The Lenoir Topic via Murder by Gaslight // Public Domain 
The Lenoir Topic via Murder by Gaslight // Public Domain 

The Story Behind “The Ballad of Frankie Silver”

The Lenoir Topic via Murder by Gaslight // Public Domain 
The Lenoir Topic via Murder by Gaslight // Public Domain 

“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.

Oh! Lord, 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.”

“The Ballad of Frankie Silver” was supposedly penned in 1833 by a young woman awaiting execution for her husband’s murder. According to some accounts, Silver sang the song as her final statement from the gallows. Today, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction; the lyrics weren’t made widely available until 50 years after the fact, when they were printed in a local newspaper. One hundred and eighty-three years after that, folk singers still perform the sad tale of Frankie Silver, who killed her husband with an axe in 1831.

Frances Stewart was a young teenager when she married Charles Silver, who was just a year older. They settled in a small cabin in Burke County, North Carolina. The story goes that their marriage was troubled from the beginning: Charlie drank, and arguments were common. Frankie gave birth to a daughter they named Nancy, who was 13 months old when Frankie killed Charlie on the night of December 22, 1831. Frankie asked her in-laws the next day if they’d seen Charlie, who she claimed hadn’t returned home from a hunting trip. No one knew where he was. His friend George Young, who he was supposed to have been hunting with, said he hadn’t seen Charlie in weeks. Charlie Silver’s father called the sheriff to investigate.

A search of the young couple’s cabin turned up blood and charred body parts underneath the floorboards. The fireplace held more remains and greasy residue. Charlie’s family buried the pieces of their son as they were found, resulting in three separate plots.

The Silver family was relatively wealthy, while the Stewarts were not. The Silvers assumed Frankie’s family was involved in the killing as part of a scheme to steal the land John Silver had given his son Charlie as a wedding gift. Charlie’s brother Alfred told the story of his brother’s murder as if he had been there, describing how Frankie tried to chop Charlie's head off as he slept. Others accused Frankie’s father Isaiah of helping her murder her husband.

Frankie was arrested, along with her mother and brother, who were suspected of helping her hide the evidence. The charges against her family members were later dropped, but Frankie remained behind bars in Morganton. Her trial began on March 29, 1832, and lasted just two days. Frankie’s lawyer, Thomas Wilson, entered a not guilty plea and maintained that Frankie did not kill Charlie—an act that precluded any opportunity to introduce the concept of self-defense or extenuating circumstances. And the laws of the time didn’t help. Defendants weren’t allowed to testify in criminal cases until the latter half of the 19th century. Witnesses called by the Silver family painted Frankie as a jealous wife who had butchered her husband while he slept. The evidence was circumstantial, and the jury was deadlocked for a time before they asked to rehear some of the testimony. Ultimately, they found her guilty and sentenced her to hang. The State Supreme Court upheld the verdict on appeal, and the date for execution was set for June 28, 1833.

In the year that Frankie Silver waited for her execution date, she finally seized the opportunity to tell her side of the story. She couldn’t read or write, but she dictated letters to her lawyer, asking Governor Montfort Stokes for clemency. Although the letters are lost, it's believed that she explained that Charlie was drunk and abusive throughout their marriage, and that on the night of his death, he was drunkenly attempting to load his gun so he could kill her. Frankie picked up an axe nearby and struck him in self-defense. Her story got out, and over time, public opinion softened on Frankie. Dozens of petitions to pardon her or commute her sentence were sent to the governor, and seven of the jurors signed on. Governor Stokes insisted he could only pardon her if all 12 jurors agreed. A new governor, David L. Swain, was elected in the interim, and while he was sympathetic, he refused to pardon the young woman.

In a last-ditch effort to rescue Frankie, her family helped her escape from jail on May 18, 1833, possibly with the help of the sympathetic jailer. She cut her hair short and disguised herself as a boy. Frankie’s father and her uncle tried to take Frankie to Tennessee, but the police caught up with them as they were headed for the state border.

The song some say was Frankie Silver’s “confession” was most likely written by Thomas S. Scott, a Morganton schoolteacher, sometime between Silver’s conviction and execution. The lyrics were supposedly distributed to some of the thousands of people who came to Frankie’s hanging on July 12, 1833. The folklore of the day holds that Frankie asked to sing the song as her last statement, but her father yelled at her to keep silent. Other versions of the tale claim that she actually sang. In reality, Frankie had nothing to do with the song, the lyrics to which you can read here.

Another part of the legend says that Frankie Silver’s father wanted to bury her on family land, but in the July heat, it wasn’t possible to transport her body that far. Silver was buried in an unmarked grave a few miles from Morganton. A gravestone was only added in 1952, paid for by Beatrice Cobb, the publisher of the Morganton News-Herald.

Because Frankie Silver wasn’t allowed to testify at her trial, Charlie’s family controlled the narrative surrounding their son’s death for the next hundred years. Generations of North Carolinian schoolchildren were told the story of the teenage axe murderer, who was said to be the first woman hanged in Burke County (which, though it says so on her headstone, isn’t actually true). In the past few decades, educators and historians have made an effort to tell Silver's real story, lending her the voice she had been denied all those years ago.

Keystone/Getty Images
The Terrible Crime at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin 
Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright
Keystone/Getty Images

Some of the most horrific murders in Wisconsin history involved none other than famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright was in the middle of building a home, which he named Taliesin, for himself and his mistress in Spring Green, Wisconsin. He had recently left his wife and six children for Martha "Mamah" Borthwick, whose husband Edwin Cheney had commissioned Wright to build a house in Oak Park, Illinois. Cheney may have a gained a Frank Lloyd Wright house, but he lost his wife—Mamah and Wright became close, even traveling to Europe together, sans spouses, in 1909. The Cheneys divorced in 1911; Wright’s divorce would take more than another decade to be finalized.

On August 15, 1914, Wright was away attending to the construction of Midway Gardens in Chicago when he got a terrible message. “Taliesin destroyed by fire,” it read, and that was all. For the time being, at least, Wright was spared the details: Their servant, Julian Carlton, had attacked Mamah, her children, and Taliesin workmen, pouring gasoline under the door and setting the home ablaze. When some of the victims broke windows and tried to escape, Carlton hacked at them from outside of the house with a hatchet.

The Ogden Standard, September 5, 1914
A news account of the tragedy, September 5, 1914
Library of Congress // Public Domain

While precise accounts of the crime vary, according to biographer William Drennan, Carlton first killed Mamah and her two children, 8-year-old Martha and 12-year-old John, while they were eating lunch on a porch, bludgeoning them with a hatchet. Once Carlton had taken care of them, he went to a dining room where the workmen were eating, locked them in, and set fire to the place.

In the end, eight people died—seven victims and the murderer himself. The victims included Mamah and her children, draftsman Emil Brodelle, gardener David Lindblom, handyman Tom Brunker, and Ernest Weston, the son of carpenter William Weston.

The murderer didn’t die right away, though. He swallowed hydrochloric acid soon after the attack, and died of starvation about seven weeks later. Despite being questioned, Carlton never did give a motive for his killing spree. There’s some evidence to suggest a series of disputes with the workers, however, and that Carlton had recently been told he was being terminated.

Taliesin as it looks today
edward stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

As for the absolutely devastated Frank Lloyd Wright, he rebuilt Taliesin in Mamah’s honor. The land may have been cursed, however, because this second reincarnation of the house was also destroyed by fire. In 1925, a lightning storm apparently ignited the wiring, sparking a conflagration that eventually burned the house down. Not one to be deterred, Wright built Taliesin III on the same spot. Today, the home is open for tours and events.

A version of this story originally ran in 2011.

8 Animals That Have Been Imprisoned or Arrested

It might seem like a case of animals just being animals, but when eight donkeys in northern India recently ate nearly $1000 worth of greenery in their small town, they did four days in the big house. (Perhaps part of the problem? They ate expensive saplings that were planted right near the jail. Rookie mistake.) But whether they harmed property or people, were in cahoots with human outlaws, or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, these eight other critters are proof that "crime" can sometimes be cuddly.


In 2015, officials in India arrested a pigeon they suspected was a spy. The bird’s body was stamped with a message written partly in Urdu—Pakistan’s official language—and what appeared to be a Pakistani phone number. It had landed in a village close to the country’s shared border with Pakistan, near the Kashmir region that’s claimed by both countries and has been the subject of multiple wars between India and Pakistan beginning in 1947. Though there was a ceasefire in 1972 (the current situation is that India controls 45 percent of Kashmir, Pakistan 35 percent, and China 20 percent), because both countries believe they have rights to the area, it's frequently the site of military clashes and infiltration.

So when a 14-year-old boy found the suspicious-looking pigeon so close to Kashmir, he turned it over to authorities. The officials took it to a veterinary hospital for x-rays, and though they couldn’t find any concrete evidence of foreign fowl play, they kept the bird in custody, recording it as a “suspected spy” in their police diary.

That said, not everyone took the news as seriously as the Indian police did: In the days following the bird’s arrest, Pakistani social media was flooded with memes depicting the feathered detainee as a slick 007 type, and amused internet users coined hashtags like #PigeonVsIndia and #IfIWereAPigeon.


In December 2016, a wild beaver must have decided that forest trees weren’t festive enough, because it wandered into a dollar store in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, to browse Christmas trees and decorations. Workers noticed the animal knocking items onto the floor, and called the St. Mary's County Sheriff's Office.

Captain Yingling of the sheriff's office arrived on scene to prevent the "shopping" beaver from ruining the store. “The suspect attempted to flee the area but was apprehended by Animal Control,” the sheriff's department joked on their Facebook page.

Instead of allowing the beaver to finish up its holiday shopping, the St. Mary's County Sheriff handed the critter over to a wildlife rehab center. As for the police, they said the quirky incident just marked another day on the job: “As a law enforcement officer, you just never know what your next call may be...” they mused on Facebook.


In 2015, police in the Indian state of Maharashtra taught a foul-mouthed parrot named Hariyal a lesson in politeness after they “arrested” it for swearing at an elderly woman named Janabai. According to locals, the pet bird had picked up the rude habit from Janabi’s stepson, Suresh Sakharkar. The two were embroiled in an ugly property dispute, and the latter had reportedly spent the prior two years training Hariyal to spout epithets whenever the estranged relation walked past his house.

The situation escalated, and Janabi, Suresh, and his bird were eventually called to the police station. “Police should investigate and seize the parrot,” the embittered stepmother told Indian news channel Zee News. That said, Hariyal must have known he was in hot water, because he kept his beak shut. “We watched the parrot carefully but it did not utter a word at the police station after being confronted by the complainant,” a police inspector told reporters.

Instead of locking Hariyal up, officials gave the parrot over to Maharashtra’s forestry department, where he can presumably fly—and curse—freely for the remainder of his life.


While walking down the street in the West German city of Bottrop in 2015, a woman realized that she had attracted a furry stalker: a tiny red squirrel. The animal was chasing her and acting aggressively. Frightened and unable to flee the rodent, the woman called the police for help. Authorities captured the squirrel, “arrested” it, and brought it back to the station. There, they discovered that the critter was suffering from exhaustion.

Police helped nurse the squirrel back to health by feeding it honey, and a spokesman said the squirrel would be sent to a rescue center instead of languishing away in a cell for its stalkerish habits.



In 2004, a rogue monkey became infamous for terrorizing residents of the city of Patiala, in India’s northern Punjab region. The monkey was guilty of multiple crimes: It stole food from homes, ripped the buttons off people's shirts, threatened kids with bricks, and once even swiped someone’s math textbooks and calculator. To keep the marauding jungle creature off the streets, officials sentenced it to “monkey jail”—a now-defunct detainment center in Patiala that was reserved for ill-behaving primates.

The “monkey jail"—which appears to have operated from 1996 until the mid-2000s—was located in the corner of a local zoo. The 15-foot-wide barred cell was secured with chain-link fencing and wire mesh, and had a sign that read: "These monkeys have been caught from various cities of Punjab. They are notorious. Going near them is dangerous."

Punjab is filled with countless wild Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) monkeys. Some of the animals have moved into cities and towns in search of food, as humans continue to destroy their natural jungle habitat. Others were once used as animal guards, or trained as performing monkeys, and were set loose by their owners once they turned violent. Particularly ill-treated or mischievous primates have been known to destroy property and pester—or even attack—humans. But since Hindus revere Hanuman, the monkey god, killing the creatures is verboten.

Wildlife officers in Punjab took matters into their own hands by opening the monkey jail. They responded to public complaints by capturing the creatures with trapping cages and tranquilizer guns. Once the monkeys were locked up, there was little to no chance of "parole."

As of 2004, there were 13 jailed monkeys, all imprisoned for harassing people or committing petty crimes. Patiala’s primate penitentiary was eventually closed, and authorities announced it was going to be replaced by “reform school" that's intended to train the monkeys to be less aggressive.


On New Year’s Day 2013, a cat took the heat for scheming Brazilian inmates who were likely either planning a jailbreak or attempting to communicate with outlaws on the outside. The white feline was slinking around the main gates of a medium-security prison in Arapiraca—a city in northeast Brazil—when guards noticed that its body was wrapped in tape. They apprehended the kitty, and discovered that it was carrying items including several saws and drills, an earphone, a memory card, batteries, and a phone charger.

Prison officer Luiz de Oliveira Souza told reporters that the cat had been seen entering and exiting the jail before. It had been raised by inmates, and was often in the custody of one of their families. However, officials couldn’t figure out which of the jail’s 263 prisoners had tried to use the feline for their own nefarious purposes: “It’s tough to find out who’s responsible for the action as the cat doesn’t speak,” a prison spokesperson told local newspaper Estado de S.Paulo.

Following the cat’s “arrest” and brief imprisonment, it was taken to a local animal shelter to receive medical treatment.


Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary

Unlike some animals on this list, Pep the dog was a very good boy. But in 1924, Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot allegedly sentenced the dark-haired Labrador to a life sentence without parole. Pep was taken to Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, where officials jokingly gave him his own inmate number and mug shot. Reporters nicknamed the canine "Pep The Cat-Murdering Dog," as he was said to have killed the governor’s wife’s cat.

Thanks to all the media hype, Pep had quite the tough reputation. But a few years after the canine’s imprisonment, the governor’s wife, Cornelia Pinchot, set the story straight in an interview with The New York Times. Turns out, Pep had never murdered her pet feline; her family simply bred Labradors, and owned too many dogs. Pep, she said, was a gift to the prisoners to lift their spirits.

Today, researchers say that partisan journalists twisted the facts around, and that Pep was actually a beloved prison pet that freely wandered the hallways and was adored by all. As for the "life sentence without parole" part, the Lab was eventually moved to a newer prison; when he died, he was buried on its grounds.



In 2008, police in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas arrested a feisty donkey named Blacky after it bit a man in the chest, and kicked a second man trying to rescue him. Police apprehended the burro and locked it in the jail’s drunk tank. “Around here, if someone commits a crime they are jailed, no matter who they are,” said Officer Sinar Gomez.

Police said that the donkey would remain behind bars until its owner, Mauro Gutierrez, paid the injured parties’ medical bills and salary for the days they missed work. The boisterous burro served three days in jail, and Gutierrez settled the score by paying Blacky's victims.


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