Recorded history has an unfortunate tendency to bury or simply ignore the achievements of women in our world. Before the 2016 film addressing this issue, Hidden Figures, few knew of the brilliant work of three African American women that gave NASA an edge in the space race. Their story is one of many that may never see the light of day. Much in the same way women’s achievements and contributions to mankind have been swept under the rug of history, their crimes are often overshadowed by their more notorious male counterparts.
Researching serial killers, one has to scroll a ways down past the Dahmers and Gacys of the world before hitting on a single female. Other than perhaps Eileen Wuornos, famously portrayed by Charlize Theron in Monster, the serial killer deck is overwhelmingly stacked in favor of men when it comes to notoriety. The celebrity attached to killers is very real, and has led to countless films, books and television shows seeking to explore the minds of these individuals.
Such fame has, for the most part, eluded women who kill, despite their murders being just as intriguing as and often more terrifying than the men standing in the serial killer spotlight. Perhaps we’re just more comfortable with the idea of a man committing violence, as it fits more comfortably with traditional gender roles. These killers don’t fit this preconceived notion. We’re more content with the woman as nurturer archetype.
This is a big part of what makes the women in this series so unsettling. A number of them worked as nurses or caretakers, people you might be quick to trust with your own well-being or that of a loved one. These women knew how to exploit this trust and draw their victims close. These killers you never see until it’s too late.
Part I: The Legend of Lavinia Fisher
We’re starting things off with a woman widely cited as America’s first female serial killer: Lavinia Fisher. Long before H.H. Holmes and his “murder castle,” Lavinia and her husband John owned and operated the original hotel of horror, the Six Mile Wayfarer House near Charleston, South Carolina in the early 1800’s. Like Holmes’ castle, the hotel came fully equipped with all the trappings of an evil lair. Complete with hidden rooms and passages and a bed designed to fall through a trap door at the flip of a switch.
According to legend, Lavinia would employ her considerable looks and charm to lure men to the parlor of the hotel and offer them tea. After imbibing the drug-laden beverage, the victim would be put to bed and subsequently swallowed by the trap door on a one-way trip to the basement. Rumors began to circulate after a number of men disappeared with their last known location being the Wayfarer House. Absent proof, Lavinia and her husband initially evaded prosecution, claiming ignorance of the whereabouts of the men in question after they left the hotel.
It wasn’t until a man by the name of John Peeples came for a stay that things took a turn. As was her method, Lavinia offered Peeples some tea, and they sat and talked. Fortunately for the intended victim, he didn’t much care for the Fisher’s particular brand of tea, and took an opportunity when Lavinia wasn’t looking to dispose of it in secret, as not to offend his host. Believed to be sufficiently drugged, Peeples was led to a recently vacated room where he remained awake in a chair by the door, unable to shake an uneasy feeling about his conversation with Lavinia. After some time, Peeples was startled by a loud bang as the bed across the room suddenly disappeared. After peering down into a dark basement through a newly opened hole in the floor, Peeples hastily escaped out of a window and made for the Charleston police station.
The subsequent investigation turned up enough evidence to convict the couple, and the two were sentenced to death by hanging. While jailed in the same facility, awaiting an appeal for their conviction, Lavinia and John set to planning their escape. This took the form of a long rope fashioned from bed sheets they tied together. The attempt was almost a success, but the makeshift rope broke after John reached the ground. Unwilling to leave his wife trapped in the cell, John turned himself back in and the two were kept under much heavier security.
On the day of their execution, February 18, 1820, John went quietly, offering an apology to anyone he had offended in life before he was hanged. Lavinia on the other hand offered no such apology, opting instead to arrive to her execution dressed in her wedding gown. According to the law at the time, a married woman could not be executed, which is why John was first to hang, rendering her a widow. When it came time for her last words, Lavinia addressed the crowd, inviting any man present to marry her in a last ditch effort to stay her fate. When no one took a knee for her, she turned on them shouting, “If any of you has a message for the Devil, tell me now… for I will be seeing him in moment.” With that she took her own life, opting to jump from the hanging platform rather than wait for the executioner. According to witnesses of the event, Lavinia left this earth with a chilling sneer frozen on her face as she hung.
Much of this particular version of the legend of Lavinia Fisher has been disputed or downright debunked, however it remains the most colorful telling of what transpired at the Six Mile Wayfarer House. For a different, perhaps more historically sound version of this story check out Sword and Scale’s article The Truth Behind the Legend of Lavinia Fisher. Stay tuned for further entries in this series, next week we delve into the story of the six foot tall, 200 pound killing machine Belle Gunness. See you then.