, but what it is about Lavinia that keeps her story enduring for centuries?
In the early 1800’s Lavinia and her husband John ran an inn called The Six Mile House outside the cotton-rich city of Charleston. Named for the mile marker at which it rested, the inn housed merchants fat with the spoils of their sales as they came and went from the Holy City. The area was flourishing with cotton and indigo and tobacco, industries scaffolded by slavery.
There are many facets to the legend of Lavinia Fisher, but a common theme is that she served travelers oleander tea and plied them with her charm and beauty, keeping them engaged in conversation until she could discern whether they were worth robbing.
If they were traveling with wealth, the drugged lodgers would stumble off to bed where John murdered them. Some tales say he pulled a lever on a trap door that opened under the bed, impaling them in a pit. Other stories suggest he…