If you’ve ever watched a historical drama (or maybe just Pirates of the Caribbean), it’s easy to imagine being transported back to the “prime” of Charleston’s Old City Jail. The building itself has hardly changed since its original construction in 1802 – and is claimed to have one of the darkest histories in the Charleston area. By some accounts, 10,000 people have died in the jail from either execution, injury, or illness.
In maps dating all the way back to Charleston’s earliest settlement, you can clearly see that the four acres of property under the Old City Jail were always “public use.” Starting in 1680, the land served as a hospital, poor house, workhouse for runaway slaves, and jail. Over time, the emphasis on the jail-part grew. Ultimately, the jail came to house some of Charleston’s most notorious criminals, including some of the last famous high-sea pirates and even America’s first female serial killer.
One of the most notorious historical characters in Charleston history is Lavinia Fisher – a femme fatale who is believed to be the first convicted female serial killer in the US – and also the first woman to be executed for such crimes.
Lavinia and her husband, John, ran a small inn called the Six Mile Wayfarer House, which was set six miles north of Charleston. The local authorities began to investigate the inn and its owners after receiving many complaints from locals that men who were expected to be staying there had suddenly vanished.
Legend says that Lavinia would lure wealthy men to the inn. Once at the inn, Lavinia would set them up with a room and make them a cup of oleander tea, which would cause them to lose consciousness.
There are two different accounts of what happened next – one being that her husband, John, would then enter the room and murder the drugged man. The other rumor was that the bed served as a trap door to the cellar, where John would stash their bodies.
Regardless of the story, the outcome was that these men would be stripped of their belongings and disappear. And while none of these murders were ever proven, two men did manage to escape the Fishers and then report the incident to authorities. Afterwards, authorities discovered that the Fishers were connected to a local gang who had been known to beat and rob travelers. The gang frequently used the Fishers’ inn as a hideout.
After police made this discovery, the Fishers and the gang members were arrested. However, immediately after their arrest the inn was burnt to the ground, destroying any evidence. The Fishers were later found guilty of highway robbery, a capital offense.
While awaiting their sentencing, officers allowed John and Lavinia to share a cell in this prison. During this time, they hatched a plan to escape by rope through a window. However, the rope they managed to get their hands on ended up breaking during the escape act, leaving Lavinia trapped inside the cell. Though John had successfully escaped, rather than leave Lavinia entrapped in the prison, he chose to be re-imprisoned.
The Old City Jail was most recently bought by Landmark Enterprises, with the intention of renovating the building and using the space for offices. To read more about their plans, see below:
Posts are a combination of my own research, visits, and conversations, plus various information found around the web. I try to provide sources, but if you have specific questions, feel free to ask!