Lonesome Liz & The Seeger Songs: Frankie Silver

Frankie Silver, hung at age eighteen for the grisly murder and dismemberment of her husband Charlie  in 1831 North Carolina, has inspired songs, Sharyn McCrumb’s novel The Ballad of Frankie Silver, a ballet and also William Gregg & Perry Dean Young’s play Frankie. Few facts of the matter are or were known, now or at the time.

 

Lonesome Liz: Frankie Silver and the Conjure Man

The original Ballad of Frankie Silver (1886): http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/nchist-antebellum/5458

What is known is that Charlie and Frankie lived in a one room cabin with their baby, Nancy, near the colorfully named Toe River. On December 23, Frankie turned up at her mother-in-law’s cabin. Their conversation went something like this:

Frankie: “Have you seen Charlie? He went hunting with George but should’ve been home by now.”

Mother in Law: “No, we ain’t seen him. Why you so stirred up over him bein’ late back from huntin’?”

On December 24, Frankie and Charlie’s father, John headed over to the home of the hunting buddy:

George: I ain’t seen Charlie since Thanksgiving.

Frankie: You’re lyin’! Where’s my husband!!??!!

John: Frankie, calm down, lets just go on to your place.

(They go to her cabin, discover Charlie’s dog outside)

John: Charlie didn’t go huntin’ or anywhere else without Drum. (walks a few yards, finds Charlie’s albino squirrel hat in the snow) Coulda been here a while with no one noticin. I’m callin’ the sheriff, somethin’ ain’t right.

The sheriff came, searched the woods and river near the cabin but no Charlie Silver. Impatient, John did what many did back then, called a witch doctor or Conjure Man. His name is not  known but his knack for finding objects and people with a glass divining ball has been remembered for over a century. He solved the mystery no one else could.

He didn’t look outside. He looked in. “Lift the floorboards and stir the ashes.” He told them. Buckets of blood and hunks of charred flesh and bone were found under the floor, in the fireplace and around the house.

Charlie Silver is buried in at least 3 graves, each dug as more of him was found. Frankie was arrested with her mother, Barbara (Stuart) and her brother Blackstone.

Why her mother and brother? As with many good old Country tales, there was a feud going on. The Stuarts, (who were poor) and the Silvers, (by comparison, wealthy landowners) were at war. The Stuarts wanted to go West and wanted Charlie to go with them, presumably without Frankie.

At first he wouldn’t sell the land his cabin was on back to them but… maybe he changed his mind. If so, she’d be homeless, alone with an infant, (or worse, the baby would go with him) leaving her family disgraced, burdened and out the only piece of land they had any claim to.  So, did Frankie act alone or did she have help?

Killing a man with an axe is one thing, (and one that it’s a little difficult to imagining a 19 year old girl having the physical strength to accomplish while simultaneously surely fighting off a counter attack),  but chopping him into so many pieces he’s buried in 3 different graves is another matter entirely… that she had help from someone at some point seems likely.  On the other hand, the fact that parts of him were scattered and hidden all over the place seems more like the work of a panicking Frankie than a clear thinking accomplice.

We just won’t know the answer.  We do know that Frankie’s had the presence of mind to get a writ of Habeas Corpus and  got her mother and brother out of jail. He tried to assert that Frankie was also being illegally detained but to no avail. She stayed, asserting her innocence. That was all she said till a confession written by her lawyer, (she was illiterate), in a last attempt for clemency.

Unfortunately there is no surviving copy of the confession, which claimed that she swung the axe at Charlie in self-defense as he was loading his gun to kill her.

Meanwhile, the Silver version of what happened was something like this:

“She killed Charlie in a fit of jealous rage, suspecting  him of infidelity with another man’s wife and decided to exact her revenge…as he lay sleeping on the floor with their baby girl. Quietly removing the child from his arms, she then struck Charlie’s head with an axe. The first blow, however, did not immediately kill him and he thrashed around the house mortally wounded. Frankie hid under the covers of their bed, eventually coming out when she heard his body hit the floor. She then took another swing with the axe, this time completely severing his head. Frankie attempted to conceal the evidence of the murder by chopping the body into pieces and burning them in the cabin’s fireplace. Following this all-night affair, Frankie went to a relative’s house the next morning to announce that Charlie had gone hunting and had not returned.”

Most in the Silver family also seem to believe not Frankie but her parents were behind it and that her father was in the cabin saying, “If you don’t kill him I will.” or “If you don’t kill him, I’ll kill you.” Some say he, not Frankie, dealt the final blow.

Her trial was held March 29, 1832. The evidence against her was mostly circumstantial and no one thought it would be an easy case for a jury to decide. It wasn’t. Deadlocked, they asked to rehear some of the witnesses. Unfairly, they’d now heard one another’s testimony, which was the source of a later appeal. The verdict was guilty; death by hanging. Several jurors later plead for her pardon but to no avail.

On May 18, 1832, she escaped, possibly with help from her jailer, who’d petitioned the Governor for her pardon. Disguising herself as a boy, she, her father and uncle Alfred got in a wagon bound for Tennessee.

Two days later, a flood hit. Frankie was walking behind the wagon when the sheriff came. Alfred said he called  “Frankie?” but she answered, “My name is Tommy.” When her uncle added, “Yes, her name is Tommy”, she was arrested.

The ladies of Burke and Bundcombe Counties wrote a letter presenting a strong self-defense motive:

“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.”

Nonetheless, on July 12, 1833, Frankie Silver was hanged. Her gravestone reads “Only woman ever hanged in Burke County”, but she wasn’t. 1813, a slave named Betsy was hanged for aiding the murder of her master and 1788 Elizabeth Wells was hanged, along with her husband, for burning down a neighbor’s house. She does seem to be, however, the first woman hanged without an accomplice.

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~Lonesome Liz

Lonesome Liz is an Outlaw Country and Blues singer/songwriter, dubbed ‘The female Robert Johnson’ by ‘Southern Fried Magazine’. Her performances and multi-media productions have included Drive-by Truckers artist Wes Freed, Jesco the Dancing Outlaw and others. Also a writer for GratefulWeb.net and ‘Fine Art Magazine’ she lives in Nashville, Tennessee where she strives daily to save Country Music from itself… one cowboy at a time. You can also find her on ReverbNation , YouTube and Twitter. Choose your own adventure.

Outlaw Magazine. Country, Rock and Roll, Blues, Folk, Americana, Punk. As long as it is real, it is OUTLAW. Overproduced mediocrity need not apply.

 

Sources:

Murder by Gaslight, the Ballad of Frankie Silver http://www.murderbygaslight.com/2010/04/ballad-of-frankie-silver.html

Frankie Silver Biography, (University of North Carolina) http://www.lib.unc.edu/mss/exhibits/penalty/silver.html

Tragic Ends: Frankie and Charlie Silver http://blueridgecountry.com/archive/favorites/frankie-and-charlie-silver/