1 of 9
Grave Site of Daughter NancyShe was buried under the name of her first husband.
2 of 9
The Silver HomesteadJacob Silver, father of Charlie, lived here at the time of murder.
3 of 9
Tale of Two ChurchesThe story of the tragedy of Frankie and Charlie Silver is told in these two churches in tiny Kona, NC
4 of 9
Jacob SilverHe was the father of Charlie.
5 of 9
David SilverHe was Charlie's uncle.
6 of 9
In the PapersThe clipping is in the Silver family museum.
7 of 9
Grave Site of Daughter NancyShe was buried under the name of her first husband.
8 of 9
Grave SitesThe stone directly behind the modern marker and the stones to the right and left mark Charlie's final resting places.
9 of 9
Remmants of a TragedyParts of the chimmey are all that remain of the cabin where young Frankie and Charlie lived the brief time of their marriage.
Grave Site of Daughter Nancy
The Silver Homestead
Tale of Two Churches
In the Papers
Grave Site of Daughter Nancy
Remmants of a Tragedy
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.