Excerpt from "A Fly in Amber: Faded Leaves of Time"
By Bobby McMillon
Cruel murder was the reason one family located in a remote section of the mountains of northwestern North Carolina in the early 1800s gained notoriety and remembrance by their neighbors through its many tellings in story and song. Silver was the family’s name, and the murder was that of Jacob Silver’s eldest son Charles, allegedly at the hand and axe of his young wife Frankie, who became one of the few women ever legally hanged in the state. Because of her sex, Frankie’s fame and name have, in the eyes of history and the popular imagination, far overshadowed that of her husband, in whose death the substance of legend sprang. Three generations later people in his own neighborhood often disremembered his given name, calling him Albert and/or Johnny from the banjo piece, “Frankie Baker” and the later pop tune “Frankie and Johnny.” It is argued in the region that those other ballads had their model in the Frankie Silver song, but most likely it was the coincidence of the name Frankie that led to the belief that they were synonymous with that concerning the death of Charles Silver. In all of them Frankie was the name of the woman who destroyed her man in dramas taken from actual events, and all became well known and were passed down orally in many places.
As to Frankie Silver’s features there is only one known first-hand account that bears witness to them. Had it been negative, and it wasn’t, it would have made little or no difference in the minds of those who have kept her memory alive in verse and tale over the years. No matter how long the sad details of her story are told, she will in them be always lovely as a blood red rose, fixed in time and unchanging, like the fly in the amber.
The tale of Frankie and Charles Silver took place in what is now Mitchell County, North Carolina, lying in the cool, high escarpment of the Southern Appalachian Mountains between the Blue Ridge and Alleghany ranges. Yancey County lies just across Toe River from Kona where the Silvers lived, and the history of events on the Toe is the story of both counties. The name Kona was given the depot with the coming of the Carolina Clinchfield & Ohio Railroad up the river around 1900. Presumably the naming railroad agent took his inspiration from the famous Coney Island in New York. “Koney” is a common pronunciation in the community. It was part of Burke County in 1831, then incorporated into Yancey upon its formation in 1833 until 1861 when Mitchell was put together, but was never in the Deyton Bend.
I have always felt a personal affinity with the sad story of the Silvers in great part because a special portion of my life was spent in sight of some of the scenes played in that drama, and also because Charles Silver was a third cousin to me through my grandfather Dewey Woody and also about the same degree on another line of kinship by way of my grandmother Rosa Thomas Woody (Paw Paw and Nanny are not related by blood so far as I can ascertain).
Among mountainfolk, to tell of things that have happened locally past or present, is to also elaborate on who was connected to whom and how, and other such digressions. Nearly everyone in a given community, if their family has dwelt there for two or three generations, are tied together by blood or marriage or both, whether they admit it or not, and they often don’t. Relationships--“aints,” uncles, cousins, in-laws, out-laws, etc.-- as well as political ties and religious tenets are of great interest to them and are important to their narrations of tales. Thus, a body has to be judicious in recounting them lest the baleful wrath be incurred of a listener who just may be kin to or an ally to the principals therein.
My great-great-great-grandfather was Greenberry Silver, an uncle to Charles. He was a witness at Frances Stewart Silver’s trial (Frankie was a nickname given girls), though alas no record is known to survive that would reveal the testimony that he and others gave. Many questions might be answered had all the files been preserved, but they’ve gone from us as have the people they told of, like the faded leaves of time and the lapping waters of Toe River.
“Me and another feller used to coon hunt up the holler around where the Frankie Silvers place was. One night in the Fall of the year we ’as up in there with our guns, a huntin’. The wind was a sobbin’ thru the dry leaves of the oaks and beeches with a cool lonesome edge, when my hair stood straight up! They was screams and groans commenced to peeling out in the dark that’d freeze your soul. We lit out a thair a burning the wind as we went and never would hunt around in there no more.”
--Uncle Grady Thomas
Double Island, Yancey Co., N.C.
Nanny and Paw Paw’s house rests on the mountainside, nestled in the woods a little more than half a mile down the holler from the former site of the Charles Silver pole cabin, on the Lunday road at Kona, N.C. It is in view of the mouth of the branch on Toe River where his wife Frankie is said to have walked to through the snow wearing Charlie’s boots for the purpose of misleading people to assume he had accidentally plunged through the ice while crossing or as he checked his traps. She jobbed holes in the ice while there in order to make her story more convincing.
When I was coming up we had water in the house pumped from a cold spring nearby, but like many other homes at the time there was no bathroom. There was a wash house near the spring for bathing, but the privy or “johnny house” or “the little house behind the big house” as it was variously called, stood off down the hill a ways at the back, among the trees. I hated outhouses. There are always waspers, dirt dobbers, granddaddy spiders, and other creepy varmi’ts around them, and I never could shake the fear that a big black snake lay in wait under the rim of the seat for just the right moment. Close around, however, were bushes and concealing verdure a plenty that were much more inviting when nature called--by day. We had chamber pots, dubbed piss pots, in the house under the beds to use after the lights were put out. Before that time but after dark us boys would generally step off the edge of the porch when the urge struck--if we dared. There were only woods, a dirt road and mountains all around. Off down the hill lay the Clinchfield Railroad, and below the tracks the never ceasing roar of Toe River. When a train approached, coming up the river, you could hear, it seemed forever, the achingly lonesome squeal of wheel on steel. Then would come the pulsing roar of the engine, rising and falling as it pulled relentlessly up grade. Finally, after passing, would sound the high pitched whistle of the rails as the cars faded off in the distance. Bob Silver and his crowd were the nighest neighbors and they lived back around the turn and up the hill a right smart out of hollering distance, and we never had a phone; hardly anybody did. No one else lived closer than “Lundie” where the road ended a mile away. So, I seldom ventured as far as the porch’s edge when my cousins weren’t around. Mainly I was afeared I’d see Frankie Silver’s spirit come a-walking around the road in the dark with flaming eyes and an axe in her hand. Sometimes in the mountains the darkness takes on a presence of its own, especially on moonless nights. Chatteracts, or katydids as they are more commonly known, begin their nightly noise around mid-summer. They are said to presage the first frost of autumn by six weeks but I never did believe it. Only the highest altitudes in our part of the country are apt to get a frost before late September. The cicadas’ incessant chattering normally endures throughout the night, but whenever they stopped suddenly, my heart would go racing and an eerie chill would creep up my spine, for when that happens, it is said, then something’s “a nigh ye.” To this day when I hear them a-rattling on after dark, I also think of how whippoorwills--they say--will light close to the windowsill of a dying person and holler in time to their heartbeat, waiting to catch the soul as it passes away. If they fail they cry no more that night, but if they snatch it they scream until the roosters crow for day.
Apart from childhood fears of the dark, plus omens and strange mores that are part and parcel of mountain folks’ character, life at Kona was filled with light and color and hope. Time there was filled with memories; those seen through others’ eyes and now my own, ever green and pleasant, perhaps the happiest days of all. Frankie Silver always loomed in the corners of my mind but, by day at least, was only part of the pictures woven from the dim past overlaid in time by the progression of other lives and loves won or lost, with tapestries of their own.
Time has done away with most of what was there in Charlie’s and Frankie’s day but there remains at least one tangible evidence from that era which has always remained solid in my perception of the tragedy. About a quarter mile or so down the gravel road that turns off of N.C. Highway 80 toward Lunday there is a “stick-out” rock on the right hand side of the branch that parallels the road for some distance. This rock protrudes from a steep bank and because of thick vegetation cannot be seen easily in summer by passers-by. Here, it is told, is the spot where Frankie hid Charlie’s “lights” as she made her way through the snow to the river after dismembering him and burning all of him she could. I would never go to that rock alone as a child because of some irrational idea that part of his remains were still there. At the time I didn’t realize just how many years had bloomed and withered since that event took place.
To get to the Charlie Silver home site, the branch must be followed up the holler where the paved road crosses it, then on up under the mountain to a place where it bears left. A smaller stream once joined it there. Near the confluence of these two waters, in the angle, were apple trees whose first sires grew close to the cabin. That cabin is long gone as is the later home, near the spot, of Granny Eller Ellis, whom my grandmother and others of her generation affectionately honored by giving the mountain close at hand her name. There used to be a cherry tree at hand that allegedly grew up over one of the caches of Charlie’s remnants. It was believed that anyone climbing that tree would become ensnared among the branches and couldn’t get down without help. My mother thinks that once happened to me as a child, but I don’t remember it.
Its emptiness makes that cove seem mournful; indeed it is a dreary place in the gloom of winter when the low clouds hanging over the shaggy height of Granny Ellis Mountain drop their foggy mists down its sides. The stillness at such times can be oppressive and quite unnerving. I recall, however, that beauty was there also, especially when June sunbeams played upon the green meadows and the forested slopes. Paw Paw and I used to pluck fruit from sarvice trees growing high on the mountainside. From that vantage we could gaze across the holler to the Silver Graveyard on the opposite ridge, where lay buried the literal remains of Charles Silver, overlooking his home site on one side and his father’s on the other. The original Silver homestead stands a few hundred yards down the ridge from the graveyard, in good repair today. It is a hewed log house, now weather boarded, built circa 1808 by George Silver, the younger, and his children. He was the patriarch of the Silver clan of western North Carolina.
Seven generations have passed since the fateful years of 1831-33. A few members of the third generation whose ages are coeval with those of the fourth are still alive, but the fourth too will soon be numbered with those already parted from this world. Recollection and use of their handed down songs, tales, crafts, and ways of life will be left in the minds and hands of those who carry on. I often wonder how long they will endure.
Memories are everywhere around “Koney,” good and bad, and intertwined among them runs always the thread of a drama played out long ago, a mystery in part, causing questions to arise whose answers lie beneath the grassy mounds of the characters that inspired them. In youth I often roamed the woods around the Frankie place and always seemed to be there watching and listening on December 22, 1831. My inner ear still catches voices, vibrant, and rich in dialect, recalling that “dreadful, dark, and dismal day.”