of the few certainties about Frankie Silver is that she was
hanged for the murder of her husband Charlie in Morganton, North
Carolina on July 12, 1833. Many of the other facts surrounding
their married life, the murder in 1831, the reasons for the
crime, and the drama leading up to Frankie's death are shrouded
in 170 years of myth and folklore. The story has been told in
ballads, "true-crime" magazine articles, plays, ballets,
books, essays, documentaries, and countless newspaper articles.
The story continues to hold the imagination of many.
According to the most common version of the story...
Frankie killed Charlie in a fit of jealous rage three days
before Christmas 1831. She suspected 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.
A search of the frozen river and surrounding countryside did
not locate Charlie. A distressed Silver family brought in a
slave "conjure man" from Tennessee to divine the location
of Charlie. Using a glass ball dangled from a piece of string,
the conjure man determined that the missing man was still in
his cabin. A thorough investigation of the home and surrounding
area revealed bits and pieces of charred bone, a heel iron
from Charlie's shoe, and a pool of dried blood under the puncheon
floor. Frankie was immediately arrested.
Frankie was tried, convicted, and sentenced to die by hanging.
After a failed appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court,
she broke out of jail with the help of her family. The sheriff
and his posse eventually caught up to Frankie, who was disguised
as a man and walking behind her uncle's wagon. She was returned
to prison and her execution was set for July 12, 1833.
When the day arrived, she was led to the scaffold. The sheriff
asked if she had anything she wanted to say. Before she could
answer, her father yelled, "Die with it in ye, Frankie!" However,
she told the sheriff that she did have something to say, but
she wanted to sing it instead. After she finished her lonely ballad,
the noose was placed around her neck, and she became the first
woman to be hanged in North Carolina.
How much of the Frankie Silver legend is true? No one is quite
sure. According to recent research, only a few of the commonly
accepted bits of the story can be told with certainty. Charles
Silver was murdered sometime before Christmas in 1831. After
a search of the home, evidence indicated that Frankie had committed
the crime with the possible help of her mother and brother. All
three were arrested, but only Frankie was indicted for the murder.
On March 30, 1832, Frankie was found guilty. The case was immediately
appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court, but the appeal
failed. Frankie was to be executed during the county court's
1832 fall term.
The fall term came and went without the judge showing up, so
Frankie was spared until the spring of 1833. At that session
of court, the judge sentenced her to die on June 28, 1833. On
May 18, however, she escaped from the jail in Morganton, only
to be caught in Rutherford County and returned to prison a few
days later. As the date grew near, the governor postponed the
execution for two weeks, but petitions to save her life failed
and on July 12, 1833, she was hanged in Morganton.
Frankie's tale--fact or legend--continues to inspire storytellers.
From Sharyn McCrumb's novel The Ballad of Frankie Silver (1998)
and a Swiss dance company's ballet by the same name (1996), to
William Gregg and Perry Dean Young's play Frankie (2001)
, the legend lives on.
Suggestions for further reading/viewing:
Daniel W. Patterson. A Tree Accurst: Bobby McMillon and
Stories of Frankie Silver. Chapel Hill: University of
North Carolina Press, 2000.
Perry Deane Young. The Untold Story of Frankie Silver: Was
She Unjustly Hanged?. Asheboro, N.C.: Down Home Press,
Clifton K. Avery, ed. Official Court Record of the Trial,
Conviction and Execution of Francis Silvers. Morganton,
N.C.: The News-Herald, 1969.
The Ballad of Frankie Silver: Reflections on a
Murder: With an Epilogue, The Making of a Ballad Singer [videocassette].
Directed by Tom Davenport; Produced by Dan Patterson, Beverly
Patterson. Delaplane, Va.: Davenport Films, 1990.
Additional Online Resource [Added June 2009]:
Haines, Don. “The Tragic 1831 Death of a Teen Couple in
the North Carolina Mountains,” Blue Ridge Country.
Accessed June 4, 2009.
Lenoir Topic (Lenoir, N.C.), March 24, 1886. Please
click on the image for a larger view.