Bruce Orr is single-handedly bursting the bubbles of Holy City crime buffs and ghost hunters alike. His new book, Six Miles to Charleston: The True Story of John and Lavinia Fisher, attempts to prove that some of the city's most notorious serial killers were little more than robbers — if that. The retired homicide investigator makes a convincing case in his book, which was released earlier this month by the History Press.
Like most children growing up in the Lowcountry, Orr, now 45, heard the story of John and Lavinia Fisher early in life. The familiar tale says that the Fishers owned the Six Mile Inn located just outside of town in the early 1800s. There they poisoned their guests with oleander tea, robbed them, and hacked up their bodies and stashed them in the cellar. When an intended victim escaped and alerted the authorities, the couple was arrested and held in the Old City Jail until their dramatic execution. Police found scores of skeletons rotting away in the Fishers' cellar.
"I looked at it from the perspective that Lavinia Fisher was supposed to be the first serial killer executed in America," Orr says. "Once I got into it and started looking at witness statements, court documents, and articles, I found out there's a whole different story."
Over the course of his research, Orr ran across only one record suggesting that the Fishers were serial killers: a book written by Scottish author Peter Nielson in 1830, 10 years after the couple's execution. Orr argues that the book was an example of a "penny dreadful," a National Enquirer-style publication popular in Europe during that period.
"He was just trying to make a buck off a novel," Orr says.
The most difficult part of his research, he says, was the unavailability of his witnesses.
"As an investigator, I had living witnesses," he says. The witnesses for this case, on the other hand, have been dead for more than a century.
Orr's next book, which explores some of Summerville's ghost stories, allows him to interview living subjects, including many elderly Flowertown residents.
"Myself, I'm pretty skeptical of ghosts, but I love talking to these people," he says. "My standard comment is I'm not going to believe in ghosts until I turn the corner and a ghost has a cup of coffee for me."
Despite his doubt, Orr admits to having experienced some unique phenomena in the course of his research, particularly at the Old City Jail — which John and Lavinia are said to haunt.
"I have been in that jail during the day and been creeped out," he says. "I've been doing research and heard someone calling 'help me,' but couldn't figure out where it was.
"I've got some photographs with some interesting things in them," he adds. "I can't say they're ghosts. I can't say they're not. I've been in that place and been as comfortable as I am in my own living room, and I've been in that place during times when I couldn't wait to get out of there. I was waiting for something to get me."
Or maybe it's just the Fishers, wanting to thank him for clearing their name.
"For 191 years, John and Lavinia Fisher have been a legend," Orr says. "Stories have been told about them and probably about 98 percent of them aren't true."
He adds, "If they had that trial today, there's no way they would be convicted."