Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
While it may seem like violence, heightened media attention, injustices, and prejudices are modern mores, the case of Frankie Silver, a wife and mother hanged in Western North Carolina during the summer of 1833 for the killing and dismembering of her husband, Charlie, encapsulated many of today’s issues and still stirs discussions and debates.
What is commonly known as the “Ballad of Frankie Silver” has been generally publicized since 1833 as a confession just prior to Frankie’s hanging in Morganton; yet, many people have also asserted for almost two centuries that the rhyming ballad is only an Appalachian folklore. The ballad begins:
“This dreadful, dark and dismal day
Has swept my glories all away,
My sun goes down, my days are past,
And I must leave this world at last.”
There are many reasons the Frankie Silver murder case, which happened in Mitchell County in 1831, continues to fascinate people nationally and locally. First, the details of the crime were heinous, even to contemporary sensibilities. Although local legends and speculation continue, some of the facts of the case are that 19-year-old Charlie Silver went missing in December 1831. And, after a few days of questioning neighbors of his whereabouts, his 18-year-old wife, Frankie Silver, became a suspect in his disappearance. With the couple’s infant daughter present at their simple, rural, Kona, N.C. cabin, local law enforcement – according to Perry Deane Young’s book “The Untold Story of Frankie Silver”– found bits of bones in fresh ash in the fireplace, “a circle of blood as large as a hog’s liver” under the cabin’s floorboards, a portion of a body partly consumed by fire buried a short distance from the cabin, a large puddle of blood beneath the floor of the house, and more gruesome details strewn about the property. In a bench inside the house was a deep gash that appeared to have been made by an ax.
Frankie, along with her mother, Barbara Stewart, and her brother, Blackston, were arrested on Jan. 9, 1832. Speculation at the time of the arrest was that Frankie killed her husband with an ax in a jealous rage, since he was known to drink and have adulterous affairs, and that her mother and brother helped her dismember and attempt to hide his body. Frankie, however, was documented as small in stature. In the book “The Ballad of Frankie Silver,” by Sharyn McCrumb, she introduces Frankie this way when she and her family members were taken to be jailed in Morganton, county seat of Burke County, which at the time encompassed what is now Mitchell County: “On one of the horses sat a young girl, so little and pale that at first look I took her for a child. … Frankie Silver was small and slight, but she had the wiry body of one who had seen her share of drudgery on a hardscrabble hill farm.”
Frankie’s father, Isaiah Stewart, obtained a habeas corpus hearing, and his wife and son were released from the Morganton jail, but his daughter was not. Frankie was charged with the felony of murder. While jealousy was first thought to be the cause of Frankie’s rage, many of Frankie’s friends and family members began to express how she was a victim of abuse and that killing her husband was an act of self-defense.
Young, a N.C. resident and journalist who died in January 2019, wrote “The Untold Story of Frankie Silver” because of research he gleaned and because ancestors played a role in the case. He wrote in his book, “As if Charlie’s murder itself were not bad enough, Alfred Silver (Charlie’s father) revealed, “The most atrocious deed was to come. The woman went to work, cut the body into small pieces, and burned it bit by bit.”
Even though there was no hard evidence that Frankie Silver killed her husband – as fingerprinting would not be a common investigative practice until 1892 – the fact that Charlie’s body parts were in and around the cabin where she resided was determined to be proof enough. If Frankie had killed Charlie to protect herself and her infant daughter, Nancy, the courts may have had mercy on her, and perhaps her sentence would have been imprisonment for a time. However, the ghastly nature of the crime, and the fact that women were not allowed to testify in their own defense, resulted in a guilty verdict.
Although 17 letters and petitions, according to Young, were sent to the N.C. governor to attempt a pardon for Frankie, due to the “harsh punishment” of the hanging of a woman, extremely rare in the United States, she was hanged on July 12, 1833.
But to make the story even more sensational and provide additional fodder for the media and people residing all over Western North Carolina, Frankie attempted an escape in May, two months before her hanging, with the help of three men, one of whom was assumed to be an uncle. She cut her hair, dressed herself as a boy, and referred to herself as “Tommy.”
And then there is the daughter, Nancy Silver, who was reportedly ferried away – or kidnapped – in the middle of the night as a baby by Stuart relations, Jacob and his wife, Elizabeth. Frankie and Charlie’s daughter being taken from Mitchell County to a remote, rural home in the Ellijay community is how legendary Frankie Silver first become connected to Macon County.
Belinda Carringer, a local historian and farmer with her husband, Donnie, of Carringer Farms, was researching aspects of family history when she came across information indicating she might be related to Frankie Silver. Carringer learned later through genealogy that she was, instead, blood related to Charlie Silver. Carringer’s maiden name is Smart. Her great grandfather, Whipple Smart, and great grandmother, Mary Elizabeth (Silver) Smart, lived in the preserved home that is part of Mainspring Conservation Trust’s Tessentee Bottomland Preserve, which has walking trails leading to the home. Mary Elizabeth’s father was Greenberry Ellis Silver, first cousin to Charlie Silver; Greenberry Ellis Silver was Carringer’s great, great grandfather.
The most interesting irony, though, was when Carringer found out that their farm, which she and her husband purchased in 2011, is only a mile from where Nancy Silver is buried, at Mountain Grove Baptist Church in Franklin. She said when she first visited the gravesite of Frankie and Charlie Silver’s only child, Nancy, she cried. “A woman hanged is fascinating to people, but Nancy suffered because her mother was hanged for murdering her father,” said Carringer. “The circumstances are hard to think about … how it would have been for Frankie … for Nancy and the family.”
Nancy’s unfortunate life is detailed in the 2012 historical fiction book, “A Life for Nancy,” by Danita Stoudemire and Riley Henry. The book follows the life of the ill-fated Nancy Silver and includes more than 30 years of research by Henry, a native of Franklin, whose wife, Wanda, is the great-great granddaughter of Nancy Silver.
“When we started researching it, everybody would bring up, ‘What happened to Nancy?’” said Henry. “We found much information at courthouses and through Silver historians. Nancy’s story needed to be told.”
So far, more than 6,000 copies of the book have been sold throughout the United States, according to Henry.
Nancy, who eventually left Macon County as a young girl to return to her maternal grandmother, Frankie’s mother, Barbara, underwent extreme prejudice, shunning, and bullying back in Mitchell County, where the murder took place. According to the book, school children taunted her, “Yer ma was a murderer,” while adults whispered when she was around and some referred to her as “poor little Nancy.” Both her maternal and paternal grandmothers told conflicting stories about what truly happened based on their allegiances to their deceased children. “It ate at her every day,” reads the book. “She had heard so many bits and pieces of what had happened; she just couldn’t put them all together.”
Henry believes that many fabrications surrounding the Silver murder case and the life of Nancy have helped to keep the story alive and speculations ongoing. “None of us [descendants] believe that Frankie killed Charlie from a jealous rage. We’re convinced from the research that it was self-defense. And I don’t believe she cut him up by herself and tried to hide him. She was only about 4 foot 6 inches.”
As an adult living back in Ellijay, Nancy attended Mountain Grove Baptist Church. Henry has been in contact with some descendants of Nancy’s seven children, which are scattered throughout Western North Carolina, Georgia and elsewhere in the United States. He and his wife visit Nancy’s grave regularly and donate annually to the church for the gravesite’s maintenance. Plus, in 2005, the Henrys put a plaque in front of Nancy’s tombstone to communicate and commemorate the Civil War death of her first husband, David Parker, who was the father of six of her children.
“When Nancy was married to David, she seemed to really enjoy life for the first time,” said Henry, “but her life was hard after she lost David and sad because of what happened to her parents. In any of our research, there is no indication she experienced much happiness. She was very private person, but high strung, and could have suffered depression.”
In the conclusion of “A Life for Nancy” is a list of what Henry was able to determine as fact in the Silver case and the life of Nancy, but he pointed out that conjecture may always surround the mysterious, but well-publicized case of Frankie and Charlie Silver and the daughter they left behind.