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Monday, November 2, 2009

Poor 'Omie - The Murder of Naomi Wise

The haunting folk ballad "Omie Wise" has kept the story of Naomi Wise's murder alive for more than two hundred years. According to legend, Naomi Wise, a poor but beautiful orphan girl, was courted by Jonathan Lewis, son of a wealthy farmer. His mother persuaded him to stop the courtship but not before Naomi became pregnant with Jonathan's child. To avoid marriage and scandal, Jonathan Lewis drowned Naomi Wise in Deep River. That is the traditional tale of Naomi Wise, but how much of it is true?

Date:  Spring 1807

Location:  Randolph County, North Carolina

Victim: Naomi Wise

Cause of Death:  Drowning

Accused:  Jonathan Lewis

"Little Omie Wise" - Doc Watson
Naomi Wise was extraordinarily beautiful, so the story goes. "Her size was medium, her figure beautifully formed, her face handsome and expressive, her eyes keen yet mild, her words soft and winning." wrote nineteenth century author Braxton Craven. She was an orphan, indentured as a child to William and Mary Adams, farmers in Randolph County, North Carolina, who raised Naomi as a daughter.

Jonathan Lewis lived in Guilford County but worked in Asheboro as a clerk in a store owned by Benjamin Elliot. He boarded with his employer on workdays, and each Saturday night he would ride fifteen miles back to his family's home, each Sunday night he would ride back to Asheboro. His route took him past the Adams's farm. Craven described Lewis as, "a large well built dignified looking man. He was young, daring and impetuous. ...His smile was like sunbeams bursting through a cloud illuminated every continence upon which it fell." Naomi would watch in admiration as he rode by each week.

Once, as Naomi was carrying water from the spring, Jonathan stopped and asked if he could have a drink of water. She obliged, then he dismounted and helped her carry her buckets to the house. Naomi fell in love with Jonathan Lewis then, and he seemed smitten as well. He would stop on each journey and they would spend time together by Adams's spring.

Naomi thought that she and Jonathan would soon marry and began to prepare for the wedding. But Jonathan's mother had other ideas. His employer, Mr. Elliot, had a daughter, Hattie, who Mrs. Lewis thought would be a perfect match for her son. At his mother's insistence, Jonathan began courting Hattie Elliot, and would ride by Adams's farm without stopping.

Naomi's heart was broken. She thought she had been engaged to Jonathan Lewis but he proved faithless. When this news reached Hattie Elliot, she confronted Jonathan who said the rumors were untrue, he was never engaged to Naomi, he loved only Hattie.

One April afternoon Naomi picked up the pails and went to the spring to fetch some water. She never returned. By the spring a search party found a woman's footprints leading to a tree stump. On the other side of the stump were hoof prints. Naomi had used the stump to climb onto a horse, behind Jonathon Lewis. She thought he had come to marry her and got on his horse willingly. They stopped near a ford in Deep River; he dismounted and helped Naomi down. Then he strangled her and threw her into the river. When he knew she had drowned he rode away.

Naomi's body was found tangled in weeds growing near the shore of Deep River. Her neck had been bruised and the coroner gave the cause of death as "drowning by violence." His examination also revealed that Naomi had been pregnant when she died.
There was little question who was responsible. The sheriff and his deputy rode off to arrest Jonathan Lewis. He was captured and jailed, but they did not hold him long enough for a trial. He escaped after being held only thirty days.

That is the traditional story of Naomi Wise, first published in 1851 by Braxton Craven (under the name Charlie Vernon) and reprinted many time since. Craven's version is a somewhat romanticized version of the true story.

The facts in the case are sparse. Contrary to Craven’s story (and Naomi’s tombstone) she died in 1807, not 1808. Jonathan Lewis was arrested for the murder of Naomi Wise on April 8, 1807. His trial was scheduled for October 26, but he escaped from jail on October 9, and fled Randolph County. He was recaptured in 1811 but did not go to trial until two years later. He was tried and found guilty of escaping from jail. He was never tried for the murder of Naomi Wise.

In her 2003 book, Naomi Wise, Creation, Re-Creation and Continuity in an American Ballad Tradition, Eleanor R. Long-Wilgus included a long poem entitled “A True Account of Nayomy Wise." The poem was handwritten by Mary Woody not long after the murder but was unknown until the 1980s. Mary Woody's very detailed account of the murder is quite different than Braxton Craven's. Not a beautiful orphan girl, Naomi Wise was quite a bit older than Jonathan Lewis, and already had two illegitimate children when she met him. She was not seeking marriage from Lewis but a payment so she would not name him as father of her child, which, by the laws of North Carolina, would have required him to pay a sizeable basdardy bond to support the child.

Trial: October 4, 1813

Verdict:  Jonathan Lewis was found guilty of breaking jail.  He was fined "ten pounds and cost" and sentenced to thirty days in jail.

In Craven's version Lewis was acquitted of Naomi's murder because the evidence was circumstantial and on his deathbed Jonathan Lewis admitted to drowning Naomi Wise, providing the story's needed closure.  While this is the story that lives on in song and legend, in fact, no one knows who killed Naomi Wise.

This is one of 50 stories featured in the new book
The Bloody Century

Long-Wilgus, Eleanor R. Naomi Wise: Creation, Re-Creation, and Continuity in an American Ballad Tradition. New York: Chapel Hill, 2003. Print.

Wellman, Manly Wade. Dead and Gone. New York: University of North Carolina, 1980.

Craven, Braxton. Naomi Wise, or,: The wrongs of a beautiful girl (A true story). 1896 (originally 1851)

Gravesite (from Findagrave)

Ballad Lyrics (from Mudcat Cafe)


Asha says:
February 17, 2012 at 8:54 PM

This is the best "ballad" I have ever read. Absolutely loved it. I know it is bad to love the murder of an orphan, or a "cougar" which ever may have been true; but it is absolutely briliant. Do you know if there is any "new" ideas about what really happened?

Robert Wilhelm says:
February 21, 2012 at 12:58 PM

I think its OK to love the story without loving the crime. I haven't heard anything newer than the Eleanor Lont-Wilgus book.

Caroline says:
March 2, 2012 at 5:56 PM

Asha, I don't think it's bad. I'm the same way. I find murder cases revolting, yet strangely fascinating. Then again, I'm kind of morbid.

GMH says:
November 29, 2012 at 3:39 AM

Asheville is nearly 3 hours west of Guilford County by interstate. Asheboro, which is due south, is located in Randolph County. Similar names - different geography.

GMH says:
November 29, 2012 at 3:40 AM

Asheville is nearly 3 hours west of Guilford County by interstate. Asheboro, which is due south, is located in Randolph County. Similar names - different geography.

Robert Wilhelm says:
November 29, 2012 at 12:14 PM

You're right it should be Asheboro. I have changed the post.

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