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FRANKIE SILVER June 02, 2005 10:10 AM

Frankie and Charlie Silver
The Tragic 1831 Death of a Teen Couple in the N.C. Mountains.

Story and photos by Don Haines

The tragic events in the North Carolina mountains on the night of December 22, 1831 revolve around a 19-year-old husband murdered, an 18-year-old wife charged with the crime and an infant daughter left without parents. Speculation about what really happened and why it did has gradually given way to commemoration and healing around the little community of Kona in Mitchell County.As it runs north from its intersection with U.S. 19E, N.C. 80 snakes its way for about five miles through Mitchell and Yancey counties to approach the small, not-on-the-map community of Kona on the Mitchell County side. As you round the last curve before entering Kona you come upon the cemetery of the Kona Baptist Church. Walk up the gently sloping hill to the center of the graveyard and find a granite marker. CHARLES SILVER OCT 3 1812—DEC 22 1831, it reads.

But this marker is not a tombstone. Three natural stones that could have been plucked from Celo Knob, hovering in the distance, have that distinction. Because Charlie Silver wasn’t buried all at once. There are many words that could be used to describe the Charlie and Frankie Silver story. Bizarre, gruesome and puzzling will do for starters. That Frankie killed Charlie one cold December night in 1831 in Kona, N.C. is not disputed. But beyond that it’s difficult to tell where truth ends and myth begins.

Charlie Silver was the only child of Jacob and Elizabeth Wilson Silver. Charlie’s mother died giving birth to him. His father Jacob would remarry and Charlie would have many half brothers and sisters. Charlie’s half brother Alfred gave the most quoted description of him. “He was strong and healthy, good looking and agreeable. He had lots of friends. Everybody liked him. He was a favorite at all the parties for he could make merry, by talking, laughing and playing musical instruments. I think he was the best fifer I ever heard.” Also, if Charlie took after his father Jacob, he was very strong, six feet tall, dark hair with black eyes and a fair complexion.

Frankie Stewart (the name was originally spelled Stuart or Stuard) had come into the Burke County, N.C. mountains at the age of 6. Isaiah and Barbara Stewart settled on one side of a mountain ridge. The other side of that same ridge had been settled by Jacob Silver and family 20 years earlier. Alfred Silver described Frankie as, “A mighty likely little woman. She had fair skin, bright eyes and was counted very pretty. She had charms, I never saw a smarter little woman. She could card and spin her three yards of cotton a day on a big wheel.”

It would seem at first glance that Charlie and Frankie were meant for each other, the perfect couple, when they settled down in their own little cabin in 1830. But there was a dark side to the mountain lifestyle of the 1830s.

It was a sexist society. It was not unusual for a man to murder his wife and receive no punishment. Nineteen-year-old Charlie was perhaps an unfortunate product of an unfortunate environment – a young man who may have manifested the worst of his time’s mountain mores. This ingrained attitude may have had a significant role in the events of December 22, 1831.

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 June 02, 2005 10:11 AM

It was probably Frankie’s behavior after the killing as much as the killing itself that sent her to the gallows. Clearly, she was frightened. She was a woman in a male-dominated society and she’d just killed her husband. Justifiable homicide did not enter into her thinking. There was only one thing to do. She had to make it appear as if Charlie had never come home.

There will always be conjecture as to whether Frankie had help in her decision or whether she had help only in the ensuing activity, from her mother, Barbara, and her brother, Blackston. Wayne Silver offers this thesis. “You’re 18 years old. You’ve just killed your husband. You’re scared. Would it not be normal to run to Momma? And would it not be the motherly thing for Barbara Stewart to say, yes, we’ll help you Frankie, but if you get into trouble, you must leave us out of it.”

The dismemberment and burning of Charlie Silver was begun that very night. It was a hasty decision and one doomed to failure. They had not calculated just how difficult it would be to burn a body in a cabin fireplace. An old man named Jack Collis was one of the first to get suspicious. He decided to check the cabin during a time when Frankie was out. He found bits of bone and greasy ashes in the cabin fireplace and under the floorboards was found a pool of blood, “as big as a hog liver.” Charlie’s head and torso would be found outside the cabin.

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 June 02, 2005 10:11 AM

Frankie, Barbara and Blackston were arrested on January 9, 1832. On January 10, they were jailed in Morganton, county seat of Burke County, which at the time encompassed what is now Mitchell County.
The mountain people of that day were largely ignorant – but they were not stupid. They were also fiercely loyal to their families. Figuratively speaking – if one got cut they all bled. By January 13, Isaiah Stewart had obtained a writ of habeas corpus, saying that his wife, daughter and son were being illegally detained. Charges against Barbara and Blackston were dropped on January 17, but Frankie was held.

On March 17, 1832, charges against Blackston and Barbara were formally dismissed but Frankie was indicted for murder. There are several things about Frankie’s trial that raise questions. Under the law of that day, defendants were not allowed to take the stand in their own defense. But why did not Frankie plead self-defense? The answer seems to be that her attorney and her father Isaiah decided to plead her not guilty and make the state prove her guilt. This is generally believed to have been a fatal error.

The conduct of the all-male jury is also puzzling. On March 29, 1832 they retired to determine Frankie’s fate. The next day they reported that they were deadlocked 9-3 for acquittal and asked to rehear certain witnesses. But before the witnesses were recalled, they were allowed to mingle and discuss the case. After rehearing the witnesses, the jury judged Frankie guilty in a unanimous vote. It’s apparent that a lot of testimony was changed in the interim.

Frankie’s execution was set for July 1832. Her lawyer gave notice of appeal. Judge Donnel filed the appeal on May 3, 1832. In June of 1832, the North Carolina Supreme court rejected the appeal. Frankie’s execution was set for the fall term of Burke Superior Court, but she was given a reprieve of sorts when Judge David L. Swain was severely injured in a fall from his sulky and the fall term was canceled. Then, in a touch of irony, Judge Swain was elected governor. He was from the mountains, and now he had the power to pardon Frankie.

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 June 02, 2005 10:12 AM

Meanwhile, sentiment for a pardon was growing, as documented by Perry Deane Young in his book “The Untold Story of Frankie Silver.” Even seven members of Frankie’s jury signed a petition asking Governor Swain to issue a pardon. The governor was apparently unmoved.

Isaiah Stewart got tired of waiting. On May 18, 1833, he, his brother and one other man broke Frankie out of jail. It’s thought they may have had inside help. This is certainly possible since one letter to Governor Swain stated that fully 90 percent of the community now wanted Frankie spared.

Eight days later, she was recaptured in Rutherford County while heading for the Tennessee border. One might think this would reverse the sentiment that had been building in her favor. Quite the opposite. The outcry to give Frankie her freedom grew even louder, particularly among the upper-crust ladies of Morganton, who sent their own appeal to the governor.

It’s theorized that Swain had two reasons for not granting a pardon. As a judge, he’d had a reputation for leniency. As governor, he wanted to create a new image. Wayne Silver believes that Swain, being from the Asheville area, knew that the Silver clan, while not possessing great wealth, owned a lot of land and were not without influence. If Swain thought the Silver family wanted Frankie to hang, she would. In a letter dated July 9, 1833, Swain appears to try to remove himself from responsibility for Frankie’s execution by telling W.C. Bevins that his letter appealing for a pardon did not arrive in time. The Bevins letter is clearly dated and Swain had it in plenty of time.

Some reports say that Frankie Silver was hung from the neck until dead from the limb of a huge oak tree that stood on a hill above the courthouse in Morganton. Perry Deane Young believes there was a scaffold. In Sharyn McCrumb’s novel, “The Ballad of Frankie Silver,” it’s stated that a large crowd was present to hear her father say – “Die with it in ye Frankie” when Frankie was asked if she had any last words.

Frankie was not the first woman hung in North Carolina or Burke County. Nor did she recite or sing a long poem that she was reported to have written in her jail cell. She was most likely illiterate, as was her mother before her and her daughter after her. She did die, apparently, bravely, on July 12, 1833. Isaiah had a coffin ready, “to take her back to her own people.”

They never made it. Frankie’s 90-pound body began to decompose rapidly in the hot July sun. Isaiah was forced to bury his daughter “about eight miles outside town alongside the Old Buckhorn Tavern Road.” Her stone, which was erected in 1951, is hard to locate today. But if you’re one of those people who’s had Charlie and Frankie’s story creep into your being and gnaw at your gut, you want to make the effort.

And what of the child that Charlie and Frankie left behind? According to information from Perry Deane Young, Nancy Silver’s early life is as uncertainly documented as the deaths of her parents. There are legends that she was raised by the Stuarts or by the Silvers. There are also tales that she was spirited away to Stuart relatives in Macon County. It is also asserted that Nancy married David Parker of McDowell County in 1850, but David Parker is still listed in the house of his parents in that year’s census.

It is assumed that the first 10 years of Nancy’s marriage were happy ones. She was then left devastated by her husband’s death during the Civil War. Her children were apparently raised by others from young ages and were not reunited until Nancy moved to Macon County in the 1870s and married William C. Robinson. They had one son, Commodore Robinson. According to Nancy’s great-granddaughter, Wanda Adams Henry, William Robinson raped Nancy’s daughter and Nancy ran him off. Apparently, Nancy changed her name back to Parker and that is the name her family had engraved on her tombstone. She is buried in the Mount Grove Cemetery in Macon County as a result, a long way from both her parents. One cannot help but think, that if not for the tragic event of December 22, 1831, they might all be buried in the same cemetery, on the tidy little hill in Kona.

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 June 02, 2005 10:12 AM

article from this site --- http://www.blueridgecountry.com/silver/  [ send green star]
 
 June 02, 2005 10:17 AM

Here are some more sites -- if you want to read up on this crime...

and whether 'true justice' was given

http://www.library.appstate.edu/appcoll/research_aids/sprice.html
Frankie Silver: Tale of a murder and execution in myth, fact, and fiction 
from the Appalachian State University

http://www.ferrum.edu/lwhited/true-crime/silver.htm
Frankie Silver resources - compiled by a Professor of English and Journalism

http://www.thesylvaherald.com/silver-frankie-081000.htm
descendant provides new insight into famous antebellum murder trial
Silver

http://www.frankiesilver.com/
the OFFICIAL page by one of Frankie's descendants -- giving directions on how to get there, some of the legends, and a struggle to know the truth

http://sniff.numachi.com/~rickheit/dtrad/pages/tiFRANSILV;ttFRANSILV.html
Frankie Silver ballad?

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for Sharon McCrumb fans June 02, 2005 10:20 AM

“Based on a True-Story”:
Using The Ballad of Frankie Silver
to Teach the Conventions of Narrative

here is part of her article

McCrumb's book operates in two layers. The outer layer is the story of Spencer Arrowood, sheriff of Wake County, Tennessee, who has been invited to the execution of Fate Harkryder. Arrowood's investigation and testimony helped send Harkryder to death row, but with the execution invitation in hand, the sheriff begins to question Harkryder's guilt. His musings remind him of a story told to him by his predecessor Nelse Miller in a North Carolina hillside cemetery – the story of Frankie Silver, who was hanged for murder in Morganton, N.C., on July 12, 1833. Miller told Arrowood, “There's only two murder cases in these mountains that I'm not happy with. . . . One is the fellow you're about to put on death row. And the other one is Frankie Silver” (15).

The Arrowood story is essentially the product of McCrumb's imagination, and the Stewart-Silver story is the result of her painstaking research. By weaving together the two, McCrumb has created a unique work which bridges the fact/fiction gap. Thus, a reader of The Ballad of Frankie Silver can explore differences in the purpose, technique, and reader response of fictional and nonfictional material in one book.

On January 10, 1832, 18-year-old Frances Stewart Silver, her mother Barbara and brother Blackston were taken to jail in Morganton, accused of the murder of Frankie's husband Charlie, whom Frankie reported missing on December 23, 1831. Barbara and Blackston Stewart were released seven days after their arrest, due to lack of evidence, but in March 1832, Frankie was indicted by a Burke County grand jury, convicted, and sentenced to be hanged in July. An unsuccessful appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court and a change of local judges delayed the execution, and she was finally hanged on July 12, 1833.

Interest in the Frankie Silver story was revived in the late 1990s, when the only two book-length works devoted to the material were published, both in 1998. The same year, Appalachian filmmaker Tom Davenport released a documentary on the case, produced in conjunction with the University of North Carolina Folklore Curriculum. In addition to The Ballad of Frankie Silver, the fifth book in Sharyn McCrumb's “ballad novel” series, the year brought The Untold Story of Frankie Silver by Chapel Hill, N.C., journalist Perry Deane Young. Interestingly, both McCrumb and Young have ties to the case: McCrumb is a distant cousin of Frankie Silver (on the Stewart side), and Young is a native of Burke County whose ancestors there pre-date Frankie Silver's trial and execution.

READ THE REST at this site
http://www.ferrum.edu/applit/articles/truestory.htm

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