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Frances Stewart SILVER






Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide - Dismemberment
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: December 22, 1831
Date of arrest: January 9, 1832
Date of birth: 1813
Victim profile: Charles Silver, 19 (her abusive husband)
Method of murder: Hacked to death with a hatchet
Location: Kona, Mitchell County, North Carolina, USA
Status: Executed by hanging in Morganton on July 12, 1833

July 12, 1833 - Frankie Stewart Silver was hanged in Morganton, North Carolina, for the ax murder of her husband. She was 18 at the time of the crime and was the first woman to be hanged in North Carolina.

Frankie claimed that she killed her drunken husband in self defense as he was loading his gun, intending to shoot her. As Frankie stood with the rope around her neck she attempted to make a final speech, but was interrupted by her father, who shouted at her as: "Die with it in you, Frankie!" One is left to wonder what secret she took with her to the grave.


Frances Stewart Silver (Born between 1810 and 1813; Died July 12, 1833) was hanged in Morganton, Burke County, North Carolina, for the murder by ax of her husband Charles. Frankie Silver, as she is known, is incorrectly believed to have been the first woman executed in Burke County. She was the daughter of Isaiah and Barbara Stewart.


On December 22, 1831, Charles Silver, only nineteen at the time, was hacked to death with a hatchet and dismembered in the cabin he shared with his wife and their daughter Nancy, who was 13 months old at the time. Charles is buried in three separate graves in the Silver family cemetery behind the Kona Baptist Church in Kona, Mitchell County, North Carolina. The dismembered parts of Charles's body were not discovered all at once, and so they were buried piecemeal as they were found; this accounts for the existence of three separate graves.

Trial and execution

Shortly after the murder, suspicion fell on Charles's wife Frankie. Barely 18 at the time of her husband's death, Frankie was tried, swiftly convicted and sentenced to death for the murder.

Because laws at the time deemed the accused to be an incompetent witness, Frankie was not permitted to testify in her own defense. When she later explained that she had killed her abusive husband in self-defense as he was loading his gun to shoot her, public sentiment turned in her favor, but it was too late. She had already been convicted and sentenced. Hundreds of persons, including seven of the twelve jurors who convicted her, petitioned in vain for her pardon.

According to the Fayetteville Observer report July 30, 1833, "She made a confession of all the circumstances leading to the commission of the awful deed, from which it appears that the whole period of her matrimonial life, [a little more than 2 years] was spent in a succession of quarrels and fights, always, as she says, commenced by her worthless partner. She says he was loading his gun with the avowed purpose of shooting her, when she caught up the ax and gave him the fatal blow. A few moments afterwards she would have given, she says, a thousand worlds to have called back the blow."

Frankie was hanged on July 12, 1833. As she was led to the gallows, Frankie tried to make a final statement, but her father drowned her out by shouting "Die with it in you, Frankie!" What exactly she planned to say remains a mystery to this day.

Frankie's father had intended to bring his daughter's body home and inter her in the family burial plot, but extreme heat and humidity in North Carolina that year forced him to bury Frankie in an unmarked grave behind the Buckthorn Tavern a few miles west of Morganton, North Carolina. For many years, the exact location of Frankie's grave was unknown, but it is now thought to lie in a remote corner of the present day Devault farm. In 1952, a granite stone marking the probable location of the grave was placed by Beatrice Cobb, editor of the Morganton newspaper.

Escape attempt

Before her execution, Frankie's family broke her out of jail. Disguising her in a man's coat and hat, they carried her out of town in a load of hay. The Sheriff and his posse caught up to them quickly and easily saw through the disguise. She was promptly returned to prison.

Popular culture

As a young college student in September 1963, author Perry Deane Young discovered the letters and petitions to the governor which turned the traditional story of a jealous wife seeking her revenge upside down. Thus began a lifelong crusade by Young to show through documentation that Frankie Silver was unjustly hanged. At the height of the Watergate hearings, Sen. Sam Ervin wrote to Young to concur that Frankie should never have been hanged. Young's book, The Untold Story of Frankie Silver, reproduced all of the documents which proved Frankie's innocence. His later play, Frankie, finally gave the long-dead woman a chance to tell her side of the story.

The case of Frankie Silver served as the basis for Sharyn McCrumb's 1999 novel, The Ballad of Frankie Silver. In it, McCrumb's series character Spencer Arrowood takes a fresh look at the Frankie Silver case and at a (fictional) modern murder with many parallels.

The 2000 Film "The Ballad of Frankie Silver" and re-release 2010 "The Ballad of Frankie Silver:(Special Edition) DVD was Written, Directed and Produced by Theresa E. Phillips of Legacy Films Ltd. This film has a different theory of what actually happened in the death of her husband Charlie.

Rap artist Lil B has a bonus track on his Angels Exodus album titled Frankie Silver, the song samples American R&B duo James & Bobby Purify's song I'm Your Puppet. It does not reference the title person.

In a 2013 episode of the Investigation Discovery show Deadly Women, Frankie Stewart Silver appears. The episode was titled "Brides of Blood".


Author discovers Frankie Silver not first North Carolina woman hanged

By David Williamson - UNC-CH News Services

July 27, 1998

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.



Tragic Ends: Frankie and Charlie Silver

By Don Haines -

July 1, 2001

The tragic events in the North Carolina mountains on the night of December 22, 1831 revolve around a 19-year-old husband murdered, an 18-year-old wife charged with the crime and an infant daughter left without parents. Speculation about what really happened and why it did has gradually given way to commemoration and healing around the little community of Kona in Mitchell County.

As it runs north from its intersection with U.S. 19E, N.C. 80 snakes its way for about five miles through Mitchell and Yancey counties to approach the small, not-on-the-map community of Kona on the Mitchell County side. As you round the last curve before entering Kona you come upon the cemetery of the Kona Baptist Church. Walk up the gently sloping hill to the center of the graveyard and find a granite marker. CHARLES SILVER OCT 3 1812—DEC 22 1831, it reads.

But this marker is not a tombstone. Three natural stones that could have been plucked from Celo Knob, hovering in the distance, have that distinction. Because Charlie Silver wasn’t buried all at once. There are many words that could be used to describe the Charlie and Frankie Silver story. Bizarre, gruesome and puzzling will do for starters. That Frankie killed Charlie one cold December night in 1831 in Kona, N.C. is not disputed. But beyond that it’s difficult to tell where truth ends and myth begins.

Charlie Silver was the only child of Jacob and Elizabeth Wilson Silver. Charlie's mother died giving birth to him. His father Jacob would remarry and Charlie would have many half brothers and sisters. Charlie's half brother Alfred gave the most quoted description of him. “He was 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.” Also, if Charlie took after his father Jacob, he was very strong, six feet tall, dark hair with black eyes and a fair complexion.

Frankie Stewart (the name was originally spelled Stuart or Stuard) had come into the Burke County, N.C. mountains at the age of 6. Isaiah and Barbara Stewart settled on one side of a mountain ridge. The other side of that same ridge had been settled by Jacob Silver and family 20 years earlier. Alfred Silver described Frankie as, "A mighty likely little woman. She had fair skin, 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."

It would seem at first glance that Charlie and Frankie were meant for each other, the perfect couple, when they settled down in their own little cabin in 1830. But there was a dark side to the mountain lifestyle of the 1830s.

It was a sexist society. It was not unusual for a man to murder his wife and receive no punishment. Nineteen-year-old Charlie was perhaps an unfortunate product of an unfortunate environment – a young man who may have manifested the worst of his time’s mountain mores. This ingrained attitude may have had a significant role in the events of December 22, 1831.

Wayne Silver is a Silver family historian who has returned to his beloved Mitchell County after a career in business and music in various parts of the country. He's the person everyone turns to when seeking information about Charlie and Frankie Silver. He quickly dispels what he sees as the myth that Frankie, in a jealous rage over Charlie's infidelity, attacked him with an ax while he was sleeping.

Neither does he believe that Charlie's last words, as reported in earlier publications (God bless the child!), were ever uttered. Wayne Silver points out that no one knows exactly what happened that night, because the only people there were Charlie, Frankie and their 13-month-old baby, Nancy.

Wayne Silver gives his opinion:

"The story goes that Charlie had been sent to get the Christmas liquor. On the way home he does what any 19-year-old might do. He takes a nip. It's good. He takes another nip. That's even better. He arrives home to a complaining wife and a screaming baby. Suddenly, Charlie is in a foul mood. Things turn ugly. He picks up his gun and shouts. 'So help me Frankie – if you don’t shut up, I'm going to shoot the both of you!' He probably didn’t mean it. But by this time Frankie has picked up the ax. 'No!' She screams. 'I won’t let you hurt me or my baby!' She swings the ax and Charlie is dead. I will never believe it was premeditated murder and few in my family have ever believed it. In fact, it was more of an accident than anything else."

It was probably Frankie's behavior after the killing as much as the killing itself that sent her to the gallows. Clearly, she was frightened. She was a woman in a male-dominated society and she'd just killed her husband. Justifiable homicide did not enter into her thinking. There was only one thing to do. She had to make it appear as if Charlie had never come home.

There will always be conjecture as to whether Frankie had help in her decision or whether she had help only in the ensuing activity, from her mother, Barbara, and her brother, Blackston. Wayne Silver offers this thesis. "You’re 18 years old. You've just killed your husband. You're scared. Would it not be normal to run to Momma? And would it not be the motherly thing for Barbara Stewart to say, "Yes, we'll help you Frankie, but if you get into trouble, you must leave us out of it."

The dismemberment and burning of Charlie Silver was begun that very night. It was a hasty decision and one doomed to failure. They had not calculated just how difficult it would be to burn a body in a cabin fireplace. An old man named Jack Collis was one of the first to get suspicious. He decided to check the cabin during a time when Frankie was out. He found bits of bone and greasy ashes in the cabin fireplace and under the floorboards was found a pool of blood, "as big as a hog liver." Charlie's head and torso would be found outside the cabin.

Frankie, Barbara and Blackston were arrested on January 9, 1832. On January 10, they were jailed in Morganton, county seat of Burke County, which at the time encompassed what is now Mitchell County. The mountain people of that day were largely ignorant – but they were not stupid. They were also fiercely loyal to their families. Figuratively speaking – if one got cut they all bled. By January 13, Isaiah Stewart had obtained a writ of habeas corpus, saying that his wife, daughter and son were being illegally detained. Charges against Barbara and Blackston were dropped on January 17, but Frankie was held.

On March 17, 1832, charges against Blackston and Barbara were formally dismissed but Frankie was indicted for murder. There are several things about Frankie's trial that raise questions. Under the law of that day, defendants were not allowed to take the stand in their own defense. But why did not Frankie plead self-defense? The answer seems to be that her attorney and her father Isaiah decided to plead her not guilty and make the state prove her guilt. This is generally believed to have been a fatal error.

The conduct of the all-male jury is also puzzling. On March 29, 1832 they retired to determine Frankie's fate. The next day they reported that they were deadlocked 9-3 for acquittal and asked to rehear certain witnesses. But before the witnesses were recalled, they were allowed to mingle and discuss the case. After rehearing the witnesses, the jury judged Frankie guilty in a unanimous vote. It's apparent that a lot of testimony was changed in the interim.

Frankie's execution was set for July 1832. Her lawyer gave notice of appeal. Judge Donnel filed the appeal on May 3, 1832. In June of 1832, the North Carolina Supreme court rejected the appeal. Frankie's execution was set for the fall term of Burke Superior Court, but she was given a reprieve of sorts when Judge David L. Swain was severely injured in a fall from his sulky and the fall term was canceled. Then, in a touch of irony, Judge Swain was elected governor. He was from the mountains, and now he had the power to pardon Frankie.

Meanwhile, sentiment for a pardon was growing, as documented by Perry Deane Young in his book "The Untold Story of Frankie Silver." Even seven members of Frankie's jury signed a petition asking Governor Swain to issue a pardon. The governor was apparently unmoved.

Isaiah Stewart got tired of waiting. On May 18, 1833, he, his brother and one other man broke Frankie out of jail. It's thought they may have had inside help. This is certainly possible since one letter to Governor Swain stated that fully 90 percent of the community now wanted Frankie spared.

Eight days later, she was recaptured in Rutherford County while heading for the Tennessee border. One might think this would reverse the sentiment that had been building in her favor. Quite the opposite. The outcry to give Frankie her freedom grew even louder, particularly among the upper-crust ladies of Morganton, who sent their own appeal to the governor.

It's theorized that Swain had two reasons for not granting a pardon. As a judge, he'd had a reputation for leniency. As governor, he wanted to create a new image. Wayne Silver believes that Swain, being from the Asheville area, knew that the Silver clan, while not possessing great wealth, owned a lot of land and were not without influence. If Swain thought the Silver family wanted Frankie to hang, she would. In a letter dated July 9, 1833, Swain appears to try to remove himself from responsibility for Frankie's execution by telling W.C. Bevins that his letter appealing for a pardon did not arrive in time. The Bevins letter is clearly dated and Swain had it in plenty of time.

Some reports say that Frankie Silver was hung from the neck until dead from the limb of a huge oak tree that stood on a hill above the courthouse in Morganton. Perry Deane Young believes there was a scaffold. In Sharyn McCrumb's novel, "The Ballad of Frankie Silver," it's stated that a large crowd was present to hear her father say – "Die with it in ye Frankie" when Frankie was asked if she had any last words.

Frankie was not the first woman hung in North Carolina or Burke County. Nor did she recite or sing a long poem that she was reported to have written in her jail cell. She was most likely illiterate, as was her mother before her and her daughter after her. She did die, apparently, bravely, on July 12, 1833. Isaiah had a coffin ready, "to take her back to her own people."

They never made it. Frankie's 90-pound body began to decompose rapidly in the hot July sun. Isaiah was forced to bury his daughter "about eight miles outside town alongside the Old Buckhorn Tavern Road." Her stone, which was erected in 1951, is hard to locate today. But if you're one of those people who's had Charlie and Frankie's story creep into your being and gnaw at your gut, you want to make the effort.

And what of the child that Charlie and Frankie left behind? According to information from Perry Deane Young, Nancy Silver's early life is as uncertainly documented as the deaths of her parents. There are legends that she was raised by the Stuarts or by the Silvers. There are also tales that she was spirited away to Stuart relatives in Macon County. It is also asserted that Nancy married David Parker of McDowell County in 1850, but David Parker is still listed in the house of his parents in that year's census.

It is assumed that the first 10 years of Nancy's marriage were happy ones. She was then left devastated by her husband's death during the Civil War. Her children were apparently raised by others from young ages and were not reunited until Nancy moved to Macon County in the 1870s and married William C. Robinson. They had one son, Commodore Robinson. According to Nancy's great-granddaughter, Wanda Adams Henry, William Robinson raped Nancy's daughter and Nancy ran him off. Apparently, Nancy changed her name back to Parker and that is the name her family had engraved on her tombstone. She is buried in the Mount Grove Cemetery in Macon County as a result, a long way from both her parents. One cannot help but think, that if not for the tragic event of December 22, 1831, they might all be buried in the same cemetery, on the tidy little hill in Kona.



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