Frankie Silvers [Laws E13]
DESCRIPTION: The singer, Frankie Silvers, has been condemned to die for murdering her husband. She describes the deed and its consequences with horror: "This dreadful, dark, and dismal day Has swept all my glories away." "But oh! that dreadful judge I fear...."
EARLIEST DATE: 1886 (Lenoir Topic, quoting the "Morganton paper")
KEYWORDS: homicide husband wife punishment execution
Dec 22, 1831 - Frances "Frankie" Silve(s)r kills her husband Charles Silver in North Carolina
Jan 9, 1832 - Frankie Silver arrested
March 30, 1832 - Frankie Silver convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Appeals and complications mean that the execution will be postponed for more than a year
May 18, 1832 - Frankie Silver escapes prison, but is recaptured on May 26
July 12, 1833 - Frankie Silver is hanged without making a gallows confession although apparently there was some sort of testament (source: Young)
FOUND IN: US(Ap,SE,So)
REFERENCES (11 citations):
Laws E13, "Frankie Silvers"
Randolph 158, "Frankie Silver" (1 short text, 1 tune)
Brown/Belden/Hudson-FrankCBrownCollectionNCFolklore2 301, "Frankie Silver" (1 text)
Brown/Schinhan-FrankCBrownCollectionNCFolklore4 301, "Frankie Silver" (3 excerpts, 3 tunes)
Henry-SongsSungInTheSouthernAppalachians, pp. 48-50, "Frances Silvers" (1 text)
Burt-AmericanMurderBallads, pp. 17-18, (no title) (1 text)
Cohen-AmericanFolkSongsARegionalEncyclopedia1, p. 234, "Frankie Silvers" (1 text)
NorthCarolinaFolkloreJournal, Elaine Penninger, "Frankie Silver" Vol. X, No. 2 (Dec. 1962), p. 28, (notes only)
NorthCarolinaFolkloreJournal, various authors/Special issue devoted to the film, "The Ballad of Frankie Silver: Reflections on a Murder," Vol. XLVII, No. 1 (Winter/Spring 2000), pp. 5-7, "Frankie Silver -- A Full Text of the Ballad" (1 text, from Bobby McMillon)
DT 776, FRANSILV
ADDITIONAL: Perry Deane Young, _The Untold Story of Frankie Silver: Was She Unjustly Hanged_, Down Home Press, 1998, pp. 108-110, "Francis [sic.] Silvers's Confession" (1 text, from the Morganton Star); there are excerpts of other versions on the following pages
[Clarence] Ashley & [Gwen] Foster, "Frankie Silvers" ((Vocalion 02647, 1934; rec. 1933)
Clarence Ashley & Tex Isley, "Frankie Silvers" (on Ashley01)
Byrd Moore & his Hot Shots, "Frankie Silvers" (Columbia 15536-D, 1930; rec. Oct 23, 1929; on Ashley04); "Frankie Silver's Confession" (Gennett, unissued, 1930)
New Lost City Ramblers, "Frankie Silver" (on NLCR04)
NOTES [2122 words]: This incident has frequently been reported as the inspiration for "Frankie and Albert" also; see the notes to that song.
Brown has extensive background notes on this murder, without clear conclusions as to why Frankie Silvers (the name the book uses uses) murdered her husband, noting that the jury apparently believed the motive was jealousy.
In Brown's and Randolph's texts, the judge who convicted Frankie Silvers is called "Judge Daniels," but Randolph reports that he was actually named John R. Donnell.
Note that the young woman's surname seems to have been "Silver," not "Silvers." We might note, though, that most members of the Silver and Stewart families were illiterate, and records about them are few; it is quite possible that some of them used the name "Silver" and others called themselves "Silvers."
Young's more recent book puts the whole thing in a rather different light. Lyle Lofgren brought the book to my attention and gave me my original summary.
Frances Stewart married Charles Silver in 1829, when both were 17; they lived near Toe River (in an area now known as Kona -- a name derived from the chemical constituents of feldspar, K/potassium, O/oxygen, and Na/Sodium), North Carolina. They had a daughter Nancy in 1830. Charlie apparently was fond of drink and other women. On December 22, 1831, they quarreled. Charlie went for a gun; Frankie killed him with an ax.
Had Frankie simply notified the authorities at that point, all might have been well. But she burned his body and hid the remains, claiming that he had gone hunting and never come back. When the physical evidence was found, she was charged with murder. Having denied the crime, she couldn't plead self-defense, and her request for clemency were denied. She was executed on the date listed.
Powell, p. 1036, also reports the claim about her being unable to plead self-defense, although he sounds dubious about it. He quotes a contemporary account that says she was a "bright-eyed very pretty little woman," and says she is believed to have been the first white woman executed in North Carolina. (Young, p. 19, however says that at least one white woman had been hung before her just in Morganton. But that one woman was hung with her husband. So I suppose you could argue that Frankie was the first white woman hung in Morganton for her own solo crime. Which isn't much of a distinction, to be sure.)
Supposedly ten thousand people came to see her hung. There were hopes that she would confess, but it is claimed that her father, Isaiah Stewart, called to her, "Die with it in you, Frankle" -- and she did (Powell, p. 1036).
Additional details about the case, derived mostly from Young:
Charles Silver was one of thirteen children of Jacob Silver (born 1793), but the only child Jacob had by his first wife, whose name is uncertain and who likely died in childbirth. The family moved from Maryland into the Toe River area of North Carolina some time after 1802 -- family tradition said 1806 (Young, p. 28). Jacob Silver is said to have been a Baptist preacher, but he is also described as illiterate (Young, p. 29).
One of Charles's half-brothers described him as "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" (Young, p. 30).
Frances Stewart/Stuart's parents were Isaiah and Barbara Stewart. Both were apparently illiterate. It appears she was one of seven children (born c. 1810), and the only girl. The family came from Anson County, North Carolina to the Toe River area in the mid 1820s (Young, p. 31). The same brother who gave the description of Charles said that Frankie Stewart was "a mighty likely little woman. She had fair hair, 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" (Young, p. 30).
There is no formal record of the marriage of Charles Silver and Frankie Stewart, but it appears to have taken place in 1829 or 1830, when they were both 17 or 18 years old. They settled on land given to them by his father; apparently Charles built a one-room cabin on the site (Young, p. 33). It was not good farm land; it is likely that much of their living was made from hunting and harvesting wild products.
Their only child, Nancy Silver, was born on November 3, 1830, so she was just a toddler when she lost her parents (Young, p. 33). Given her date of birth, and the date of her parents' (undocumented) wedding, one wonders a bit about a shotgun marriage.
Apparently portions of the body of Charles Silver was found burned in the fireplace, so we don't know how he died. Young, pp. 34-35, supplies some of the stories people told, but they are beyond verification.
There doesn't seem to be any genuine documentation of the murder, e.g. a coroner's report. Young, pp. 131-136 reprints court documents; those from the county court (which are the ones which contain evidence) are scanty, uninformative, and illiterate. Nor was there a newspaper that served the Morganton area where the Silvers lived, and the records of papers from outside the immediate region are few (Young, p. 127).
It's important to keep in mind that, at that time and in that place, women were basically the property of their husbands. Spousal abuse was expected, and if a wife killed her husband in self-defense, she could be expected to be convicted of murder (Young, pp. 36-37, gives examples). Even today, reports Hall, p. 223, "There is no 'battered women's defense,'" but at least abuse is taken into account. Not in the 1830s! But there were several witnesses who testified that Frankie killed Charles in self-defense. One claimed that he was actually preparing to shoot her when she hit him with an ax -- and hurt him so badly that she finished him off to put him out of his misery (Young, p. 38).
Whatever Frankie's reasons, once Charles was dead, she could expect extreme punishment if she were accused of his murder. So she apparently thought her only option was to conceal the crime. She apparently tried to do this by cutting up the body and burning the pieces, possibly with her family's help (Young, p. 41). She had some time; Charles was reportedly murdered on December 22, 1831, and the warrant for Frankie's arrest was not issued until January 9, 1832 (Young, p. 131, has the record of this warrant, which was apparently copied into a small corner of a judicial document and is so poorly written that I doubt a court would accept it today).
For the first few days after the murder, she apparently went to the household of her in-laws each day, asking about Charles. Soon, the Silver family started looking for the missing man (Young, p. 42). Eventually they found burnt bone in Frankie's fireplace, and blood spots under the floor; Young suggests they also found a skull, since there was a report on the wound to his head (Young, p. 43). It all added up to an attempt to dispose of a body, and pretty clear evidence of homicide. Frankie, her father, her mother, and her brother were all taken into custody -- although the charge against the father was quickly dropped. Isaiah Stewart was apparently able to get his wife and son out of jail by posting bond, but Frankie was not allowed to go free. (Young, p. 44).
When the grand jury met in 1832, Frankie was formally charged with killing Charles; charges of aiding and abetting were considered against her mother and brother Blackstone, but no true bill was returned on the latter charges (Young, pp. 47-48). When the charge was read to Frankie, she immediately pled not guilty, and the trial quickly followed (Young, p. 48).
Young says that the judge in the case was John Robert Donnell (1789-1864; often distorted to "Daniel" in folklore); the prosecutor was William Julius Alexander (born 1797); Frankie was defended by Thomas Worth Wilson (1792-1863, who was a close relative by marriage of Alexander). (Young, pp. 49-51).
We have only fragmentary records of the trial, but there are good reasons to think it would be considered problematic today. Under the laws of the time, which said that the accused could not testify in their own defense, Frankie never got to state her side. The trial lasted only two days. The case itself took only one to go to the jury. It seems that Frankie's lawyer, rather than argue self-defense, argued for her absolute innocence (her father may have been behind this). The jury was apparently nine to three in favor of innocence, but wanted additional evidence from the witnesses, and with no good way for the defense to answer this, they went back and rendered a unanimous guilty verdict (Young, pp. 52-55).
That was on Friday, March 30, 1832. The following Monday, the judge ordered Frankie be hanged on July 27.
It is perhaps of note that it was not until 1932 that the Supreme Court "ruled that defendants in state capital cases were entitled to legal assistance." (Hall, p. 171.) Frankie had counsel, but it was what she could afford. Perhaps it's no surprise that she didn't have a great lawyer.
The defense of course wanted an appeal. But under the laws of the time, it was the judge, not Frankie's lawyer, who decided the issues for the appeal (Young, p. 55). And appeals at that time were limited in scope -- having a lousy lawyer wasn't a defense, because the defendants hired the lawyers! (It wasn't until 1984 that the Supreme Court finally established that a defendant could appeal for relief due to bad counsel; Hall, p. 172). So, basically, Frankie was stuck unless the judge decided to accept her side's grounds for appeal. He didn't. The appeal went to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which basically said that there was no failure in procedure, so the verdict would stand (Young, pp. 56-57). It went back to the lower courts so Frankie could be re-sentenced to death. Because the judges were rotating in and out at the time, this took a while (Young, p. 57), but the result was inevitable. In March 1833, she was sentenced to die on June 28, 1833 (Young, p. 69).
Interestingly, after the first result came down, people seemed to realize that Frankie had suffered spousal abuse, and a lot of people started to sympathize with her. There was a campaign to get her a pardon from two different governors (Young, pp. 58-59, 66-67, and elsewhere). This worked up quite a head of steam, helped no doubt by the delays in her execution, but nothing came of it.
With little else to hope for, on May 18, Frankie cut her hair, dressed as a man -- and escaped from jail (Young, p. 69). One wonders if the jailer helped her out -- he was one of those who had signed petitions for her pardon (Young, p. 70). Alternately, might it have been her relatives, which would explain why they were afraid that she might confess? (Young, p. 71). It did no good; she was recaptured before the end of the month. She supposedly made a confession after that (Young, p. 72), but it has not survived and it is not known who heard it, although it apparently figured in discussions about her fate.
As with everything else in the case, records about Frankie's execution are few (Young, p. 78), but there seems no doubt that it happened.
Frankie's daughter Nancy Silver was apparently taken in by Frankie's relatives under an indenture (Young, p. 86), and the 1860 census shows her married to one David Parker, with four children; they eventually had two more (Young, p. 87). Her husband was a soldier in the Civil War, suffering three wounds and dying of the third in 1865 (Young, p. 87). Nancy remarried and had one more child in the 1870s (Young, p. 88). Thus Frankie probably has many descendants today (Young, pp. 171-190, traces some of them all the way to the end of the twentietht century), though apparently there was a legend that the family was "cursed" (Young, pp. 92-95).
Looking it all over, I can't help but think that we will never really know the story of Frankie Silver, but it certainly sounds as if she was more sinned against than sinning.
There was apparently a documentary video called "The Ballad of Frankie Silver." The special North Carolina Folklore issue (XLVII.1) is devoted to this documentary. It has some material about the song and the history, but most of it has to do with the documentary instead. The Young book is probably a better source. There is also Daniel W. Patterson, A Tree Accurst: Bobby McMillon and the Stories of Frankie Silver, from 2000. And Sharyn McCrumb, who seems to make a habit of writing worthless historical novels about folk songs, contributed The Ballad of Frankie Silver in 1998. - RBW
Last updated in version 6.1
- Hall: Kermit L. Hall, editor, The Oxford Companion to American Law, Oxford, 2002
- Powell: William S. Powell, editor, Encyclopedia of North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press, 2006
- Young: Perry Deane Young, The Untold Story of Frankie Silver: Was She Unjustly Hanged, Down Home Press, 1998
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