"Frankie Silver History"


Taken from "The Heritage of Burke County 1981"
Pages 393-394 


         No event of the early days in the mountains of North Carolina has continued to hold the interest and stir the imagination more than the murder of Charles Silver by his wife Frances (Frankie) Stuart Silver, for which the latter was hanged on July 12, 1833.

         The many stories of this crime are based on scanty and incomplete court records; speculations derived from newspaper articles; brief accounts from books and pamphlets; and statements made by persons many years after Frankie was hanged.  Some of these versions disagree in the whole or in part; so, even after exhaustive study, interested persons of today must be prepared to form their own conclusions as to what actually happened.

         The known facts are that Charlie Silver (described by those who knew him as a handsome, attractive and popular young man) and his wife Frankie (a smart and “might likely little woman” who “had fair skin, bright eyes and was counted very pretty”) lived with their infant daughter in a cabin in a lonely spot called Deyton’s Bend on the Toe River on the Yancey-Mitchell County line about three miles from Bakersville, North Carolina.

         It was there before Christmas on December 22, 1831 that Frankie killed Charlie by decapitating him with an axe.

         Many years later Charlie’s half-brother Alfred Silver, then eighty-seven years old, was interviewed by H.E.C. (“Red Buck”) Bryant for The Charlotte Observer (which article was copied by The News Herald of Morganton on March 26, 1903) and Alfred Silver told him that Frankie murdered her husband with malicious intent, that he did not know her motive but assumed it was jealousy, although she actually had no reason to doubt Charlie’s faithfulness.  He stated that she killed Charlie as he lay asleep on the cabin floor in front of the fire.

         Other stories affirm that Frankie did indeed have grounds for jealousy and that the “other woman” in the case was Nancy (or Nancy Lee) Miller, with whom Frankie had quarreled because of Charlie’s attention to the latter.  Still another story states that the “other woman” was the wife of a man named Cranberry.

         After Frankie’s death, her lawyer, Nicolas Woodfin, a well-known attorney of Asheville, told President Battle of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that Frankie did not willfully kill Charlie but struck him in self-defense.  He stated that Charlie came home drunk and began to beat her with a stick.  According to Woodfin, “She struck back and killed him.  She did not intend to kill him but only to keep him from beating her.”  Unfortunately, the law at that time did not permit a person charged with a crime to testify in court on his own behalf.  Woodfin said that she told her story to him “in a reasonable way and with every evidence of sincerity” and that “if she could have told her story to the jury the result would have been different.” Her death, he said, “was a miscarriage of justice” and she was “unjustly hanged.”

         At the time of Charlie Silver’s death there was a deep snow on the ground and it was some days before his disappearance was discovered.  His sister, Lucinda (Silver) Norman, stated in an interview many years afterward that Charlie had returned home from a trip to “get his Christmas whiskey.”  Several versions agree with this but his half-brother Alfred Silver said that Charlie was preparing to leave on a hunting trip.  Others state that he had just returned from a hunting trip.

         According to one story, when the snow melted and Charlie could not be found at home, by some friends who came to get him to go hunting, a search was begun and it was feared that he had fallen through the ice on the river and drowned

Charlie’s father sought information from “an old Guinea Negro” from Tennessee who, it was aid, could sometimes locate missing persons by means of a “conjure ball” and he was told that Charlie had been done away with at home.

         This proved to be true when a neighbor Jake Cullis, on searching the cabin and the premises, decided that Charlie’s body, or parts of it, had been burned in the cabin fireplace, where he found bones and teeth.  There were also blood stains on the cabin floor and under the cabin.  Other stories say that parts of the body were found buried under the cabin floor and in a hollow tree not far away and ashes had been put in a hole close to a nearby spring.

         Since Frankie was a small, slightly built woman, it was thought by some persons that members of her family had helped her to dismember and do away with the body.  Her mother and her brother Blackston (or Blackstone) were arrested and questioned but later released.

         Differing stories have been handed down about Frankie’s incarceration in the jail in Morganton.  Sever state that she escaped with the help of several male members of her family, dressed in male clothing and hidden in a load of hay, but that she was followed by the Sheriff and his posse and taken back to jail.  Other stories say that she fled to Rutherford County, living for some time with her hair cut short and wearing male clothing, before she was taken into custody.

         She was tried and convicted, Judge John R. Donnell presiding, and hanged on a large oak tree on Damon’s Hill, which, according to tradition, was near the later site of Broad Oaks Sanatorium on property later owned by John Dickson on Valdese Avenue in Morganton.

         A large crowd gathered for the hanging and several stories agree that when she was asked if she had any last words to say her father Isaiah Stuart called out “Don’t talk Frankie!  Die with it in you!”  Colonel Joseph J. Erwin of Bellevue near Morganton, (the grandfather of the writer of this sketch), who was a young boy at the time, was present and heard her father speak these words --- which are also recorded in certain articles and pamphlets by other persons who were present.  Not wanting to observe what was to follow, Colonel Erwin got on his horse and rode off, so did not see the actual hanging.

         Several stores have been handed down about a poem that Frankie is supposed to have written and recited upon the scaffold, at which time, it is said, copies were handed about in the crowd.  However, it appears to be generally agreed that a mountain girl who lived in such isolation could not have had sufficient schooling and education to compose this doleful poem --- also that she could sacredly have been able to recite its long and gruesome verses under the stress of her last few moments on earth.

         In response to the speculation regarding the authorship of this poem, in 1886 Henry Spainhour stated in an article in the Lenoir Topic that the poem was written by a man named Beacham and was first called “Beachman’s Address”.  He said he first heard it quoted by a man named Wycoff with whom he worked in a shop.  Thomas W. Scott heard it from Wycoff, changed it somewhat and composed what is known as the Frankie Silver poem.  The poem was put to music and has been sung throughout the mountains during the years.

         In the early days it was the custom for the state to give the body of a hanged man to medical students for dissection.  A hanged woman’s body was a rarity and it is said there were many requests for Frankie’s body.  The Stuart family wanted to take the body home for burial and en route they stopped at the Buckhorn Tavern, where the body lay hidden under some sacks overnight.  Since it was rapidly decomposing, the next day they buried it near the tavern.

         Today her grave can be found in that wild and inaccessible spot near the ruins of the old tavern, which is said to be not far from the Yellow Mountain Road about eight miles from Morganton.


         Sources: Sakowski, Carolyn, The Life and Death of Frankie Silvers, Battle, Kemp Plummer, Memories of an Old-Time Tarheel, Sheppard, Muriel Earley, Cabins in the Laurel, Wellman, Manly Wade, Dead and Gone: Classic Crimes of North Carolina, Avery, Clifton K, Official Court Record of the Trial, Conviction and Execution of Francis Silvers, Ervin, Sam J., Jr., “Frankie Silver” articles in the Morganton News Herald, April 3, 1924, Xeroxed copy of the opinion of the Supreme Court of North Carolina, THE STATE v. FRANCES SILVER, JUNE TERM, 1832, Many stores handed down by the family, relative sand friends of the author of this sketch.

 - Susan Graham Erwin Helm