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The Ballad and the Legends of Frankie Silver: A Search for the Woman's Voice

An article arguing that first song and then journalism kept the memory of Frankie Silver alive until it could generate poetry, fiction, a ballet, and historical studies.

By Daniel Patterson

NOTE: A greatly extended form of this material is found in Dr. Daniel Patterson's A Tree Accurst: Storyteller Bobby McMillon and the Frankie Silver Murder (University of North Carolina Press). This book was awarded the Chicago Folklore Prize for 2001

Western North Carolina in the 1830s was a region of tiny villages in a sweep of forest broken by many small farms. It had a few professional men, entrepreneurs, and wealthy slave-holding planters, but it was predominantly a subsistence-farming culture, traditional, and face-to-face. This was no Golden Age of harmony and tranquility. In the 1830s the newspapers and court documents recorded a steady series of violent crimes: Sally Barnicastle and Catharine Bostian murdered their babies. Joseph Wilson hanged his wife to a sapling in woods near his house. A man named Osborn split his mother-in-law's head with an ax, chopped her body to pieces, used the axe to kill one of his children, and then tried to burn their bodies. Charity Norwood was found stabbed and beaten to death and burned in the forge of her husband's blacksmith shop. Every one of these incidents has long been forgotten. From the same years and region only the case of Frankie Silver has remained alive in memory to give rise to historical and legal studies, newspaper articles, several plays, several videos, two novels, a ballet, a school syllabus, a family museum, and a recent petition to the governor.

Why Frankie Silver? Song and journalism, I think, can take the credit, as in the similar cases of Naomi Wise, Tom Dula and Laurie Foster, Patsy Beasly, Nell Cropsie, and other crimes remembered in the state. One of Frankie Silver's contemporaries composed a ballad, and local people sang it. Probably the song kept discussion alive long enough to transmute gossip and fact into legends with staying power. These surfaced in newspapers--the ballad first and then the legends--beginning an innumerable series of journalistic re-printings and retellings that helped to spread and perpetuate the story.

What interests our contemporaries--the novelist, the teacher, the lawyer, the feminist, even the family member--is a series of problems in the case: the conduct of the trial itself, Frankie Silver's confession that explained her motivation as an attempt to defend herself from abuse, the efforts local people made to get her pardoned, and the unwillingness of two governors to exercise executive clemency. The ballad and the legends do not mention these issues. Their own messages also differ and are worth exploring.

In the original community the legends were normally told, as Bobby McMillon phrases it, "in bits and pieces."1 Individuals exchanged episodes, argued about their plausibility, and invoked the authority of their sources. But in 1903 a young journalist named H. E. C. "Red Buck" Bryant interviewed Alfred Silver, the elderly half-brother of the murder victim. Bryant published this interview as a newspaper feature story.2 This long narrative strung many episodes together into a cycle that was apparently not the creation of the journalist. From Lucinda Silver Norman, another half-sibling of the murder victim, we have a second telling of the entire legend cycle. Muriel Sheppard wrote an account based on it for her book Cabins in the Laurel.3 Bobby McMillon has heard other rather full tellings from his grandmother's uncle Latt Hughes and taped some of the episodes Hughes told. And Tom Davenport videotaped Bobby McMillon's own thirty-one minute rendition of the legend cycle and used much of it in his video The Ballad of Frankie Silver. In each case the circumstance that provoked the creation of the cycle was the need to tell the story to someone unfamiliar with it: an outsider, a member of a younger generation.

Bobby McMillon and others tell the legend as a quest for historical truth. While the four accounts differ in what they present as the truth, they all give the material a remarkably similar artistic treatment. Their legend cycles are so patterned and artistically effective that the listener may not even question episodes describing events no one witnessed. Bobby in fact repeatedly calls his material "a story that happened." All four recorded tellings show a narrative method strikingly like that of a classic British traditional ballad. The legend cycle focuses on action and circumstance, not on psychology. It begins in medias res, with Charles chopping wood on the snowy day of his murder. It unfolds the story in action and dialogue. It leaps across space and time between episodes, but lingers on the chosen scenes. It avoids an explicit moral, but the patterning of the scenes discloses implicit truths. The scenes fall into six major blocks, in pairs that balance each other: the murder/the punishment, the concealment of the crime/its discovery, the desecration of Charles's body/the vain attempt of Frankie's family to protect her body from insult. Without ever explicitly pointing a moral, the tale in effect dramatizes proverbial teachings: Justice prevails. Truth will out. Respect the dead.

One episode in the legend cycle concerns the origin of the Frankie Silver ballad (Laws E 13). It says that Frankie herself composed the song and sang it from the scaffold. Alfred Silver told this story in his 1903 interview and further described the ballad as having been "printed on a strip of paper and sold to people who were assembled at Morganton to see Franky Silver executed." No such broadside of the song has ever been found, nor is any song broadside known to have been printed in North Carolina that early. The Frankie Silver song seems first to have appeared in print in 1885 in a local newspaper, where it had the title "Frankie Silver's Confession."4

That title, however, drew a sharp letter from a reader in Kentucky, one Henry Spainhour.5 A native of North Carolina, he had been working in Morganton at the time of the murder, trial, and execution. He said the piece was not by Frankie at all, and he personally knew the author. This was a 17-year-old co-worker named Thomas W. Scott, who based his Frankie Silver song on an older ballad called "Beacham's Address," which Scott had learned from a third employee named Wycoff. Spainhour's account is probably accurate. Research verifies many of his details, including the existence of a song called "Beachamp's Address" or “Beauchamp’s Confession” (a ballad about the execution of Jereboam Beauchamp in Kentucky in 1826), although a text of it described by Josiah Combs and Hubert Shearin has disappeared.6

The significance of these details is not simply that they exonerate Frankie of the authorship of rather weak ballad verse, but that both songs stand in the venerable broadside tradition of the "criminal's farewell" or "criminal's goodnight." The song presents itself as the confession of a remorseful criminal. Hundreds of earlier broadsides also took this stance. And like the "Frankie Silver" ballad many of these other songs were said to have been sung by the condemned at the scaffold. The criminal's farewell broadside in fact for centuries had a recognized place at executions in the British Isles. Even as late as the 1840s broadside "farewells" issued for two British executions are said to have sold two and a half million copies each.

Criminal justice in North Carolina and other American states in the 1830s perpetuated eighteenth-century British justice. The town where Frankie got hanged grew up around its shabby, unpainted, weatherboarded courthouse and its log jail with a door and two windows." "Hard by" stood "a splendid two-story whipping post and pillory."7 And doubtless when needed, a scaffold. These were sites where officials rendered public justice. One woman who heard a rumor that the Governor had pardoned Frankie went home disappointed, "Crying a Pardon had been granted to a poor culprit & she had missed seeing a great sight."8

But the purpose of pillory, whipping post, and gallows was not spectacle for spectacle's sake. Executions were the ultimate statement of society's codes and power. One New England minister celebrated an execution with a sermon to the criminal, warning that "In about three hours you must die--must be hanged as a spectacle to the world, a warning to the vicious."9 A similar instructive purpose was recognized by those involved in Frankie Silver's case. A man writing to the governor recalled a conversation in which he advised the governor that he thought Frankie a "fit subject for Example"--that is, that she should be executed as an example to the public.10

North Carolina justice until the Constitution of 1868 perpetuated many varieties of public punishment for the purpose of example. Prior to that year, a number of crimes carried the punishment of thirty-nine lashes on the bare back, "well laid on." A person convicted of perjury was to "stand in the pillory for one hour" and at the end of that time to have both his ears cut off and "nailed to the pillory by the officer, and there remain until the setting of the sun." For counterfeiting one could receive lashes, imprisonment, and branding "in the right cheek with the letter C"; many other felonies could be punished with a brand "upon the brawn of the left thumb"--"these marks to be made by the sheriff openly in the court."11

Executions remained of course the most dramatic of the public punishments, complete with audience, star players, costumes, a stage set, and conventional actions and speeches. An editorial account of an execution in Raleigh in 1830 exclaims, "such a multitude never before assembled in this City. . . . During the morning, every avenue leading to town, was literally blocked up with human beings of both sexes and of all colors, and ages." Authorities heightened the drama of the event by the way they clothed the criminals. One of the condemned men, Elijah W. Kimbrough, "was habited in a long white shroud which entirely concealed his person"; the other, "negro Carey," wore "a similar garment, except that it was black."12 Five years earlier in Warrenton, Oliver Lewis, a man to be hanged for murder, was first taken "under strong guard" to the Episcopal Church, where the Rev. Mr. Brainerd delivered "a most eloquent and touching discourse on the occasion."13

In Frankie's time, then, an execution still generated behavior that had been conventional in the colonial era, when "Theatrical elements came out with special force at hangings." The condemned themselves "were expected to play the role of the penitent sinner; it was best of all if they offered a final confession, a prayer, and affirmed their faith, in the very shadow of the gallows."14

The condemned, however, was not always so compliant. Joseph Sollis, at his execution in Duplin County in 1827 for the murder of Abraham Kornegay, refused to play this part. After the clerical gentlemen had done what they conceived to be their duty, the Sheriff told the criminal that he had but a few moments to live, and that if he had any thing to say to his friends or the public, now was the time. He observed, in a strong tone of voice, that "he had nothing to say more, than he would not be in this fix but for Kornegay." He was admonished by a humane gentleman present, not to die with malice in his breast; to which he replied, "Kornegay was in fault, he began the affray, he was to blame for all." He then with a firm step mounted the scaffold; the sheriff tied the rope, pulled the cap over his eyes, and cut away the scaffold.15

Sollis refused then to play his prescribed role--just as Frankie Silver, according to the legends, did not play hers. When the sheriff asked if she had anything she'd like to say, her father reportedly shouted out from the crowed, "Die with it in you, Frankie! Die with it in you"--and she closed her mouth and never said another word. When the criminal did not confess, the "criminal's farewell" song might serve as a surrogate confession to round out the ritual.

But we also sense in these criminals' confession songs an undercurrent of ambivalence. Early justice was harsh, and in the British Isles from which many Americans emigrated, crimes for which death was the penalty leapt from fifty in 1688 to over 200 by 1820. Property rights were ascendant, and the propertied protected their privileges with sanctions of utmost severity. The farm laborer or the street vendor, the Irishman, the Scot, or the London mob felt the keen severity of the law, and resented its abuse by the wealthy and powerful. Crowds attended the spectacle of a punishment at the pillory, whipping post, or gallows, but they often sympathized with the prisoners, particularly with those who bore their part with courage. At Tyburn Hill in London they sometimes rioted and beat the hangman. Many of the old songs about executions show this sympathy with the condemned, especially those ballads that survived long in oral tradition.

The execution of Frankie Silver called forth a conventional "criminal's farewell" on the broadside model. It pointed the moral of this public drama of crime and punishment. It would seem to corroborate Stuart A. Kane’s theoretical, political interpretation of the function of ballads and chapbooks about "wives with knives": that authorities allowed their printing and circulation because they had "an instructional effect," stimulating "a consensual self-regulation by the lower classes, men and women alike."16 But the moral is not the entire meaning of the song--and certainly not the reason why people still sing it. The first-person stance of "Frankie Silver's Confession" in fact compels identification with Frankie. Singers and listeners must in some degree take the words as their own and genuinely share Frankie's feelings of remorse, fear, and despair. Marina Trivette, Bobby McMillon's sister-in-law and singing partner, says as much in Tom Davenport’s videotape: "I sort of put myself in her place and imagine how I'd feel, knowing that I was facing death--and was going to be hanged. I mean, that would be a scary thought for anybody." And she adds, as her own child clambers into her lap, "To know you're going to leave your child for other people to raise would be scary. It gets to me sometimes. We've got some ballads we can't sing because we can't get to the end of them for crying!"

The actual Frankie Silver was virtually voiceless in her society. Like the rest of her family, she was illiterate and could not write her letter to the World. Five or six weeks before her execution she called together some of her acquaintance and confessed that she did kill her husband Charles; accounts of her confession differ, but she said either that he was beating her with a stick and she hit him to defend herself, or that he was loading a gun to shoot her and she struck first with the ax. Both the manuscript and printed transcriptions of her words have disappeared; time has robbed her of this voice of her experience. The law also robbed her of her voice. As an accused felon, she could not, under the legal practices of that day, testify either for or against herself in the trial. As a woman she, by law, could not have used self-defense as an argument in the trial, unless she had a witness who could testify that she had not given her husband provocation and that his beating had gone beyond "moderate chastisement," which the law permitted. The legends give her no voice: they are mostly the Silver family's view of the events. The ballad itself is an elaborate piece of ventriloquism. It gives Frankie Jereboam Beauchamp's words to say--and even he is speaking only conventional words composed not by the condemned but by a hack poet whose perspective is that of religious and state authorities. Yet in the actual singing or hearing of the song, Frankie does get her day, for during the performance both singer and listener in some measure stand in her shoes on the scaffold and face Eternity, filled with terror and remorse:

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?

Oh! Lord, what will become of me?
I am condemned, you all now see,
To heaven or hell my soul must fly
All in a moment when I die. . . .

This empathy has kept the song alive, and the song kept the legends alive, and together the song and the legends have begotten all our modern interest. We come to the material shocked by social issues in the case--the class and gender inequities in society and in the law. The storytellers contemplate character and fate: the human capacity for measureless rage, or the enormous and devastating consequences of a moment’s mindless act. The ballad singers hold on to the song because it moves them, awakening their feelings for an actual human being facing the most terrifying of human fates, to know that you will unavoidably die at a known, appointed hour, in dread of eternal punishment.

[1] Quotations from Bobby McMillon come from interviews taped by Beverly Patterson and Wayne Martin in November 1992 and February 1993 and by the author in May 1997.

[2]  "The Horrible Deed of a Wife," Charlotte Daily Observer, 22 March 1903, p. 10.

[3] Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1935.

[4] The Morganton Star, 27 March 1885, p. [3].

[5] "Frances Silver's Confession," Lenoir Topic, 5 May 1886, p. 4.

[6] A Syllabus of Kentucky Folk-Songs (Lexington, Ky.: Transylvania Printing Co., 1911), 16.

[7] Silas McDowell, "Morganton and its Surroundings Sixty Years ago" No. 1554: McDowell, Silas, ser. 2, no. 11 (undated), Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

[8] Thomas W. Wilson to Gov. David L. Swain, 12 June 1833, Governors’ Papers 65, #231-232, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.

[9] Quoted in Louis P. Masur, Rites of Execution: Capital Punishment and the Transformation of American Culture, 1776-1865 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 25.

[10] David Newland to Gov. Montfort Stokes, 6 September 1832, Governors’ Papers 65, #203-204, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.

[11] William H. Battle, Battle's Revisal of the Public Statutes of North Carolina Adopted by the General Assembly at the Session of 1872-'3 (Raleigh, 1873), 298, citing 1868-'9 statute, c. 167, sec. 9.  The state Constitution of 1868 re-defined the object of punishments as "being not only to satisfy justice, but also to reform the offender, and thus prevent crime." (art. 11, sec. 2); cf. also James Iredell, The Public Acts of the General Assembly of North Carolina (Newbern, 1804), vol. 1, 9-10, and James Iredell and William H. Battle, eds., The Revised Statues of the State of North Carolina Passed by the General Assembly at the Session of 1836-7 (Raleigh, 1837), 196, 204.

[13] The Raleigh Register, 8 November 1830, p. [3].

[14] The Raleigh Register, 1 July 1825, p. [3].

Acknowledgements to:

This essay is adapted from a paper presented at the 1997 meeting of the American Folklore Society and revised for publication in the Journal of American Folklore, which has graciously consented to its reprinting in these pages. 

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