It’s the most famous, dramatic trial in North Carolina history, a murder mystery that shocked a small community in Mitchell County. In 1831 a beautiful young girl named Francis “Frankie” Silver had just turned 18. She had a toddler named Nancy and a husband who was well-known in their small town for his love of drinking and consorting with other women.
In fact, the townsfolk spread all manner of rumors about Charles “Johnny” Silver being a “man of vagrant and rather intemperate habits.”
Sensationalism and rumors surrounding this true murder story has, unfortunately, created many versions of what truly happened on that dreadful winter night. A few days before Christmas, as her husband lie sleeping, Frankie quietly took her baby girl from her husband’s arms, decapitated him, dismembered his body with an axe, and burned him in the fireplace. Larger parts of his dismembered body that could not be burned were buried in the hillside. She then cleaned the wooden floor, and, using the same axe, chipped the blood spatters off the hewn wooden mantel.
But to this day, the question still remains: Did Frankie Silver murder her husband in cold blood? Or was Charles an abusive drunkard, whom she killed in self-defense in a moment of panic and swinging fists? At the time, North Carolina law heavily protected abusive husbands. A man was allowed to hit and physically punish his wife, and women were not allowed to defend themselves. So when history accuses Frankie’s mother Barbara and brother Blackstone in helping cover up the murder, perhaps they weren’t darkened criminals, but concerned family members trying to help their daughter escape a violence life.
Many answers in this case still remain a mystery. Was Frankie Silver North Carolina’s most gruesome axe-murderer, or an innocent spouse trapped in a bad case of domestic violence in the 1800s? On December 23, 1831, Francis confided in her in-laws that her husband Charlie had not returned from his trip to get Christmas liquor. Fearful with the heavy snowfall in the area, friends and neighbors frantically organized a search party, thinking that he may have slipped through the ice of the frozen Toe River, or lay in the snow, wounded by a bear or mountain lion.
After no results from the search, a trapper named Jake Cullis began looking for clues around the Silver household. It was then he noticed the oily ashes from the fireplace, where he found traces of blood and bits of bone. He also found a heel iron from one of Charlie’s shoes buried in a hollow stump away from the house. The remains of Charles were found in pieces around the property and underneath the cabin floorboards. Silver family members still contend that Frankie killed Charles with malicious intent over jealousy from his unfaithfulness.
On January 9, 1832, Francis was indicted and charged as the court records state:
With a certain axe of the value of sixpence, which the said Francis Silver in both the hands of her, the said Francis, then and there had and held to, against, and upon the said Charles Silver, then and there feloniously, willfully, and of her malice aforethought did cast and throw, causing his death.
Her mother Barbara and brother Blackstone were accused of being present, aiding, helping, abetting, assisting, comforting and maintaining Francis in her gruesome act. But there was not sufficient evidence found to try the mother and brother, and the charges were dropped.
Frankie’s defense counsel, Thomas Wilson, argued that Frankie did not willfully kill Charles. Mr. Wilson stated that Charles came home drunk and began abusing Frankie with a stick. Frankie struck back and accidentally killed him in self-defense. Today this case would be argued in court as “battered spouse syndrome.” The only evidence to support the self-defense plea is contained in a few accounts and recorded oral history. Frankie actually did confess to the crime in two separate incidences after Governor Stokes denied her pardon. Mr. Wilson wrote a letter to Governor Stokes stating that following the affirmation of her sentence, Frankie confessed to him, Sherriff John Boone (nephew of Daniel Boone), and a third unspecified person. She stated that they argued after he returned from his trip. Drunk and angry, Charles began loading his gun to kill her.
In the letter, Wilson states the following:
A rigid examination and cross-examination we were all of the opinion that it was clearly a case of manslaughter if not justifiable homicide. This was always my opinion from the circumstances proved and if the facts could have been proved as they really were that it would have amounted to no more than manslaughter.
Wilson also stated in the letter that Frankie did not confess when initially indicted because she was afraid it would be used against her mother and brother. Wilson concluded that she must have killed him by some unlucky blow not premeditated. It was this confession that sparked a community outcry to pardon Frankie.
Her execution was set to take place in the Autumn, but when Judge David Swain was injured in a fall, that date was cancelled. Women from Burke County and surrounding areas petitioned the Governor to show mercy on Frankie and gave a notice of appeal that was filed by Judge Donnel. As sentiment was building for the pardon, seven members of the jury also signed the petition asking Governor Stokes to issue a pardon.
But the Governor denied the request and resigned his position. He became the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and moved to Fort Gibson, Oklahoma in 1832. Judge Swain was elected Governor, inheriting the appeals. He had the opportunity to pardon Frankie. But Governor Swain did not offer a pardon for Frankie either, leaving history to wonder: Did he refuse to pardon Frankie because he truly felt she was guilty, or because he had a reputation as a lenient judge and wanted to create a new image for himself as Governor?
The all-male jury that determined her fate was deadlocked 9-3 for acquittal and asked to recall certain witnesses. But before the witnesses were heard again, they were allowed to mingle and discuss the case. After hearing the witnesses again, the jury found Frankie guilty by a unanimous vote.
On March 29, 1832, Francis Silver was sentenced by Judge Donnell to be hung by the neck until she is dead. Her attorney’s appealed the verdict but that only prolonged her life little more than a year. The evidence was strong that Frankie was an abused wife and murdered her husband in self-defense. But Frankie never gave her testimony or admitted to killing her husband to the judge or the jury, as women were not allowed to do so in the early nineteenth century.
The law at that time for women was set to double standards. In those days, a man could murder his wife and receive no punishment and defendants were not allowed to take the stand in their own defense. North Carolina law allowed the husband the right to give his wife “correction and moderate chastisement,” including striking her with his fists, as long as no permanent injury was inflicted; the husband was the sole judge for the reason and necessity for chastisement. With the help of her father and her uncle, Francis escaped from jail ten days before her execution date headed for the border of Tennessee. She was apprehended by authorities eight days later in Rutherford County. When she was taken into custody, authorities found her dressed as a man with short hair. Frankie was executed on July 12, 1833.
Even though this case is over 180 years old, it still lives in the folklore and legends as the bloodiest murder case in Southern Appalachia. To this day, it still sparks intense research, articles, TV shows, books, and traditional mountain ballad known as “The Ballad of Frankie Silver.” Today, Kona Baptist Church has been converted to a small museum with information about the murder from Charlie Silver’s descendants. Behind the church lies a cemetery and a nearby cabin of what is the Silver family ancestral homestead. Charles Silver was buried in that cemetery in three separate graves.
Domestic abuse teaches us that not all love is good and not all obedience is holy. It’s a tragic tale that will be forever lost in folklore and legend. Frankie Silver was not the only woman ever hanged in North Carolina nor the first, but she was the most famous. Inconsistencies of the truth and facts of this case will immortally cast her as North Carolina’s most famous axe murderer.
Do you love all things Appalachia? Then you might enjoy Sitting Up With the Dead: Lost Appalachian Burial Customs, Appalachian Folk Magic: The Witch Bottle