CHAPEL HILL — A local author’s nearly lifelong fascination with a frontier-days ax murder in an isolated Blue Ridge community is coming to television this month.
The holiday spirit was not, it must be said, strong in the Silver household in 1831. Three days before Christmas, teenage mother Frankie Silver drove an ax into her husband Charles’s head. His body was then chopped up. Some parts were burned and others scattered, perhaps with help from her family.
Silver was tried for murder, but because of a quirk of the law then, she could not testify about what happened. She was convicted, escaped and was caught again. She was hanged in Morganton despite petitions to the governor for a pardon that were signed by dozens of people, including the sheriff, her jailer and most of the jury.
Perry Deane Young, an author, playwright and historian who lives in Chapel Hill, was raised in the same mountains. He grew up hearing different versions of the story and even a nursery rhyme about the ill-fated couple.
It became an obsession that led to half a century of on-and-off research and his recently reissued book, “The Untold Story of Frankie Silver,” which takes a sober look at the facts. He also co-wrote a play about her trial. Now the Investigation Discovery cable channel will air the tale Jan. 25, with Young on camera, as part of its “Deadly Women” series.
“I think sometimes she’s talking to me from the grave, but I just got fascinated with the way the story had been told over the years,” Young said.
There are many variations of the story, which was repeatedly twisted and embellished as it was handed down. A common version has Frankie slipping their baby out of Charles Silver’s arms while he slept by the fire, then killing him with the ax and hacking him into parts.
Another has it that he had been out carousing with another woman, and Frankie killed him in a fit of jealous rage.
The Silver story will be part of the season finale for the TV show, which has a different theme for each airing. This time, it’s “Brides of Blood.”
The segment on the Silvers includes dramatizations and speculation about versions of the story that Young rejects. Mainly, though, it takes his views seriously.
“So often we think of abusive marriages and crimes of passion as being 21st century phenomena, but stories like Frankie’s remind us that these crimes are as old as the institution itself,” said Pamela Deutsch, executive producer of “Deadly Women.”
The show’s producers are often attracted to historical stories such as Frankie’s, she said.
For filming, producers met Young in the Kona valley where the Silvers lived and, as he put it, interrogated him thoroughly.
Young was a journalist for many years, including a stint as a Vietnam correspondent for UPI. For the book, he relied on documented facts to dismiss some of the sillier tales.
Long after her sentencing, Frankie Silver eventually confessed. Young hasn’t found a copy of the confession yet, but he did find documents written by people who knew crucial details firsthand or who had heard her version of the story directly. These included letters and petitions that Young unearthed in 1963 in the N.C. Archives at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The documents make a strong case that Charles Silver was a drunk, abusive husband whose wife killed him in self-defense as he was loading a gun and threatening to kill her.
Something Young read early in his research triggered a revelation, he said.
“I thought to myself, ‘This is a human, a real person, and no one else is telling her story,’ ” Young said. “I couldn’t help but sympathize with her. There’s no question that he was just a sorry, no-account man.”
There is at least some evidence that Silver bought the liquor he got drunk on that day from a merchant who was one of Young’s ancestors.
‘Simple mountain woman’
The still-shocking dismemberment, burning and scattering almost certainly happened, but there is a plausible reason, Young said. “She was just a poor, simple mountain woman and just scared to death, and I’m sure they just didn’t know what to do.”
One reason the stories had long made Frankie a demented villain was that Charles Silver’s family controlled the narrative for some 150 years, Young said.
Some of the family have now come around to Young’s way of thinking, and he was even invited to speak a few years back at a Silver family reunion.
The life that Charles and Frankie lived almost certainly contributed to what happened, Young said. It was hard and dreary in a single-room cabin that Charles built with his hands in an isolated valley.
“It was probably a tiny cabin with no windows, and in the winter it would have been just awful there, cold, with nothing much for them to do,” Young said. “I just wonder how many other killings there must have been in those days.”
Men could then kill their wives almost with impunity, Young said. Frankie Silver was prevented from telling her side in court by a law – later rescinded – that said the accused were incompetent to speak in their own defense.
On one hand, the facts undermine the most lurid versions of the story. On the other, Perry said, it’s plenty lurid without embellishment. And it makes for a better story to have that additional layer: the truth.
Or at least as much as can be ascertained. Even Young felt that for the sake of accuracy, he needed to leave open the possibility that Frankie Silver really was the fiend depicted in some versions of the legend. The subtitle of his book is “Was she unjustly hanged?”
“We’ll probably always need that question mark,” he said.