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Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Ballad of Frankie Silver


Charlie and Frankie Silver were the ideal young married couple, so the legend goes; he was strong and handsome, she was kind and beautiful. They lived an idyllic life, with their baby daughter, in a little cabin in the woods of Burke County, North Carolina. But things changed quickly when Frankie learned that Charlie had been seeing other women. Allegedly, one night in December 1831, she methodically and brutally murdered Charlie in his sleep. That is the legend of Frankie Silver, the reality is even darker. Frankie had endured physical abuse from Charlie throughout their marriage until, on that December night, she fought back to save her own life. Frankie Silver’s subsequent execution was a tragic miscarriage of justice.

Date:  December 22, 1831

Location: Burke County, North Carolina

Victim: Charles Silver

Cause of Death: Blows from an axe

Accused: Francis "Frankie" Stewart Silver

Recording:
"Frankie Silvers" - Clarence Ashley
 

Synopsis:
“The Ballad of Frankie Silver” is another great old North Carolina folk song that tells the story of an actual murder. And, like “Omie Wise” and “Tom Dooley” the story it tells is mostly fiction. The facts concerning the murder of Charlie Silver are sparse. Charlie and Frankie (both aged 19 or 20 in 1831) and their one year old daughter, Nancy, lived in a one room cabin near Toe River. We know that on December 23, 1831 Frankie Silver went to her mother-in-law’s cabin to ask if she had seen Charlie. Frankie said that he had gone on a hunting trip with a neighbor, George Young, but she had expected him home before then. Charlie’s parents had not seen him and thought Frankie was being unduly anxious. But when he was still missing on December 24, his father, John Silver accompanied Frankie to George Young’s house.

George Young told them there had been no plans for a hunting trip and, in fact, he had not seen Charlie since Thanksgiving. Frankie got angry and accused him of lying. John calmed her down and suggested they return to her cabin. There they found Charlie’s dog Drum outside the cabin. They knew Charlie would not have gone hunting without his dog, and that Drum never left his master’s side. Outside in the snow they found Charlie’s hat, a fur cap made from an albino raccoon. Now his father suspected foul play and called in the sheriff.

The sheriff began investigating, searching the woods and river near the cabin. John Silver got impatient and sent for a “Guinea Negro conjure man” – a slave at the home of Colonel Williams, who used a glass divining ball to locate missing objects and people. In some versions of the story it was Colonel Williams himself who had learned the skill from a slave, in others it was just a perceptive neighbor who saw bloodstains on the floor. In any case, the locator persuaded them to lift the floorboards. There they found huge splotches of blood and hunks of charred flesh and bone. They stirred the ashes in the fireplace and found them to be thick with grease. They also found a piece of iron that Frankie identified as part of the heel of Charlie’s hunting boot. The pieces of Charlie were quickly buried. As new pieces were found, the family, not wanting to disturb Charlie’s buried remains, dug new graves. Charlie Silver is burried in at least three graves. Frankie was arrested, along with her mother, Barbara Stuart, and her brother, Blackstone Stuart.

The Stuarts (later changed to Stewart) and the Silvers did not get along. The Stuarts were poor; the Silvers owned a considerable amount of land and were wealthy by comparison. The land under Charlie and Frankie’s cabin was a wedding gift from John Silver. The Stuart family planned to move west and had tried to persuade Charlie to sell the land and go with them. Charlie refused. This was thought to be the motive for the murder, and the reason other family members were arrested.

Frankie’s father, Isaiah Stuart, knew enough about the law to obtain a writ of habeas corpus and get his wife and son released from jail. Frankie was held in the Morganton, North Carolina jail for the murder of Charlie Silver and would say nothing about what had happened in the cabin other than assert her innocence. Frankie’s silence was offset by the Silver family who spoke volumes. Charlie’s brother Alfred, who was fifteen at the time, described what happed with a level of detail that he could not possibly have known. He said that Frankie had asked Charlie to chop some fire wood, knowing Charlie would soon be away hunting. Charlie cut down a hickory tree, then chopped and stacked enough firewood to last a week. Alfred continued,

“Being tired and sleepy after the labor of chopping , my brother lay down on the floor, close by the fire with his little girl in his arms, and went to sleep. His head rested on an inverted stool for a pillow. Franky gently took the baby from his breast, put it to bed, picked up the axe from the door, where she had placed it for the purpose, and whacked his head half off at a single blow. She intended to cut it clean off, but miscalculated and either stood too close or too far back. The first lick did not kill him instantly for he sprang to his feet and cried: ‘God bless the child!’ The wife fled to the bed by the child, and covered herself up, ‘til she heard Charles fall, then jumped out and finished the job with a second blow.”

Other members of the Silver family believed that Frankie’s parents were behind the killing. The legend among the Silvers says that Frankie’s father was in the cabin urging her to strike saying, “If you don’t kill him I will.” or “If you don’t kill him, I’ll kill you.” Some said Isaiah Stuart struck the second blow.

Trial: March 29, 1832

Frankie Silver’s trial lasted less than two days. Her attorney, Thomas Wilson, probably in consultation with her father, decided to continue denying everything, believing that the prosecution did not have enough evidence to convict Frankie of murder. The evidence was all circumstantial and it was not an easy case for the jury to decide. At one point in their deliberation, the jury was deadlocked at nine for acquittal and three for conviction. They asked if they could rehear some of the testimony, so the witnesses were called to testify again. In the end the jury found Frankie guilty of murder and she was sentenced to hang.

The case was appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court. At issue was the reexamination of witnesses. They had been isolated before their initial testimony but afterwards had been allowed to hear each other’s testimony. The state Supreme Court upheld the verdict. The date for Frankie’s execution was set for June 28, 1833.

Verdict:  Guilty of murder


Aftermath:
On May 18, 1832, with her execution just over a month away, Frankie Silver escaped from Morganton jail. Either her father was able to pick the locks or they had help from jailer John Maguire, who was known to have signed a petition asking the governor to pardon Frankie. Outside the jail Frankie cut her hair short and dressed like a boy. She went with her father and her uncle in a wagon heading for Tennessee. Their progress had been interrupted by a flooded river and Frankie was walking behind the wagon when they were apprehended by the law. According to Alfred Silver, the sheriff called out “Frankie?” to which she answered, “I thank you sir, my name is Tommy.” And her uncle added, “Yes, her name is Tommy.” Frankie was arrested and taken back to Morganton.

There is much folklore surrounding the hanging of Frankie Silver. It is sometimes said that she is the only woman ever hanged in North Carolina, or the first woman hanged in North Carolina. Her gravestone reads “Only woman ever hanged in Burke County.” None of these statements are true. She was not even the first woman hanged in Burke County. In 1813, a slave named Betsy was hanged as an accomplice in the murder of her master. In 1788 John and Elizabeth Wells were both hanged, probably in Morganton, for burning down a neighbor’s house.

Legend says that Frankie Silver was hanged from an oak tree in Morganton – even today, residents of Morganton can show you the tree— but it is more likely that she was hanged from a gallows constructed for her execution, as prisoners before and after her were. There are no eye witness accounts of the hanging, but second hand stories say that as many as ten thousand people came to watch only to find that a tall stockade fence had been built to conceal it from the public.

It is said that when Frankie was asked if she had any last words, she responded by reciting or singing the confessional verses we now know as “The Ballad of Frankie Silver.” This is not true. However, we do know that, in a bid for clemency, she did make a confession. Frankie could not read or write so the confession was dictated to her lawyer. Unfortunately there is no surviving copy of the confession, but we know it claimed that she swung the axe at Charlie in self-defense as he was loading his gun to kill her.

In the time between her conviction and the date of her execution, public sentiment turned in Frankie’s favor. Dozens of petitions were drawn up and sent to the governor requesting a pardon. Seven of the jurors who convicted Frankie signed a petition for her pardon. Governor Stokes said he would need all twelve signatures to pardon Frankie Silver.

The most impressive petition was from the ladies of Burke and Bundcombe Counties. It was extraordinary because of its strong wording, coming from citizens who, at the time, could not vote, serve on juries, or even hold property. In it they made the case that Frankie’s lawyer did not - that Frankie acted in self-defense and the homicide was justifiable.

“The husband of the unfortunate creature now before you we are informed, Sir, was one of that cast of manhood who are wholly dissolute of any of the feeling that is necessary to make a good Husband or parent—the neighborhood people are convinced that his treatment of her was both unbecoming and cruel very often and at the time too when female Delicacy would most forbid it. He treated her with personal violence. He was said by all the neighborhood to have been a man who never made use of any exertions to Support either his wife or child which terminated as frequently the case that those duties Nature ordered and intend the husband to perform were thrown to her. His own relatives admit of his having been a lazy and trifling man.”

The governor, now David L. Swain, was moved by the petition and the confession, but not to the point of clemency. On July 12, 1833, Frankie Silver, wearing a white dress made for her by the ladies of Burke County, was hanged in Morganton, North Carolina.




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




Sources:
Websites:
Young, Perry Deane. The Untold Story of Frankie Silver: Was She Unjustly Hanged?Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2005.

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

Patterson, Daniel W. A Tree Accurst: Bobby McMillon and Stories of Frankie Silver. Chapel Hill, NC:University of North Carolina Press. 2000.

Burt, Olive Woolley. American Murder Ballads and Their StoriesOxford University Press, 1958.

Video:
The Ballad of Frankie Silver 

Gravesite (from Findagrave)

12 comments :

Anonymous says:
January 10, 2011 at 7:35 PM

What happened to little Nancy Silver ? Who raised her,and who did she marry ?

Robert Wilhelm says:
January 11, 2011 at 8:54 PM

Here is what it says at the website of the Frankie Foundation (http://frankiesilverdrama.org/html/relatives.html)

"Nancy, Frankie and Charlie's daughter, was assigned by the court to the custody of Frankie's mother, Barbara Stewart. At the age of eighteen, she was to receive:

'one cow and calf, two suits of clothes, one good bed and furniture and twelve months schooling.'

Nancy married twice and had seven children. Many direct descendants of Frankie and Charlie live in the western North Carolina area today and across the country as well."

They also have a book for sale called "Nancy's Story: To Right the Legend of Frankie Silver" but I haven't seen it and can't vouch for the quality.

Anonymous says:
February 14, 2012 at 5:44 PM

The article states that Frankie Silver was hanged in Morganton, South Carolina. Actually the hanging took place in Morganton, Burke County, North Carolina. Just saying.

Robert Wilhelm says:
February 15, 2012 at 7:42 PM

Oops, bad proofreading. It is correct now.

Anonymous says:
March 18, 2012 at 6:04 PM

where are nancy's living relatives now? her children,grand children and so on?

Anonymous says:
June 2, 2012 at 9:49 AM

Since Nancy had so many children herself (common for the era), and since several of them in turn had large families, there are quite a few living descendants. Nancy's first husband, David Parker,was killed during the very last days of the War Between the States. David & Nancy were my Great-Great Grandparents.
Tom Savage
Merritt Island, FL

Casey Norris says:
August 29, 2012 at 6:19 PM

I love reading about this. Nancy and David were my 4th great grandparents. It is believed that Frankie Silver's family was cursed after her hanging. In my opinion, I think that it's somewhat true because later on in time, there was a witch (my great-great grandmother) who did kill someone and abused my great grandfather who then abused my Nana. My Uncle was just recently murdered by his wife also. Reading other's comments, I do have pictures of David himself. I also have another of his daughter, Rhetta, who was my 3rd great grandmother and her children.

Anonymous says:
October 25, 2012 at 10:46 AM

My grandfathers family is a direct decendent to Charles Silver

Mikey Greene says:
May 1, 2013 at 12:47 PM

I live in morganton nc and ive seen frankies grave but dnt know if its true....ive heard ther are 3 locations where she is buried

About PMAC says:
January 17, 2014 at 12:48 AM

so because she supposidly had a less than perfect husband she had every right to hack him to death and dismember him and burn his body parts in the fire. Using the same very wood that he had cut up for her while he was away hunting? Let me tell you this.. She had enough wood to burn a whole body up with exception of entrails. This was a HANEOUS ACT.. and what made it worse was the fact she had tried to cover it up.

ANY attempt to make her look like a poor beaten lil slight woman she was is a bunch of hear say. There were no factual proof of him ever being ugly to her. Nothing but rumors and speculation. The man was hacked to death and done away with in such an ugly fashion she was right to be hung.. What if this was YOUR son or family member she did this to? I am one of his family members. This is a total JUNK page of false information.

Robert Wilhelm says:
January 17, 2014 at 3:27 PM

She was executed, so what more do you want?

This is a very old case so much of what is believed to be true is just legend. I'm not justifying anything, I am just trying to get closer to the truth. I have listed my sources so you can check them yourself. Most now believe that Frankie acted in self defense. If so, then she probably should not have been hanged.

Brian Sammons says:
April 4, 2014 at 1:43 AM

Frankie is my wife's 4th great-grandmother..The only people who know what really happened that night are all dead so instead of Bashing someone you don't even know cause they died many many years ago why don't we all let the past rest in the past....

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