A Gaslight Murder Motorcycle Adventure
The Road to Kona
NC 80 is a beautiful, twisty, two lane road meandering it’s way through some of North Carolina’s most rugged, mountainous, territory. The distance to Kona from Crabtree Falls isn’t very far, but the time spent on bike getting there seemed a bit long due to gorgeous scenery, twisty tarmac, and the remoteness of the region that makes you slow down and be extremely cautious. The ride north was beautiful. Coming around one final curve, we arrive in Kona, NC. The scene of the gruesome gaslight murder of 1831. Join me in the story.
The Ballad of Frankie Silver
This dreadful dark and dismal day
Has swept my glories all away;
My sun goes down, my days are past,
And I must leave this world at last.
Kona, Burke County, North Carolina, December, 1831. Charlie and Frankie Silver were the ideal young married couple, so the legend goes. They lived an idyllic life, with their baby daughter, in a little cabin in the woods of Burke County, North Carolina. But things changed quickly when Frankie learned that Charlie had been seeing other women. But had he? Allegedly, one night in December 1831, she methodically and brutally murdered Charlie in his sleep, dismembering him, burning some parts of his body and burying others throughout their property. Some say she was physically abused throughout their marriage. Others say it was for love of money; Frankie was dirt poor coming into the marriage, and Charlies family were landholders, wealthy by comparison.
Oh! Lord, what will become of me?
I am condemned for all to see;
To heaven or hell my soul must fly,
All in a moment when I die.
And so we dug into the different versions of the story to see if we could unravel the mystery. It is a known fact that the murder did take place. It is also known that it was particularly gruesome in it’s execution. “The Ballad of Frankie Silver” is another great old North Carolina folk song that tells the story of an actual murder, but is probably mostly fiction. The facts concerning the murder of Charlie Silver are sparse.
The story goes on to say that Charlie told Frankie he was going on a hunting trip with his friend and neighbor George Young. He proceeded to chop and stack wood for the fire so Frankie and the baby would have plenty of heat while he was away.
A few days later, Frankie inquired about the whereabouts of Charlie. Charlies parents hadn’t seen him, so Charlies father, John Silver accompanied Frankie to George Young’s cabin about a mile up river. George told them that he hadn’t seen Charlie since Thanksgiving, and no hunting trip had been planned. Frankie lost her cool and called George a liar. Trekking back to her cabin, John Silver saw Charlies dog, Drum, in back of the cabin. Charlie would never go hunting without his dog. Out in the snow, he found Charlies fur cap. Now John Silver suspected foul play and called in the sheriff.
But Oh! That awful judge I fear.
Shall I that awful sentence hear:
” Depart, ye cursed, down to Hell
And forever there to dwell.”
The sheriff began investigating, searching the woods and river near the cabin. Inside, a perceptive neighbor saw what looked like bloodstains on the floor, and persuaded Charlie’s father and the sheriff to pry up the floorboards. There they found huge splotches of blood and hunks of charred flesh and bone. They stirred the ashes in the fireplace and found them to be thick with grease. They also found a piece of iron that Frankie identified as part of the heel of Charlie’s hunting boot.
The pieces of Charlie were quickly buried. As new pieces were found, the family, not wanting to disturb Charlie’s buried remains, dug new graves. Charlie Silver is buried in at least three graves.
Frankie was arrested, along with her mother, Barbara Stuart, and her brother, Blackstone Stuart, both believed to have been accomplices in the murder.
Then I shall 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.”
Charlie’s brother, Alfred, described what happened with a level of detail that he could not possibly have known. ” Being tired and sleepy after the labor of chopping, my brother lay down on the floor by the fire. Frankie picked up the axe laying nearby and whacked his head half off with a single blow. The first lick did not kill him instantly, so she finished the job with a second blow.”
Other members of the Silver family believed that Frankie’s parents were behind the killing. The legend among the Silver’s says that Frankie’s father was in the cabin urging her to strike saying, ” If you don’t kill him, I will.”
The jealous thoughts 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.
The trial: March 29, 1832
Frankie Silver’s trial lasted less than two days. The evidence was all circumstantial and it was not an easy case for the jury to decide. They asked to rehear some of the testimony, so the witnesses were called to testify again. In the end, the jury found Frankie guilty of murder and she was sentenced to hang.
The case was appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court. At issue was the re-examination of witnesses. They had been isolated before their initial testimony, but afterwards had been allowed to hear each other’s testimonies. The state Supreme Court upheld the verdict, and Frankies execution was set for July 12, 1833.
Farewell good people, you all now see
What my bad conduct’s brought on me;
To die of shame and disgrace
Before the world of human race.
There is much folklore surrounding the hanging of Frankie Silver. It is sometimes said that she is the only woman ever hanged in North Carolina, or the first woman hanged in the state. Her gravestone in Morganton reads “Only woman ever hanged in Burke County.” Our snooping around showed us that none of these statements are true. In 1813, a slave named Betsy was hanged as an accomplice in the murder of her master. In 1788, John and Elizabeth Wells were both hanged, probably in Morganton, for burning down a neighbors house.
Awful indeed to think of death,
In perfect health to lose my breath;
Farewell my friends, I bid adieu,
Vengeance on me you must now pursue.
In the time between her conviction and the date of her execution, public sentiment turned in Frankie’s favor. Dozens of petitions were drawn up and sent to the governor requesting a pardon. Seven of the jurors who convicted Frankie signed a petition for her pardon. Governor Stokes said he would need all twelve signatures to pardon Frankie Silver.
Great god! How shall I be forgiven?
Not fit for earth, nor fit for heaven;
But little time to pray to God,
For now I try that awful road.
The governor was moved by the petition and the arguments, but not to the point of clemency. On July 12, 1833, Frankie Silver, wearing a white dress made for her by the ladies of Burke County, was hanged in Morganton, North Carolina.
Next post: Murder on the Mountain – Part 4: The Road Back