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?
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.
The stories behind murder ballads are never as pretty as the songs. The story behind “Tom Dooley” – the 1866 murder of Laura Foster by Tom Dula in Elkville, North Carolina – is particularly ugly. Tom Dula was having an affair with Mrs. Ann Foster Melton and when her cousin Pauline Foster came to work at the Melton home, Tom Dula had her too. They had another cousin, Laura Foster, and Tom took her to bed as well. One member of this group contracted syphilis and soon they were all infected. Tom blamed Laura and threatened revenge. Laura Foster’s body was found in a shallow grave and Tom Dula had left for Tennessee. Might have gotten away, “Hadn’t been for Grayson.”
Poor Ellen Smith -1892
The morning of July 21, 1892 the body of Ellen Smith was found behind the Zinzendorf Hotel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She had been shot through the heart. The story of Ellen Smith’s murder is a classic tale of seduction and betrayal. A beautiful but innocent young woman strays from the path of righteousness for a faithless lover who soon becomes her killer. It is the stuff of Victorian cautionary literature and mountain murder ballads.
Saturday, August 20, 2016
North Carolina's greatest murders have found their way into enduring American folk songs - not always accurate but always engaging.