Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Carnival of Genealogy #100: My Family and a Murderess

This is written for the 100th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy entitled "There's One in Every Family".   My take on this theme is that every family has a sensational story, one that has morphed over time into something juicier than it probably was. It is my heartfelt sentiment that the story I present here absolutely does not happen to every family!

My Family and a Murderess.  That sounds just like a title for a fictional murder mystery.  Alas, this story is very true.  For anyone that lives outside of the state of North Carolina and perhaps more so out of the western North Carolina mountains, you've probably never heard of Frankie Silver, known as one of the few women in the state to be hung for murder.  I know I hadn't.

As I began my Mitchell County, North Carolina research, I tried to gain a general overview of the area, the people, the work they did, and what brought them there.  I don't even recall when I first heard about the story of Charlie and Frankie (Stewart) Silver, but I remember seeing snippets of information here and there alluding to the notorious crime.  Out of morbid curiosity, I searched the internet for information and read some books only to discover a sad story from the 1830s, and much to my surprise, with connections to my own ancestors.

On a cold December day in 1831, a nineteen year old Charlie Silver was murdered by his wife, eighteen year old Frances "Frankie" Stewart Silver. Charlie was hacked to death with an ax and dismembered in their cabin in the mountains of what was then Burke County, North Carolina (now Mitchell County).  The story goes that Charlie had gone out hunting though Frankie may have suspected drinking and carousing.  He came home, perhaps drunk, an altercation ensued, and the result was the death of Charlie.  The facts are not all clear, but Frankie may have been protecting herself and their toddler from Charlie's violent behavior.  Or perhaps Frankie had just had enough and in a fit of rage attacked her husband.  Apparently aware of the violence she had committed and for the need to dispose of his remains, she cut up his body and burned it in their fireplace.

In any case, it was not disputed that Frankie bundled up her daughter and went to her in-laws home the next day asking for the whereabouts of her husband.  They hadn't seen him for a few days, since he had left on his hunting trip.  Apparently she then went to her parent's home.  The Silvers and other neighbors became worried when Charlie didn't return and a manhunt began.  Perhaps Frankie's story began to unravel then but suspicions were definitely aroused.  His remains were not immediately found, but an oily residue in her fireplace and the fact that a weeks worth of firewood was gone were strong suspicions for something amiss.  The very clean floorboards were lifted up in their small cabin and blood stains were found on the ground beneath. 

There are a variety of things that cause great speculation even all these 179 years later. It was said that Charlie had a tendency towards alcohol, towards abusing his wife, and towards messing around with other women. There was speculation that Frankie may have acted in self-defense, or to protect their baby, while Charlie was on a drunk. Alas, no one knows what ever happened that night to cause her to ax him to death.

About a week after the murder, Frankie, her mother and her brother were arrested and taken to the jail in Morganton, Burke Co, North Carolina.  An inquest followed and her mother and brother were later released for lack of evidence, but Frankie was held over for trial.  She had a young lawyer who may not have fully explained her rights or what was likely to happen to her.  Since court met infrequently (usually quarterly), she was in jail for some time and quite a distance from her family.

A jury of Frankie's peers, all men, was gathered and the evidence presented.  Because of the laws at the time, a defendant was not allowed to testify on his or her behalf.  The conviction came swiftly with the jury never hearing from Frankie. Death by hanging was to be Frankie's fate.  At some point while awaiting execution, Frankie stated that she acted in self-defense.  Seven of the twelve jurors then came forward to petition to overturn the conviction.  An appeal was made to the state's Supreme Court.  Friends and neighbors of the Stewart family came forward on her behalf.  During the time leading up to her hanging, her family helped her to break out of jail.  She was found wearing a man's hat and coat walking behind an uncle's wagon when officials caught up with them.  But all these efforts were to no avail.

It was a warm July day in 1833 when the hanging occurred.  Legend has it that her father stood in the assembled crowd and yelled up to Frankie as she stood on the gallows.  His supposed words:  "Die with it in you, Frankie."  A lot could be read into that statement and it has probably morphed into more than what ever really occurred that day.  What appears to be fact is her father was there to take her remains home to a final resting place.  Due to the rugged mountain conditions and the summer temperatures, it was a slow trip home.  As a result, she is supposedly buried in an unmarked location on the road outside Morganton.  A memorial has been erected in her memory near where she is believed to have been buried.

So what does this all mean to me?  First, I should begin by saying that at the present time I have not found any direct genealogical connection to either Charlie or Frankie.  However, my ancestors were neighbors of both the Silver and Stewart families.  As I was reading Perry Deane Young's book, The Untold Story of Frankie Silver, I discovered that some of the members of the inquest, a prosecution witness, and petitioners to the governor were my ancestors. 

My fourth great-grandfather, Isaac Grindstaff, appears as a witness for the defense.  According to Young, Isaac later identifies himself as a member of the inquest jury.  It should be noted that there was more than one Isaac Grindstaff in this area, but for this time frame, my ancestor seems to be the likely Isaac.

My fourth great-grandfather, Thomas Howell, served as a witness to the grand jury and later as a witness for the prosecution.  Thomas was a blacksmith and apparently made Charlie Silver's shoe buckles which were identified amongst the burned remains.

My fourth great-grandfather, Hector McNeill, as well as a John McNeill, a Dim McNeill and a Malcolm McNeill all signed an undated petition to Governor Montfort Stokes requesting he pardon the prisoner.  The document states that many of those signers were neighbors of the defendant and knew her to be of good character.

My third great-grandfather, Archibald McNeill, was the son of Hector and son-in-law of Thomas Howell.  Archibald's second marriage was to Sarah Ann Sparks Silver.  Sarah was the widow of Reuben Silver, brother to the murdered Charlie.  According to Cabins in the Laurel by Muriel Earley Sheppard, Arch built a cabin backed up to the same chimney where Frankie committed her crime.  Sheppard writes the original cabin was gone but the chimney and fireplace were in strong condition.  She goes on to state that Arch's wife (Sarah) found one of Charlie's "shoeheel irons jammed into the stones of the fireplace."  The said victim was Sarah's former brother-in-law and were made by Arch's former father-in-law. 

Oh what a tangled web.  And such a sad, sad story.  This month marks the 179th year since this crime occurred.  The truth behind the murder may never be known and speculation still runs rampant.  I hope the victims, for I believe Charlie and Frankie were both victims, rest in peace.

I know that I have not done justice to the story of Frankie Stewart Silver.  Any errors in the above information are mine.  For further information, please consider reading the following books or visiting these websites.

The Untold Story of Frankie Silver by Perry Deane Young.
Wikipedia's page on Frankie Stewart Silver
Charlie's memorial at Find A Grave
Frankie's memorial at Find A Grave
A summary from the North Carolina Museum of History.
For a fictional account, I recommend The Ballad of Frankie Silver by Sharyn McCrumb
The Burke County Visitor's center has an article
The Frankie Foundation which produced a play describing these tragic events
Cabins in the Laurel by Muriel Earley Sheppard


  1. Great story. It's interesting that you also address the involvement and complex interrelations of your ancestors in this matter. At FGS I heard a presentation that was entitled something like "Murder at the Sawmill" (can't remember the name of the lady who presented it) and she showed a similar phenomenon among the locals who were involved.

  2. Hello! I enjoy your blog and have awarded you the Ancestor Approved Blogger Award! You may see the write up and collect your icon for the side bar of your blog by visiting my blog at

  3. Archibald McNeill and Sarah Sparks Silver were my great-great grandparents. They had ten children, one of whom was Ella Lavinia McNeill. She married my great grandfather Dock William Greene and THEY had ten children as well, one of whom, George Bascom Greene (1884-1972) was the father of my mother, Ella Ruth Greene Barton.

    Kenneth Allyn Barton

  4. This is SO well done! Thank you for sharing it. Fascinating to me especially because of so many connections to the area. I'll have to read more - and you've given me the reading list, too!

  5. Thank you all for your kind words and compliments. This has been a story I've wanted to write about for quite some time but couldn't seem to get around to it. There are some days I am still stunned to think of my ancestors' connections to this story. I can't imagine how the community must have been divided in their support of the Stewarts and Silvers.

    Kenneth, I will be emailing you!

    Nolichucky Roots - I strongly recommend Young's book as it sorts many of the legends from the actual court documents. It's a fascinating read.

  6. I stumbled on your blog while doing my own family research. The Frankie Silvers story is part of my family's history. I linked to you through the Grindstaff name. I'm "stuck" at this moment. However, the story of Frankie is in a Mason(my mother's middle name)family cookbook that I have...the Silver family is traced back through my Great-Grandfather's brother's wife's family...make sense? Well, back to my Grindstaff searching!!

  7. Tracy do you know exactly where Frankie was hung...some say the courthouse others say broadoaks and then I ever heard up 181 near the radio alot where it says damon's hill but can not find where this was located...

  8. I know this is a little late, but I too am a descendant of Frankie Silvers! Great read and it was definitely a little shocking to hear this as a child!