Sharyn McCrumb’s ballad novel, The Ballad of Frankie Silver, entwines the stories of Frankie Silver, believed to be the first woman executed by the state of North Carolina, and Fate Harkryder, a poor white mountain man about to face death in Tennessee’s electric chair. The two cases become connected in Sheriff Spencer Arrowood’s mind right after Fate Harkryder is found guilty of the murders of Emily Stanton and Mike Wilson, UNC students hiking the Appalachian Trail. When the Stanton/Wilson murders took place, Arrowood was a deputy sheriff working under Nelse Miller, sheriff at the time, but Arrowood was the official who investigated the crime. The evidence seemed rock solid, but Nelse Miller took his deputy to the graves of Charlie Silver—no, graves is not a typo because Silver was buried as the parts of him were discovered—and tells Arrowood that he has only been unsure about two cases in their neck of the woods: the case of Fate Harkryder, and the case of Frankie Silver.
Frankie Silver is the subject of an Appalachian murder ballad. She was accused and convicted of murdering her husband, Charlie Silver, with an ax and dismembering him. At the time, both were teenagers: Frankie was 18 and Charlie was 19. They had been married less than a couple of years, but they had an infant daughter, Nancy. Frankie Silver was born Frances Stewart to Isaiah and Barbara Howell Stewart. She had two brothers, Jackson, who was older than her, and Blackston, who was about 14. At the time of the murder, Isaiah and Jackson were hunting in Kentucky. Barbara and Blackston were arrested with Frankie, but they were ultimately released when no evidence of their involvement in the crime could be found.
The novel has a dual narrative. The modern storyline of Spencer Arrowood and Fate Harkryder is told in the third person limited, with a focus on Arrowood’s point of view, while the storyline of Frankie Silver is told by Burgess Gaither, a clerk of the court when she was tried and convicted, in the first person point of view. McCrumb employed this same technique in The Songcatcher (review). In her afterword, McCrumb notes that she feels Frankie Silver’s “case was really about poor people as defendants and rich people as officers of the court, about Celt versus English in developing America, about mountain people versus ‘flatlanders’ in any culture” (393). Given all the research I’ve done on the case is limited to reading this novel (so what do I know), it is a premise that seems to make sense. McCrumb carefully weaves in a story about the kind of justice men of means and reputation in society could expect as compared with that of poor mountain men. Everyone who faces a trial for a crime like Frankie Silver or Fate Harkryder have committed is entitled to representation by an attorney. The courts are supposed to be a great leveling field. Justice is supposed to be blind. But everyone knows that’s not so because ultimately, it is carried out by flawed human beings who bring their own prejudices and beliefs to bear on decisions they make. I think I might be a horrible juror because I think I would just question so much and not be able to make a decision, and I know for a fact I could never decide to send someone to death for a crime. My conscience wouldn’t allow it.
I finished this novel this morning, and I decided to walk up to our local Saturday farmer’s market and mull it over before I wrote this. I think it reminded me a bit of some sad stories in my own family. One is the story of my great-great-great-grandfather, John Jennings. He was a blacksmith in Russellville, Alabama. Russellville is a small town in Franklin County in northern Alabama. He apparently said something at a political rally or in a newspaper article (sources differ on which) that raised the ire of one George C. Almon, a candidate for office. I wonder what John Jennings said because it apparently made Almon angry enough to seek Jennings out to “give him a whipping,” according to a cousin of mine, Arthur Jennings. Arthur reports that Almon had to “take one instead,” as Jennings was a strong blacksmith, after all.
Some time later, Almon went into a hotel across the street from Jennings’s blacksmith shop and told the clerk that he needed a gun to shoot a mad dog down the street. The clerk gave it to him, and he walked across the street with it and shot John Jennings. He died a half hour later. Almon surrendered to the sheriff. His trial took place on June 28 and 29, 1875. He was acquitted of murder—it was determined he acted in self-defense.
If Arthur’s version of this story is true (it was likely passed down through the family to him), then I can’t see how what Almon did is self-defense, but he was certainly more influential politically than John Jennings. Almon prospered in Alabama government and politics. Five years after the murder, Almon was a practicing lawyer in Russellville. He was appointed a probate judge, and in 1886, he was elected to the Alabama State Senate in the 12th district.
I joked in a previous post that the Southern defense that “he needed killing” has been used successfully, but it appears to be true in this case. Newspapers covering the trial at the time seemed to think Jennings was at least partly responsible for his own murder because of whatever it was he had said. His honor besmirched, Almon demanded Jennings answer for it. Jennings’s widow Fannie apparently feared her young sons would grow up and seek revenge for their father’s murder, so she moved the family to Texas. The removal may have accomplished Fannie’s immediate goal of making sure her sons did not meet their father’s fate, but the feeling of ill will about the murder and the fact that the man responsible never answered for it still rankles, and you can hear it any time one of the family talks about it. You can read an excerpt from Memorial Record of Alabama by Hannis Taylor (1893) about Almon’s career. No mention of the murder at all, of course. He lived until 1911 and was buried in the Knights of Pythias cemetery in Russellville. Now, I have no evidence that my ancestor was necessarily poor, but it did take my cousin Jan about 30 years of genealogy research to find out this much about John Jennings’s death, whereas a quick Google search for George C. Almon reveals his prominence (but not his crime, unless you count my own blog posts about it on my genealogy blog).
So what does all that have to do with Frankie Silver or even this novel? The two stories bother me in the same way. The sense that only certain people receive justice, or even mercy (a point McCrumb makes) is something we’d like to believe is long past. Unfortunately, as McCrumb shows us in this novel, it still happens, and perhaps more often than I want to think about. William Faulkner astutely said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Full disclosure: I received this book via PaperBackSwap.