By Michael Trouche

Old District Jail

Still towering over Downtown Charleston with a menacing-but-memorable facade is the old District Jail on Magazine Street. Never mind the sign out front that calls it the “city jail” — it was never that and all Charleston’s city jails were in police stations as they are today. After the Revolution each district or county was required to have its own jail but it took years before the money was raised for the Magazine Street structure, which first opened its cells in 1802.

Originally a large masonry box, notable changes were made by Robert Mills in the 1820s. In the 1850s Louis Barbot and John Sayle added the crenelated towers and rear octagon that give the jail the look of a giant castle. It was reduced by one story after the 1886 earthquake caused serious damage.

The most baleful tale of the jail is that of Lavinia Fisher. She and her husband John operated a tavern just outside the city in the early 1800s. They were leaders of a gang notorious for way-laying unsuspecting guests and stealing their valuables. For this they were arrested in 1819. In those days, highway robbery was a hanging offense and legal proceedings dragged on for nearly a year while Lavinia and John were locked up. She was apparently a strikingly beautiful woman with a very compelling nature and a petition was created in the city calling on Governor John Geddes to pardon her from the ignominy of the rope.

According to the infamous legend, Lavinia requested to be hanged in her white wedding dress as a sign of defiance. When brought to the gallows at the jail she mocked those in attendance and told them that if they had any messages for the devil, she would be with him shortly.

The true facts of her hanging were described by John Blake White, who was allowed to interview the Fishers and observe the execution. They were hanged near present day Line Street and the “wedding dress” was actually a white tunic that prisoners wore on the journey from the jail to the gibbet. Lavinia was hardly defiant in the end. Expecting to be read an order of clemency she only heard the pronouncement of her sentence and had to be carried, kicking and screaming, to the gallows.

Yes, the jail is a quite a story, but not all of what is told is true.

Pete’s Grocery

Older Charlestonians can remember when there were quite a few commercial establishments south of Broad Street, but perhaps none more colorful than Pete’s Grocery. The old corner store was in the ground floor of the house at 58 Meeting St. and had been purchased by Pete Christantou in 1917 who, with his brother Harry, ran the business day and night for nearly 65 years.

The place had doors from both Tradd and Meeting Streets and plate glass windows crowded with stacks of cans, crates and boxes. Inside, the place was dark and cluttered with dry goods probably put on the shelves around World War I. There were old cans with faded labels, sacks of rice and flour and an assortment of smaller items, such as candy and cigarettes which were sold by the piece. Customers could buy a single cigarette or piece of bubble gum, or reach into the little cooler near the window for a single soda or beer and spend less than 50 cents.

The money you saved buying drinks from the cooler was hardly worth the electric shock that often accompanied the reach into the chilled water. Beneath the old cooler were ancient crisscrossed wires that frequently made grabbing a Schlitz or a Sprite a high voltage encounter.

I never heard the men say very much or move very far inside the store, except to shoo away teenagers who thought they could sneak one past the old codgers and buy beer. I can still remember pulling a can of Falstaff from the cooler and turning to see Pete suddenly appear next to me. “You ehyunt ehyteen,” he said in his classic Charlestonese and without a hint of expression took the can out of my hand and put it back in the cooler.

We had always heard the old stories about Pete and Harry raising gamecocks behind the building for illegal fights upstairs and assumed the old boys might wink at teenagers buying an occasional six-pack. But Pete and Harry were from the old school and wouldn’t sell to anyone who wasn’t large enough to look them in the eye.

As it turned out, their eyes weren’t that sharp and we soon found the solution to our beer-buying dilemma. Nearby lived Demi Howard, who was already a head taller than Pete despite being in the 10th grade. After much pleading, we convinced Demi to procure the suds for us. In the dim light of the store, the ruse was a success and we ran off into the night with five prized cans, giving one to Demi as payment.

Today, there is little evidence of the old grocery. The house has been meticulously restored to its 1770s grandeur and the only sign of Pete or Harry is the brief mention of their ownership on a plaque outside. But for many of us they are still there, embedded in memories that become more colorful with each passing year.

Charleston Hotel

One of the most memorable images of antebellum Charleston is the façade of the Charleston Hotel, spanning the block between Hayne and Pinckney streets with 14 two-story Corinthian columns on a massive raised basement. Completed in 1839, it stood majestically for nearly 120 years as a symbol of Charleston’s classic beauty before falling in a few hours to a wrecking crew, becoming a painful reminder of the city’s lost historic treasures.

The hotel had been finished a year earlier in the spring of 1838 and was instantly acclaimed by local newspapers for its “dynamic high-style urbanity.” But within days of its opening the entire building was in ashes, gutted by fire. Investors were undaunted and with the help of local “fire loans” that were made available from a city bursting with wealth, the hotel was rebuilt in the exact same style within a year. It attracted notable guests such as Daniel Webster and Jenny Lind. The South Carolina Jockey Club and other elite local societies began to hold regular meetings inside what was certainly among the most elegant interiors in Charleston, featuring a domed iron-and-glass pavilion illuminated by elegant gas chandeliers.

For wealthy Charlestonians, dining at the new hotel was comparable to being entertained in Europe, as French and Swiss chefs were employed to prepare outlandish menus brimming with venison, quail and wild turkey served with crystal, linens and brass cuspidors.

The stately building infused a bustling air to this part of town, which by 1860 featured the opulent Market Hall and the cavernous Institute Hall. This elegant aura changed drastically after a huge 1861 fire and a devastated post-bellum economy turned much of Meeting Street into a crumbling wasteland.

Hard times turned the Charleston Hotel into a mass of gaping emptiness. By the 1880s, rooms were being rented to local boarders and the heralded culinary mystique faded into jokes about “big columns outside, tough steaks inside.” In a highly publicized incident in 1893, Governor Ben Tillman visited the hotel incognito and found evidence of illegal whisky sales, ending one of the hotels’ few profitable enterprises.

By the 1950s plans were announced to demolish the structure and replace it with a motor court motel. Preservationists battled, but in 1960 the wrecking ball won. A recent bank constructed on the property attempted to incorporate the old facade into its design but it sure isn’t the same. Comparing the front of the old hotel to the building today is a very valuable lesson in historic preservation.

 

Michael Trouche, a seventh-generation Charlestonian, is the owner and operator of Charleston Footprints; those interested in booking one his acclaimed tours may reach Mr. Trouche at (843) 478-4718 or via This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Mercury newspapers can be found at the following locations:

Burbage's

Buxton Books

Caviar & Bananas

The Meeting Street Inn (Rack)

Clair's Service Station, Folly Rd. (Rack)

Harris Teeter, Houston-Northcutt Blvd. (Rack)

Mt. Pleasant Library, Mathis Ferry Rd. (Rack)

Pitt St. Pharmacy

The Square Onion, I'On (Rack)