The Ballad of Frankie Silver

charliesilver
The modern marker for Charlie Silver. Note the three field stones behind the flat marker – all three of them mark Charlie’s graves

I was talking with a friend the other day and the conversation turned to some of my recent travels. “I really enjoy reading where you’ve been and what you’ve experienced. It is like a game trying to figure out why you visit the places you do and where you are headed to next.”

I humbly thanked him before he continued. “However, you did have me stumped on your journey across southern Appalachia.”

“Oh?” I asked not sure what part of my journey caused confusion.

“You know how long it took to find Kona on the map? That was a challenge.”

I understood his confusion of not being able to find Kona because it does not appear on most modern maps. Tucked away in the mountains of western North Carolina, the journey to Kona was one that took me along rural, twisting roads that had parts of it washed away from the rains earlier in the year. My research had provided some addresses, but the GPS failed to recognize the existence of the collection of buildings as a town.

Coming out of a tunnel of trees, I spotted the sign hidden near the road for the Kona Baptist Church and Cemetery, announcing this sacred ground as the resting place of Revolutionary War soldier George Silver. I parked on the grassy road at the top of the hill, near the rear of the cemetery. Getting out of the vehicle, I stood in the shade for a moment, taking in the gorgeous view of the surrounding mountains before turning my attention to the small cemetery. From where I stood, I immediately recognized the stones I sought.

I stepped out into the heat and humidity and walked carefully among the old stones to the tombstones. In the midst of the cemetery stand three field stones worn by the years, erasing anything, if anything had been marked on them. In front of the three stones is a modern granite marker providing the following information: “Charles Silver / Oct. 3, 1812 – Dec. 22, 1831.” Nothing on the modern stone explains what happened to Charles, nor does it give any hint that the three field stones all belong to him. Yes, all three stones belong to the same man. Charlie was murdered by his young wife, Frankie, and as portions of his dismembered body were recovered, they were buried in new graves.

There are many stories that surround Charlie and Frankie Silver. Over the years, it has become hard to separate the fact from fiction – the truth from myth. What is known for fact is: Charlie was brutally murdered by his wife, Frankie, on December 22, 1831.

I first stumbled upon the story of Charlie Silver years ago while reading The North Carolina Guide, which was a part of the Federal Writer’s Project of the 1930s. Hidden deep within the book is a brief passage I had noted: Charlie Silver was killed by his wife Frankie in 1831. She murdered him, then cut his body up with an axe and burned it. She was tried in Morganton and found guilty. She was hanged on July 12, 1832.

Charles “Charlie” Silver was born October 3, 1812, the only child of Reverend Jacob and Elizabeth Silver, who died in childbirth. Charlie married Francis “Frankie” Stewart (also spelled Stuart in some records) when she was fifteen years old. A year after they were married, Frankie gave birth to their daughter, Nancy. Note: Jacob would eventually remarry (he had survived three of his four wives) and had a total of fourteen children.

In late December 1831, Frankie reported her husband was missing, claiming he had not returned from a hunting trip. Locals searched the region without discovering where Charlie had gone. However, the discovery of bones in the Silver fireplace focused the attention on the homestead and soon human remains were uncovered by searchers. Frankie was immediately arrested and charged with Charlie’s murder. Frankie’s mother and Blackstone, her youngest brother, were also arrested for the crime due to the belief that they had helped dispose of the body. They were released after the findings of the Grand Jury. Only Frankie was charged for the murder and she entered the plea “not guilty” to the charges.

On March 3, 1832, Frankie’s trial began in Morganton and after two days she was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Frankie was presented as a jealous woman who murdered Charlie, striking him in the head with an ax as he slept. Frankie’s lawyer attempted to appeal the conviction without success, but managed to get a two week stay on the execution. Frankie escaped jail on May 18 and was headed towards the Tennessee border when she was recaptured a week later. On  July 12, 1832, at the age of eighteen, Frankie was executed for the murder of her husband. She would be buried in an unmarked grave near the old Buckhorn Tavern. In 1952, a marker was placed at the spot where she is believed to have been buried.

The exact motive for Frankie’s killing Charlie is not known and many have debated this over the years. There are a number of theories, but two of them stand out. The first theory is: Frankie was a jealous wife who murdered her husband because she was afraid he was cheating on her. This theory comes from “The Ballad of Frankie Silver,” a poem legend claims she sang before her death. Although she never sang it – nor probably had anything to do with it at all – the ballad states that she was jealous of her husband looking at other women.

The second theory is Frankie was abused and she killed him as a means of protecting herself. This theory first presented itself in the days after her trial and has remained as a main motive for the killing, however, if this was the case, then why was it never presented during her trial? Sadly, due to time, there is no way to clearly determine what motivated her to murder Charlie. Note: I have read a number of modern-day articles that Frankie had confessed to murdering Charlie, but I cannot find any evidence of Frankie confessing to the murder or explaining her motives. The only “confession” I can find is the poem that circulated after her death.

There are questions that come to my mind that does bother me. First, why didn’t Frankie leave him and return home to her parents? It might have been frowned upon, but it would not have been unheard of at the time.

Did she have help in the murder of her husband? Putting the crime into the simplest terms, Frankie struck Charlie with an ax, cut him to pieces, burned the body, and then cleaned up the crime scene. To get all this done by herself does lead to the idea she possibly had help in the crime. I have read in a couple places that possibly another family member killed him and Frankie took the blame because her family did not think she would be sentenced to death due to her young age.

I left Charlie’s resting place on the hilltop above Kona with no more answers to the lingering questions I had had when I first stumbled upon this story many, many years ago. What exactly happened in that cabin that December evening was only known by Charlie, Frankie, and their year-old daughter, Nancy.

And Frankie took the truth with her to the grave.

Note: Many sources claim that Frankie Silver was the first woman hanged in North Carolina, but this is not the case – Frankie was 112 years too late to be the first.  A number of women were executed from 1720 – 1832 for various infractions they were found guilty of committing, with the majority of them being listed as either blacks or slaves. The first execution of a woman in North Carolina was Magdalen Collar in 1720. Magdalen was described as “a poor woman” who was executed for hiding the death of her bastard son. Magdalen’s name appears in North Carolina’s colonial records, but unlike the other women executed before Frankie, the ethnicity of Magdalen is not listed.

A Note about Frankie’s Family: After her execution, Frankie’s parents and some of her siblings were victims of ”odd” deaths. Her father, Isaiah, was cutting down a chestnut tree, when either he was struck by a falling branch or the tree fell on him, depending upon the source. Her mother, Barbara, died of snake-bite. Her brother Blackstone was hanged as a horse-thief in Kentucky, exact date unknown. Her brother Joseph, “Joe,” is listed as “sudden death” at the age of 49. Her brother Jackson, “Jack,” served in the Civil War and was allowed to go home due to “old age,” dying in 1864 at the age of 57.

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