Frankie Silver and the Curse of Southern Honor

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Legend says that the state of North Carolina executed its first white female on July 12, 1833.[1] This story began in 1831 when the unfortunate woman reported that her husband, Charlie, went missing during a hunting trip sometime before Christmas of that year. After an exhaustive search, a neighbor named Jack Collis found evidence of human remains inside the couple’s home and around their property near Kona in present-day Mitchell County (then Burke County). Greasy ashes and bone shards were found in the fireplace, while a pool of blood sat underneath the floorboards. More dismembered body parts were found buried in a few locations outside. Immediately following the discovery inside the house, officials arrested her in January 1832 on the charge of murdering her husband, chopping him into pieces, and burning and burying his remains. Her mother and brother were also arrested, but charges against them both were dropped.

She went to trial in March of 1832 for the grisly murder of her husband. During this trial, the attorney for the accused woman instructed her to plead not guilty while the prosecutor pushed the tale that she murdered her husband in a fit of jealousy after discovering his infidelities. Unfortunately for her, defendants did not testify in court at this time so she had no opportunity to defend herself. After two short days of testimony, she was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by hanging in June of the same year.

A series of coincidental events postponed her execution. First, her attorneys filed several appeals to the state supreme court, which the court denied and sent back to the Burke County Superior Court for a new execution date. The judge appointed to set a new execution date failed to show up to court, which postponed setting a new date until March 1833. The outcome of this new March trial pushed her execution back to June 28 of the same year. Then ten days before she was set to hang, this woman’s father and uncle helped her escape from the Morganton jail. Her freedom did not last long; the Sheriff caught her a few days later in nearby Rutherford County disguised as a man. She spent her remaining days chained to the floor of the jail. This poor woman’s final execution date was then set for July 12, 1833.

On that fateful day in July as she stood on the gallows before a crowd, the sheriff asked if she had any last words to say, suggesting that she admit to her guilt. Many stories exist as to what happened in her final moments: she sang her legendary ballad, she might have offered a full confession, or her father yelled out from the crowd with instructions to “Die with it in ye!” Regardless of what truly transpired, she was hanged on that day for the murder of her husband.

This unfortunate woman’s name was Francis Stuart Silver, famously known as Frankie Silver, and she was only eighteen years old at the time of her death.

When we examine the story behind the murder of Charlie Silver, some insights can be derived. First, there is a strong likelihood that Charlie was an abusive husband. It was not uncommon for men to abuse their wives in the nineteenth-century; and even though there were laws in place to protect women, men often went unpunished for their crimes. Cathy Young, writing for the Independent Women’s Forum explained that “In many cases, district attorneys did not want to prosecute domestic violence cases because it was felt that putting the family wage-earner in jail would leave the wife and children destitute; as a result, the police were reluctant to arrest abusers as well.”[2] B. S. Gaither, the Clerk of the Court for Burke County during Frankie’s trials, even suggested that Charlie was abusive because he felt that if Frankie admitted to the murder in self-defense the jury would have likely acquitted her.[3] Yet, the Fayetteville Observer printed an alleged confession by Frankie on July 30, 1833:

“Mrs. Frances Silvers was executed at Morganton on the 12th inst. for the murder of her husband. She made a confession of all the circumstances leading to the commission of the awful deed, from which it appears that the whole period of her matrimonial life, (a little more than 2 years,) was spent in a succession of quarrels and fights, always, as she says, commenced by her worthless partner. She says he was loading his gun with the avowed purpose of shooting her, when she caught up the axe and gave him the fatal blow. A few moments afterwards, she would have given, she says, a thousand worlds to have called back the blow.”[4]

Whether or not the confession was legitimate, these contemporary accounts paint a picture of an abusive marriage that may have been visible to the public eye.

The second feature of Frankie’s story worth examining are the behaviors of her immediate family. During the initial arrests, her mother and brother were also detained as suspects, but were later released as not enough evidence supported their involvement in the crime. Then before Frankie’s first scheduled hanging, her father and uncle helped her escape from prison – which failed miserably. And lastly, during her final moments alive as the sheriff asked for any last words, Frankie’s father allegedly yelled out to her from the crowd with instructions to take her secrets to the grave. These secretive behaviors of the Stuart family during the two years of Frankie’s imprisonment raise some questions about their involvement in the crime.

While murders were not uncommon events at that time in American history, especially in the South, it was the gruesomeness of the attack upon Charlie Silver that has continued to capture the attention of generations. An axe murder is an axe murder, after all. To deliberately burn human remains inside an occupied dwelling after butchering the corpse for easier concealment is an extreme measure even by modern standards. Now, who actually murdered Charlie will never be known with certainty, but there is a truth in this story that often gets overlooked. This truth lives almost exclusively in the American South and fuels a behavior of violence. This truth is called the Southern code of honor.

The Southern code of honor is, to put it simply, a self-regulating sociocultural system in which individuals maintain their status by consciously avoid offending or disrespecting each other while also not tolerating offences or disrespect from others. When one receives disrespect in this system, it becomes necessary to resort to physical violence and retribution to protect his/her reputation. Point blank, the Southern code of honor is a marriage between “if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all” and “might makes right.” Much research has been conducted on this phenomenon that demonstrates the higher rates of violence in the American South.[5]

Many different theories exist in regards to the origin of this honor code. Some believe that the settlers from the traditionally Celtic areas of Britain (as if this group were the only settlers in the Southern colonies) brought their retributive system to America. These settlers were not agriculturalists but remote herders, which meant that their livelihood was mobile and their homes isolated. Thus, justice often fell into the hands of the wronged.[6] Another explanation is that the Southern code of honor developed alongside slavery, as a means for the white population to distance itself from the cruelty of chattel slavery that the South endorsed. Another possible theory for the honor code’s origin is that it came over from Britain with its aristocracy in the early colonial period. Though, in the end, the most important question here is not where the South’s honor code originated, but how it was practiced.

As stated previously, the South’s honor code was a unique assimilation of polite violent retribution. In the public sphere, it was important for a man to maintain a reputation of integrity; while in the household, he held the authority. A man must also be known for strength and courage, which must be applied when his reputation, family, well-being, or else was threatened or damaged. By physically defending his dominion, he maintained his honor as a man of integrity. This Southern code of honor can be observed in the actions of Frankie and her family.

It is very unlikely that Frankie murdered and disposed of her husband’s body by herself. Who actually murdered Charlie Silver will never be known, though it does appear that the Stuart family was involved. Since it is likely that Charlie was an abusive husband and that law enforcement tended not to intervene in such matters, the Southern code of honor could have propelled the Stuarts into protecting the honor of Frankie and the integrity of their family. The Southern code of honor required that men (though women participated, too) protect their own honor and the honor of their family by physical violence against the threat. So in this case, Charlie Silver actually physically smeared the reputation of the Stuart family by abusing Frankie. Retribution against Charlie would inevitably happen.

While that fact gives some credence to the involvement of the Stuarts in the initial murder, the events that occurred at the gallows on July 12 almost cements their participation in the crime. As Frankie stood before a crowd gathered to watch her execution, legend says that when she was given the opportunity to confess, her father shouted out “Die with it in ye, Frankie!” Given the instance that both her confession and her father’s instructions occurred, the Southern code of honor becomes visible. Again, if the confession attributed to Frankie is true, then she took full responsibility for the murder of her husband even when it is unlikely she acted alone. The Southern code of honor required Frankie to maintain the integrity of the Stuart family, even if it meant death. Now, one could say that the Stuarts were too embarrassed of Frankie at this point to help her survive. Unless, of course, Frankie asked her family help in disposing the body. Southern honor would then require the Stuarts to protect Frankie, while she had to return the favor by protecting her family’s integrity.

Southerners, regardless of the region, are a unique breed of Americans. Proud, stubborn, mostly polite with a penchant for violence, we are loyal to our families and the principles that guide our lives. Sometimes these principles demand sacrifices to uphold, as evident in the story of Frankie Silver. The Southern code of honor failed Frankie and claimed her as a victim. Had she lived in the modern era Frankie surely would have survived and won her court case as a victim of domestic abuse. While this short blog post is by no means an exhaustive analysis of the murder of Charlie Silver, I hope that it provided some brief insight into the sociocultural environment of the antebellum Southern Appalachian region. That is: honor your name and protect your kin.

 

[1] Author Perry Deane Young debunked this myth in his acclaimed book The Untold Story of Frankie Silver: Was She Unjustly Hanged?

[2] Cathy Young, “Domestic Violence: An In-Depth Analysis, Independent Women’s Forum, http://www.iwf.org/news/2432535/Domestic-Violence:-An-In-Depth-Analysis (accessed October 25, 2016).

[3] Jonathan Martin, “Frankie Silver Murder Case of 1833,” North Carolina History Project, http://northcarolinahistory.org/encyclopedia/frankie-silver-murder-case-of-1833/ (accessed October 23, 2016).

[4] Executed Today, “1833: Frankie Silver, Morganton legend,” Executed Today, http://www.executedtoday.com/2012/07/12/1833-frankie-silver/ (accessed October 23, 2016).

[5] Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen, Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South (Colorado: Westview Press, Inc., 1996).; Dov Cohen, Richard Nisbett, Brian Bowdle, and Norbert Schwarz, “Insult, aggression, and the southern culture of honor: An “experimental ethnography,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 70, no. 5 (1996): 945-960, http://www.simine.com/240/readings/Cohen_et_al_(2).pdf (accessed October 23, 2016).; Ryan Brown, Lindsey Osterman, and Collin Barnes, “School Violence and the Culture of Honor,” Psychological Science 20, no. 11 (2009): 1400-1405, http://www.uta.fi/arkisto/aktk/projects/sta/Brown_Osterman_Barnes_2009_School-Violence-and-the-Culture-of-Honour.pdf (accessed October 23, 2016).

[6] Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen, Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South (Colorado: Westview Press, Inc., 1996).

©K. Martin-Gross 2016

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