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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Peter Elliott
Authorities Have Cracked a Bizarre Cold Case That Could Have Ties to the Zodiac Killer
Peter Elliott
Peter Elliott

One of the strangest cold cases in Ohio, if not the United States, has now been solved—but pieces of the puzzle remain.

In 2002, a man known as Joseph Newton Chandler III fatally shot himself in the bathroom of his tiny apartment in Eastlake, Ohio. His body wasn't found for a week, by which point it was badly decomposed, and police were unable to obtain fingerprints. He hadn't left a note, and police found more than $80,000 in his bank account. A private investigator, hired by a probate judge to find surviving family members, soon discovered that the man known as Chandler wasn't Chandler at all—he'd stolen the identity of an 8-year-old boy from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who died in a car crash in Texas in 1945.

Since then, rumors have been building. Police felt the man was most likely a fugitive on the run—who else leaves $80,000 in a bank account and hides behind a stolen identity? Some said he might have been a Nazi war criminal. Others thought that he could be the Zodiac Killer, based on his likeness to a police sketch of the infamous murderer who left a trail of terror through Northern California in the 1960s and 1970s. (And, in fact, Chandler was in California at the time of the crimes.) But after the initial round of research following the suicide, the case went cold.

Today, U.S. Marshal Peter Elliott announced that his office and a team of forensic genealogists had cracked the case. Yet they've only solved the first part of the mystery‚ and are appealing to the public for help connecting the rest of the dots.

Their research shows that the man known as Chandler was actually Robert Ivan Nichols of New Albany, Indiana. A Purple Heart Navy veteran who served in World War II, Nichols had disappeared from his family in 1965. He had left his wife and sons the year prior, telling her, "In due time, you'll know why," according to Elliott. In March 1965, he wrote to his parents, saying he was "well and happy" and asking them not to worry about him. The same month, he mailed an envelope to his son Phillip, which contained only a penny. There was no note. It was the last his family would ever hear of him.

According to family lore, the war had taken a heavy toll on Nichols, and he burned his uniforms in the backyard after returning from service. He had no criminal history. Associates who worked with him as "Chandler" described him as a loner, someone who refused to let others get close. Co-workers said he would frequently disappear for days, and even weeks, at a time. He kept a bag packed and ready in his apartment at all times.

After disappearing from his family, he traveled to Dearborn, Michigan, and then to the San Francisco and Richmond, California areas. He assumed the Chandler identity in Rapid City, South Dakota, in 1978, when he applied for a Social Security card using personal information (including the birthdate) of the boy who died in 1945. At the time, such frauds were easier to pull off, since Social Security cards were rarely given to children, and so the real Joseph Newton Chandler III had never been given a Social Security number.

Robert Ivan Nichols circa 1992
Robert Ivan Nichols circa 1992
Peter Elliott

The break in the case came only after painstaking detective work that involved both sophisticated DNA techniques and pounding the pavement. When Elliott took on the case in 2014 at the request of the Eastlake police, he discovered Chandler had had colon cancer surgery in 2000. He sent tissue samples taken at that time to the local medical examiner, who obtained a DNA profile. Unfortunately, there were no matches between the profile and various national criminal databases.

Stumped, in 2016 Elliott turned to forensic genealogists Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick and Dr. Margaret Press of California-based IdentiFinders and the DNA Doe Project, a non-profit humanitarian initiative created to help identify Jane and John Does and return them to their families. (Fitzpatrick also helped crack the case of identity thief Lori Erica Ruff in 2016.) Despite a badly degraded sample, they used Y chromosome genealogy to trace a family line that indicated the dead man's last name was likely Nichols or some variation. In March 2018, authorities tracked down a Phillip Nichols in Ohio, who provided a DNA sample. The sample matched with that of the dead man, indicating the pair were father and son. Phillip said at a news conference today that he instantly recognized photos of "Chandler" as his father.

Although the cold case has been solved, mystery remains. Why did Nichols abandon his family? Why did he end his life? What accounts for the rest of his odd behavior? Although it's clear he wasn't a Nazi war criminal, there's still a chance—however slight—that he could be connected to crimes in California, given his residence at the time of the Zodiac Killer's activities. "There has to be a reason he assumed the name of a deceased 8-year-old boy and went into hiding for so many years," Elliott says. When asked about the potential Zodiac Killer connection, Elliott responded, "I can't say for sure that he is, and I cannot say for sure that he's not [the killer]. We have been working with San Francisco, [and the] Department of Justice, but that's a question for them, that's their investigation."

Elliott says he is appealing for the public's help in tracing the rest of Nichols' life and mystery. Tips can be sent to the U.S. Marshals at 216-522-4482.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?
iStock
iStock

Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios