The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Song From The Gallows

By Edwin S. James © 1988

Issue: January-February, 1988

Had there been no axes, there wouldn't be any story. It all began in the summer of 1941 in the mountains of western North Carolina when an axe accidentally cut into the side of my foot. The double-bitted head glanced off the log I was chopping and the finely honed blade neatly sliced through the leather at the toe of my left boot.

My foot jerked at the pain and I saw blood.

I was afraid to remove my boot for fear of what I might find; frightened that I wouldn't be able to get it on again to walk the half mile out of the woods. I went as fast as I could.

Oliver was coming around the barn and saw me limping across the field.

"What you done, boy?"

"Axed my foot...accident," I said.

"Ye look white enough to be your own ghost," Oliver replied seriously. He bent down to look at the cut in the leather.

"Don't know how bad it is," I said, then added, "There sure is a puddle of blood in my boot though."

"Skived pretty as you please," Oliver said, feeling the cut in the leather. "Let's get that brogan off and see what you've gone and done inside."

He began working quickly on the laces. Off came the boot. He pulled at the gory sock, wiped the blood away from my foot and began to laugh.

"Well, you sure did cut that little toe there real nice, but it's just a slice.' He wiggled the toe with his finger and muttered, "Lucky! Doesn't look like you broke bone."

"Sure looks like a mess to me," I said somewhat fearfully. I was beginning to feel sick.

"Frankie did a sight better job on Charlie's head - some called him Johnny - with her axe than you done on that toe, boy. You gotta learn better," Oliver chuckled.

"What's that got to do with my toe?"

"Nothin', son, just an old story," Oliver answered. "Happened a long time ago up in the Deyton Bend of the Toe River, too." Oliver smiled at his own little joke on 'toe's', adding, "Up yonder in what they called Burke County, North Carolina then, Mitchell now. Frankie did Charlie in...and got hung for it!"

With that as Oliver Byrd, a man of western North Carolina mountains, fixed my foot, he kept me from fretting with a folk story of the first and only white woman ever to be hanged in North Carolina.

Back in 1831 on the stormy dismal night of December twenty-second, Frankie Silver, a backwoods woman supposedly (but perhaps not!) in a fit of jealous rage, bashed her husband, Charlie over the head with an axe as he lay with their year old baby, Nancy, before the cabin fire. Charlie, sometimes called Johnny, as he became a corpse, rolled over and cried, "God bless my baby!" That's one version.

Frankie chopped him up and tried to burn him in the fireplace. Then the law hung Frankie.

That is what Oliver told me in 1941.

I left the mountains long ago, but never forgot the story of Frankie and Charlie... or Johnny.

But there were other things Oliver didn't happen to tell me then.

I was back in the mountains the other day (November 1986). Oliver was still there. The two of us, old men now, were rambling over things past.

"Oliver," I asked, "Remember the time I laid the axe into my foot?"

"Yup! Mighty poor job you did, too!"

"I remember you told me about Frankie and Charlie... or was it Johnny?"

"Did I now!" Oliver said. "Both one and the same."

"Yes," Mrs. Bird interrupted, "Some of the family called him Johnny but his born name was Charlie. He was the son of Jacob Silver by his first wife and was born October 30, 1812. You know, he was blood kin to Oliver there according to the old Bible. Charlie was half brother to Alfred Silver, who was Oliver's mother's grandfather."

"You never told me about that, Oliver," I said.

"That be about it. The way Ma told it. Some say Frankie was a jealous woman. Others say it was Johnny's drinkin' and runnin' around and beatin' on her. I don't know. Weren't nobody but the three of them there to see what happened and Johnny got past talkin' and the baby Nancy couldn't!"

"Anyway, she chopped him with the axe and then cut him up and tried to burn him in the fireplace. Didn't burn to well, old Johnny didn't. Mebbe he was that no count! Then Frankie took everything outside and built a real big fire. She threw it all in that. Well, it was snowing one of the worst storms in years that night, the winter of 1831, and it seems the snow put the fire out before it was all good and burned.

"When the people asked Frankie where Johnny was, she said he had gone out in the big storm and never come back."

"The revenge of woman on man!" Mrs. Byrd laughed.

"Sort of like the old song BARBARA ALLEN," I said, "Only this was more violent, direct action than Barbara's."

"There was a song about this, too, boy. You never heard it?" Oliver asked. He got up and left the room.

Mrs. Byrd began to hum a mournful tune, then broke into sad and sorrowful words. After a few verses she stopped.

"That's the song," she said. "I learned it from Oliver's Mother, Sarah Alice Silver. She was ninety-four when she died in 1966." Law! Old Jacob Silver, Charlie's father and Sarah's great-grandfather, was ninety-six when he died in 1887. That's why we know so much about Frankie and Charlie, or Johnny, if you want.

"Sarah learned it from her granddaddy who knew all about the murder. They lived over in those mountains close on Tennessee. The way they told it, Frankie got the words from a Thomas W. Scott of Morganton, who wrote them, and tradition says she sang or recited it from on the scaffold to the mob which had come to watch her hung. Quite a crowd, too! Grandpa Alfred said nigh on ten thousand came to witness that sadness in Morganton."

"And they did hang her," I asked.

"Oh, Yes! The law got her. When all that snow melted in the spring, there was the remains of that big fire outside the cabin. It was so greasy the wild animals were coming around. They say some curious body poking about found a charred heart and human bones and began asking questions.'

"And that did it, I suppose?" I said.

"Yes, that did it," Mrs. Bird concluded. "Some say she was unjustly hung. Charlie mistreated Frankie. She wasn't trying to kill him but only trying to protect herself, keep him from beating her when he was drunk. Then she panicked... what to do with the body? It is a tragic story, maybe even sadder because there were no witnesses to tell the truth... whatever that might have been."

Oliver came back with an old bit of yellow newspaper he kept in the family Bible. It told all about Frankie murdering her husband and the hanging in Morganton.

"Here it is," Oliver said. "My mother told me that in its day this was a song well known in these mountains." He passed me a yellow piece of ancient paper.

First I read these faded lines: "Here are the last words of a condemned woman..." Then I read:

This dark and dreadful dismal day
has swept my glories all away.
My sun goes down. My days are past,
and I must leave this world at last.

Oh God! What will become of me?
I am condemned you all now see.
To heaven or hell my soul must fly
all in a moment when I die.

Judge Donnell (Daniels) has my sentence passed.
These prison walls I leave at last.
Nothing to cheer my drooping head,
until I am numbered with the dead.

But oh! That dreadful judge I fear.
Shall I that awful sentence hear,
"depart ye cursed down to hell
and forever there dwell?"

I know the frightful ghost I'll see
gnawing their flesh in misery,
and then and there attended be
for murder in the first degree.

Then shall I meet that mournful face
whose blood I spilled upon this place.
With flaming eyes to me he'll say,
"why did you take my life away?"

His feeble hands fell gently down.
His chattering tongue soon lost its sound.
To see his soul and body part,
it strikes with terror in my heart.

I took his blooming days away.
Left him no time to pray,
and if sin falls upon his head,
must I not bear them instead?

The jealous thought that first gave strife
to make me take my husbands life;
for months and days I spent my time
thinking how to commit this crime.

And on a dark and doleful night
I put his body out of sight.
With flames I tried him to consume
But time would not admit it done.

You all see me and on me gaze,
be careful how you spend your days,
and never commit this awful crime,
but try to serve God in your time.

My mind on solemn subjects roll;
my little child, God bless her soul!
All you that are of Adam's race
let not my faults this child disgrace.

Awful indeed I think of death,
in perfect health to lose my breath.
Farewell my friends, I bid adieu,
vengeance on me must now pursue.

Great God! How shall I be forgiven?
Not fit for earth, not fit for heaven,
but little time to pray to God,
for now I try that awful road.

"That's what happened. They hung her in Morganton on a hot day, July 12, 1833. And mebbe their's was worse crime than her's," Oliver said. "Frankie's daddy took her body away in a crude wagon right after the hanging. He was goin' to take her all the way home to the Stuart (Stewart) country and bury her. It being summer and a long journey, the body began to decompose, smelling and attracting night animals. The poor man had to dig a grave and bury his daughter there by the side of the road."

"Hmm...," I mused. "There are a lot of songs with the theme of women's revenge in Southern folklore; about Frankies, Frankies and Alberts, Frankies and Johnnies... must be hundreds of 'em, but always Frankies."

"Mebbe that be so," Oliver interrupted, "But that song about Frankie Silver was the first. As folks went out of the mountains, they carried it with them. That song sure was the daddy of 'em all, of the Frankie songs, that is."

I think perhaps Oliver is right.

Maybe not the direct ancestor of all the Frankie songs, but it certainly is a forefather. One reads that Yankee troops sang a Frankie ballad before Vicksburg in 1863, along the Mississippi in the eighties, and in the bawdy houses of St. Louis in the 1890's, but Frankie Silver and her song from the gallows in 1833 pre-dates them all.

There was no Frankie legend of cutting down the predatory male, it seems, before 1850, but the theme of woman's revenge became popular in ballads in the last half of the 19th century and in the early blues of the 20th in vogue with the 'suffragette' period; perhaps due to the 'slight of build and regarded as pretty' woman who legend tells us dolefully sang her song from the gallows long before.

The most famous of these songs, Frankie And Johnny, was arranged and published by the Leighton Brothers in the early Twenties. Though it follows the nature of the negro blues with the twelve bar tune, it is more of a tragic ballad - a jazzed up variation that became popular as 'he was her man but he done her wrong' - in line with the song once sung deep in the shadows of North Carolina's mountain country by Oliver's ancestors; Frankie Silver, her murdered husband, and that song from the gallows, the forerunner of all the tragic Frankie ballads.