"Give Me the Truth!": The Frankie Silver Story in Contemporary North Carolina

"Give Me the Truth!": The Frankie Silver Story in Contemporary North Carolina

By Beverly Patterson

Several years ago the Folklife Program of the North Carolina Arts Council gave a small grant to filmmaker Tom Davenport to document storyteller and ballad singer Bobby McMillon. A native of western North Carolina, Bobby grew up in the mountains of Mitchell and Caldwell Counties and continues to live there near the furniture manufacturing district where he has often worked. He is widely respected by folklorists in the state for his knowledge of regional tales and ballads and for his ability to communicate his deep feeling for them. When our panel funded the Davenport film project, the Folklife Program had already recorded over 400 ballads and songs in Bobby's repertory, and we saw the film as an opportunity to document his storytelling.

Bobby could have told any number of stories for this film--he must know hundreds--but he and Tom Davenport agreed on the story of Frankie Silver, a cycle of legends about a nineteenth-century murder in his own family. This subject appealed to the filmmaker for several reasons: the story was compelling; it had a number of episodes that would provide structure and focus; and the storyteller could be filmed on location where the events happened.

Frances “Frankie” Stewart Silver was tried in Morganton, North Carolina, for murdering her husband, Charlie Silver, with an ax and trying to conceal the crime by dismembering his body and burning it in the fireplace. After her conviction in March 1832, issues of truth and justice came under much discussion in the community, and many men, including even members of the jury that convicted her, petitioned Governor Montfort Stokes to pardon her. A year later, when abuse and self-defense eventually emerged as her likely motives, local public opinion turned from horror to sympathy for Frankie, and more men and a group of influential women in Burke County signed petitions to the new governor, David L. Swain. Their petitions were not successful, and Frankie was hanged on July 12, 1833.

Those events produced a ballad as well as local legends. The ballad has not been sung widely since the 1920s and 1930s, when it was commercially recorded by Byrd Moore and His Hot Shots, the Toe River Valley Boys, and others; but the legends are as active now as they were 160 years ago--maybe more so. The Davenport film hints at some of the current interest in Frankie Silver, weaving questions and comments from other family and community members into Bobby’s account. It contrasts these perspectives with that of North Carolina Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Gray, who explains his involvement with the case in response to a petition for Frankie's pardon submitted to the Governor’s office in the 1990s.

While that suggests something of the story’s continuing vitality, a closer look is even more revealing. The source of the petition, for example, was an eighth-grade English teacher and her students at Heritage Middle School in Valdese, North Carolina, not far from Morganton, where the trial and hanging took place. The spring of 1997 marked the fifth consecutive year this teacher, Mrs. Jo Ball, had collaborated with the entire eighth-grade faculty at her school to carry out a five-to-six week unit on Frankie Silver. The faculty, says Mrs. Ball, uses the story to teach virtually everything in the eighth-grade curriculum including social studies, North Carolina history, math, science, English, creative writing, art, music, and drama. At the end of the unit, all eighth-grade students meet in the auditorium for the culminating event: an improvised "retrial" of Frankie Silver.

My husband Dan and I attended the 1997 retrial. The stage was set with prosecution and defense teams flanking a podium at center stage where "Judge Donnell" presided. After witnesses were sworn in, the “lawyers” examined and cross-examined them. In this retrial, "Frankie" was allowed to testify in her own defense, something that was not permitted by evidentiary law that governed her actual trial in 1832. The jury, chosen from the audience of eighth graders and their parents, deliberated and returned a verdict that acquitted Frankie for the fifth year in a row.

About a month later, Western Piedmont Community College sponsored a production of They Won't Hang a Woman, a short drama adapted from a book about Frankie Silver by former Burke County social studies teacher Maxine McCall.1 A local cast staged the play in the old Burke County Courthouse, very near the place where the actual trial took place. All three evening performances were sold out, and so was the noon performance on July 12, 1997, the 164th anniversary of Frankie's execution. Producer Cheryl Oxford, folklorist and faculty member of Western Piedmont Community College, scheduled a Sunday performance to handle the overflow. When Maxine McCall introduced the play, she told the audience that she wrote They Won't Hang a Woman after a review committee for textbooks on North Carolina History found only two mentions of Burke County history in those books and "both of them were wrong."

Not long after this, the Silver family had its annual reunion in the Kona community where the Silvers settled after the Revolutionary War. The old Silver homeplace, a two-story log cabin where Charlie Silver was born, is a landmark in this beautiful mountain valley and is one of the oldest homes still standing in Mitchell County. Up the hill and across the road from the home place is the old Kona Baptist Church, and behind the church is the cemetery where the family congregates for a Sunday morning memorial service during the reunion. A tall gravestone for Revolutionary War soldier and family patriarch George Silver dominates the cemetery. Off to one side are several unmarked graves. Legend says that three of them are the graves of Charlie Silver where parts of his body were buried at different times, as they were found.

A sign painted on a nearby rock invites visitors to see the exhibit in the old church, which is no longer used for meetings. many of the displays focus on Frankie Silver: framed feature stories about Frankie and Charlie from regional newspapers; a handwritten copy of the ballad; and a poster with information about a ballet, "The Ballad of Frankie Silver." This ballet, produced and performed by the Tanz Ensemble Cathy Sharp of Basel, Switzerland, was presented in Atlanta during the 1996 summer Olympics as part of the Cultural Olympiad. Music for the ballet, composed by Panaiotis from Cary, North Carolina, is available on a compact disc.2

Dan and I were not the only outsiders at the 1997 reunion. At another church nearby, family and friends gathered around tables in the basement to enjoy a meal together, surrounded by even more Silver family exhibits. There we met independent videographer Richard Eller who was filming interviews at the reunion as part of his own project on Frankie Silver for a local cable television station. His video, Frankie Silver's Deed was ready for broadcast a few weeks later.3 Another reunion visitor, Howard Williams, a drama teacher and native of Morganton, had written a play, The Legend of Frankie Silver, and presented it at Brewton-Parker College in Georgia in 1993. He has recently established the Frankie Foundation in Morganton for the purpose of producing the play there.

But the most celebrated person at the reunion was popular writer Sharyn McCrumb, who claims to be a descendant of one of Frankie Silver's brothers. She had just completed her book, The Ballad of Frankie Silver, which has subsequently been published.4 Sharyn's reading from that manuscript was a reunion program highlight.

News of other Frankie Silver-related projects--past and present--has continued. A local arts council director reported performing in a play about Frankie Silver in the 1970s written by Senator Sam Ervin's sister-in-law and produced at the Repertory Theater at Mars Hill College. He said the production had been “as graphic as they could make it,” complete with blood bags and a realistic-looking hanging, and “everyone loved it.” A decade ago a video about another western Carolina mystery included British storyteller Geoff Wood standing by Frankie Silver’s grave and telling her story.5 More recently, an independent filmmaker shot a docudrama based on her screenplay of the Frankie Silver legend. She mentioned three Silver family members she knew who were working on their own separate manuscripts about Frankie Silver. These are only a few of the latest manifestations of interest in Frankie Silver. Articles and feature stories about Frankie Silver have appeared in books, journals, and magazines in a steady stream since the 1885 publication of the text of her supposed song in a local paper. Book-length studies have also begun to reach print. “Silver Notes,” the Silver family newsletter, reports some new project almost every month.6

With so much evidence of family, local, state, and even some international interest in this North Carolina story, with a great surge of interest in heritage tourism, and with an increasing public awareness of domestic violence issues, we thought the University of North Carolina Center for Public Television would welcome the opportunity to show the Davenport film. To our surprise, the film was rejected by the program development officer who wrote the following on behalf of the Center's director:

While the story of the murder may have some interest factor for some, we feel the violent acts are too graphic for our air. We also feel that although you did include some additional material from the legal perspective, the program will not provide a strong educational or enriching experience for our viewers. We also shared your program with members of our Board of Trustees to ensure that their standards were the same as ours. They were. For these reasons, we must decline the opportunity to broadcast The Ballad of Frankie Silver.

What could this possibly mean? Perhaps it meant that Bobby McMillon told this tragic story very well indeed. Certainly the Davenport film contains nothing to rival the crime scene in a PBS two-part dramatization of Minette Walters' novel The Sculptress in which a woman is accused of murdering and dismembering her mother and sister. The television program, which aired on “Mystery!” in November 1997, gave North Carolina viewers a horrifying view of the bloody kitchen shortly after the story opened. In the Davenport film, quite the opposite happens. Viewers see no violence, just people telling their stories generations later.

At another level, however, rejection by public television probably meant that the film went beyond simply documenting a folk artist, or even documenting a legend cycle that has gained momentum over the past 164 years. This film project seemed to be once again bringing to the surface a deep ambivalence about the nature and value of traditional arts and culture in our contemporary society. Resistance can come from both insiders and outsiders. Within the region some may see their own traditional arts as remnants of an older, poorer, backward past that needs to be left behind in order to move toward a more sophisticated, affluent, progressive future. Some outsiders to the culture, who now enjoy decision-making powers in their adopted home, may share that view and respond to such pressure--especially if it appears to be coming from financial supporters. They may have also stereotyped southerners--rural people, mountaineers, and working class in particular--as ignorant. They may even feel they would be doing a disservice to the mountain region by giving greater visibility to its stories unless those stories have been softened and blurred by sentimentality, by a celebrity host, or by some other strategy that provides a comfortable distance from the real community.

As we continue to support well-made documentaries of traditional culture and offer them to public television, we find ourselves echoing a challenge Wayne Silver expressed in the film as he talked about the stories that still circulate about Frankie Silver: "Give me the truth!" Like Wayne Silver and many others, we have found ourselves caught up in a search for historical documents and court records that would answer questions about the facts of the case of Frankie Silver. But we are also among those who have been even more caught up in Bobby McMillon's telling of the story. The film has won recognition from independent filmmakers in North Carolina and has received top honors from the Society of North Carolina Historians, and with good reason. Bobby McMillon's story reveals deep truths about how people deal with life and death and tragedy, and about how they deal with traditional arts as culture.

[1] Burke County Cultural Heritage Project (n.p.: Burke County Public Schools, 1972).

[2] Privately issued on CD by the composer.

[3] Frankie Silver’s Deed: Crime and Punishment in the 1830s, “Back Then . . .” Series, VHS videocassette, 30 min. (Hickory, NC: Charter Communications, 1997).

[4] Sharyn McCrumb, The Ballad of Frankie Silver (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1998),

[5] David S. Mull, prod., Mysterious Lights of Brown Mountain, VHS videocassette, 60 min. (n.p.: Cross Roads Productions, 1993).

[6] For example, entries on the progress of the Legacy Films docudrama in the January 1997, April 1998, and June 1998 issues; on a panel about Frankie Silver at the Appalachian Studies Conference in the April issue; in the June issue on Jim Harbin’s To Right the Legend of Frankie Silver: Nancy’s Story (Maggie Valley, N.C.: Ravenscroft Publishing, 1998); on Pat Dowd’s numbered prints of Frankie and Charlie’s cabin in the August 1998 issue; on the International Ballet Company’s filming for a video entitled “The Ballad of Frankie Silver” in the February and April 1999 issues; and in the August 1999 issue on Rex Redmon’s thesis “Tragedy on the Estatoe” and Perry Young’s “Frankie’s Child,” an addendum to and correction of his The Untold Story of Frankie Silver: Was She Unjustly Hanged?­ (Asheboro, N.C.: Down Home Press, 1998).