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 NEWS

For immediate use July 27, 1998-- No. 575

 

Author discovers Frankie Silver not first North Carolina woman hanged

By DAVID WILLIAMSON
UNC-CH News Services

CHAPEL HILL – In 40 years of off-and-on researching Frankie Silver, the North Carolina mountain woman hanged in 1833 for chopping up her abusive husband, an author has discovered Appalachia’s most famous ax murderer was not the first woman executed in the state.

"Nor was she the first white woman to be hanged here, and she wasn’t even the first woman hanged in Burke County, part of which now is Mitchell County," said Perry Deane Young, a Vietnam War correspondent who wrote "The Untold Story of Frankie Silver," just published by Down Home Press. "At least nine North Carolina women, whites and blacks, were hanged or burned at the stake before she was, and we can never know the exact number because few records exist. At least 15 women were executed prior to 1910 when the state took over capital punishment."

Also contrary to common belief, Frankie and her husband Charles were not the subjects of the "Ballad of Frankie and Johnny," one of the most popular folk songs in U.S. history. Instead, that ballad arose from the Mississippi Delta black blues tradition.

"Undoubtedly today, Francis Silver would not be executed because she would be considered a victim of spouse abuse," Young said. "She would either be given a shorter prison term for second-degree murder or manslaughter or acquitted altogether. She claimed to have struck her husband with the ax while he was drunk and loading his rifle to shoot her."

The biggest mistake her lawyer made was having her plead innocent to first-degree murder and deny that she killed Charles three days before Christmas 1831 in their isolated mountain cove home by the Toe River near the Tennessee line, Young said. Had she confessed before her trial rather than just before her execution, the jury likely would have considered how Charles frequently beat her and that she needed to care for an infant daughter.

During her year-and-a-half incarceration, often chained in the dungeon of the Morganton jail, great sympathy arose for Frankie, who sickened and then escaped with relatives’ help, cutting her blond hair short like a boy’s only to be quickly recaptured. Young learned that his own great, great uncles John and Thomas Young were among hundreds of people signing petitions or writing letters for clemency without success to N.C. Gov. Montford Stokes and later Gov. David L. Swain, who was elected UNC president in 1835.

Young’s interest in the case began in high school in Asheville in the late 1950s when he wrote two term papers about it and continued during his journalism training at UNC-Chapel Hill and tour in Vietnam for United Press International. Since then, he has pored through tens of thousands of documents in Asheville, Raleigh, Morganton and in both UNC-CH’s Southern Historical Collection and the N.C. Collection. The book reprints all the most relevant ones.

"It was just an entirely different story from what I had always heard," Young said, "One of my goals was to set the record straight by correcting misinformation repeated over the years by hundreds of songwriters, historians and reporters, including myself. I hope the book will be used in schools to teach that facts are often more interesting and satisfying than the legends."

While in high school, he visited the impoverished Eliza Woodfin Holland Underwood, former poet laureate of the United Confederate Veterans and granddaughter of Nicholas Washington Woodfin, long believed to have been Frankie’s ineffectual lawyer. Before Underwood died, she befriended Young, and after her death, her landlady gave the teenager important Woodfin family papers she was about to throw out.

Young discovered that Frankie’s lawyer was not Woodfin, but Thomas Worth Wilson, an ancestor of U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin Jr. In 1973, during the height of the Watergate hearings, Ervin, who chaired the Watergate committee, took time to reply to Young about the unjust fate Frankie Silver suffered 140 years earlier.

"Like you," I believe that tradition has done her a grave injustice," wrote Ervin, who also mistakenly believed Woodfin had been her lawyer.

Contrary to myth, Young discovered, Frankie was illiterate and neither wrote nor sang on the Morganton gallows a song about her guilt.

"Most of my life I’ve heard about a pretty mountain lady who was hanged for nothing more serious than murdering her husband," said John Ehle, author of "The Land Breakers," "The Road" and "The Journey of August King." "Here – and I can say at last after one-and-a-half centuries – is the true account, thoroughly researched and beautifully presented. It is a high-road journey into this Appalachian mystery."

Young said he was grateful to best-selling author Jerry Bledsoe, who also founded Down Home Press, for publishing the book.

"This is an important piece of North Carolina history that probably none of the big New York houses would have been interested in," said Young, who now writes a newspaper column in Chapel Hill. He recently competed a screenplay for "Two of the Missing," his book about the disappearance in Southeast Asia of two fellow journalists, including Sean Flynn, son of actor Errol Flynn.

Copies of "The Untold Story of Frankie Silver" are available at bookstores or can ordered from Down Home Press, P.O. Box 4126, Asheboro, N.C. 27204. It costs $14.95 plus $2 for mailing and 90 cents tax for N.C. residents.

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Note: Young can be reached at (704) 684-0769 until July 29 and thereafter at (919) 942-7179 (h).

Contact: David Williamson, (919) 962-8596.