Naomi Wise

Tomorrow is my 22nd annual walk and talk on Randolph County history for the Asheboro-Randolph Chamber of Commerce.  The Chamber’s “Leadership Randolph” program was the whole reason I started this blog several years ago, and the reason I developed the Randolph County Chronology and Bibliography that are attached to the blog. In my attempt to get things down in writing that I’ve spoken to the class about for years, I’ve written more here this year than in all the other years combined. Some major topics I have avoided, however, because they really need a modern, in-depth treatment—more than I can usually justify on this site.

Naomi Wise is one of those topics. The nutshell version is that Naomi Wise, an unmarried Randolph County girl, was supposedly drowned by her lover, Jonathan Lewis, in a lover’s quarrel in April 1807. Beyond that, details vary, but over the years the story was set to song, and became very popular. The song is now considered the oldest American murder ballad, and its music is actually the living landmark of the event.

The murder on which the song is based really happened in Randolph County more than two hundred years ago, yet sadly, little physical evidence remains. The tombstone shown above is located in the graveyard at Providence Friends Meeting, on Providence Church Road west of New Salem Road in Providence Township, Although a hundred or more years old, the stone is not original; it moreover bears an inaccurate date of her death. Perhaps that makes it the perfect emblem of the story of Naomi Wise.

I’ve told the story for Leadership Randolph, and lately in the computerized multimedia age I’ve played the 60s Doc Watson version on CD through my Jeep speakers. Here’s the 21st-century equivalent, the embedded YouTube video of the Doc Watson recording-

Doc Watson is just the most contemporary artist who has sung a version of this song. Folkorists such as Bascom Lamar Lunsford and others have collected and recorded other versions, with widely-varying lyrics. As discussed at length in the most recent publication on the subject [NAOMI WISE: Creation, Re-Creation and Continuity in an American Ballad Tradition,” by Eleanor R. Long-Wilgus (Chapel Hill: The Chapel Hill Press, 2003)], the many versions of the ballad occurred as a lost original version was gradually passed down from singer to singer since the actual events occurred.

(a copy of the ballad of Naomi Wise in the handwriting of Miss Laura Worth, on a 1920s voter registration form)

The “standard” version of the ballad is the one attached to the 1851 narrative story by Braxton Craven entitled “Naomi Wise: Or, The Wrongs of a Beautiful Girl.” Craven, the headmaster at that time of the Normal College, soon to be Trinity College and ultimately Duke University, romanticized the story so as to make Naomi Wise an innocent victim and heroine of the story in a fashion that is still familiar with the Lifetime movie channel, Nancy Grace and Greta van Susteren on cable TV. In Craven’s story, the innocent virginal 18-year-old orphan girl was lured to her doom by a dastardly sexual predator who was ultimately caught and punished for his crime. That’s the version perpetuated in the ballad text printed by Craven, and in its numerous reprintings and transfigurations over the years. It’s a version that was probably written to conform with the age-old English song tradition of “Murdered Girl” ballads.

A story I’ll tell you

About Naomi Wise,

How she was deluded

By John Lewis’ lies….

He promised to meet me

At Adams’ springs;

He promised me marriage

And many fine things…

I got up behind him

And straightway did go

To the banks of Deep River,

Where the water did flow…

“No pity, no pity,”

The monster did cry;

“In Deep River’s bottom

your body shall lie.”

The wretch them did choke her,

As we understand,

And threw her in the river,

below the mill dam….

(The Story of Naomi Wise was once considered the signature event of the Randleman area, and for several years high school students acted it out in a spring pageant on the riverside. But the bicentennial of the event in 2007 passed without notice.)

As Eleanor Long-Wilgus discusses briefly in her much longer analysis of the ballad lyrics, the true story is, as usual, much less black and white. A detailed analysis of the history behind the ballad can also be found in “Omie Wise: The Ballad as History,” by Molly Stouten, published in Spring 1997 issue of The Old-Time Herald magazine. Hal Pugh, owner and operator with his wife Eleanor of the New Salem Pottery, are modern Randolph County’s guardians of this story, and have done more research than anyone else I know about Naomi Wise (publish! Publish!) In recent years an early 19th century document has been discovered in the Special Collections of the UCLA Library which is the only contemporary account of the event. Entitled “A true account of Nayomy Wise,” it is a lengthy poem found in a penmanship copybook belonging to Mary Woody and her brother Robert Woody.

“To Such as here [hear] and Wants to Know

A Woman Came Some years ago

Then from a Cuntry named by hide [Hyde County, in eastern NC?]

In Randolph after did reside

And by Some person was defil’d

And So brought forth a bastard Child

She Told her name neomy Wise

Her carnal Conduct Some did despise

It was not long till She’d another

That might be Call’d a basturd’s Brother…”

The actual story appears to be that unmarried Naomi Wise was in 1807 already the mother of Nancy (b. 1799) and Henry Wise (b. 1804), and was probably pregnant by Jonathan Lewis, a well-to-do store clerk employed by Benjamin Elliott, the Clerk of Superior Court and future owner of the Cedar Falls cotton factory. The “Bastardy Bonds” for Nancy and Henry can be found in the Randolph County papers at the NC State Archives (for years they were hidden by local historian Laura Worth, who disapproved of the facts). Following the child support law of the time, Naomi charged each father with “begetting a child on her body;” each man then posted a bond publicly insuring that the county would never have to pay to support their children.

(Cost sheet from November 1810 term of Superior Court, showing the expenses of arresting and holding Jonathan Lewis for trial.)

Apparently the argument between Naomi Wise and Jonathan Lewis arose when she revealed her pregnancy, but demanded that Lewis marry her rather than post a Bastardy Bond. Lewis was in fact charged with her murder, jailed after the inquest, but escaped before trial. He fled to Elk Creek Indiana, where he was eventually re-arrested and extradicted back to Randolph County. Jonathan Lewis was tried and acquitted for the murder of Naomi Wise in 1811 (all of these court records are in the state Archives).

What physical evidence remains beyond the site of her grave?

“He promised to meet me at Adams’ Springs” — Adams’ Spring is located on the west side of Brown Oaks Road, about a hundred yards south of the Woolen House (NS:11, p. 116 of my architecture book) which fronts on New Salem Road.

The local school was once located near the spring, which was for many years marked by a gazebo. Nothing marks the spot now, save oral tradition.

To the left of the shed in the grainy newspaper photograph above is a piece of paper tacked to an almost-invisible stump—the very one, it was said, used as a mounting block for Naomi Wise to mount Jonathan Lewis’ horse and ride to her death. This is the kind of local landmark once a common part of every historic site, but gradually lost to the passage of time and the deaths of all those with first, second or third-hand knowledge of the event. Compare the open landscape of the early-20th-century photo with the modern view of trees, weeds, scrub pines and brambles…

Finally, the site of the murder survives: Naomi Falls, taken near dusk from the Naomi bridge over Deep River. The camera position is just west of the site of the remodeled Peter Dicks Mill (see that entry), and the distant rocks in the center water mark the site of the falls and ford once covered by the dam impounding water to power the 1881 Naomi Cotton Mill. Here it is in daylight….

And here, a hundred years ago- Victorian picnickers at the site of the murder….

(from the historical photograph collection of the Randolph Room, in the Asheboro Public Library.)

There you have it—Randolph County’s most famous murder.  Both more, and less, than local history recognizes.

NOTES:

Here’s the wikipedia link:   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omie_Wise .  The article perpetuates some errors but includes a good general overview of the topic.

Here’s an internet transcription of the classic Manley Wade Wellman retelling of the tale in his book Dead and Gone; it is by far the most readable version of the story:  http://www.allredfamily.org/naomiwise.htm .

Local historian Calvin Hinshaw says that he was told back in the 1950s by New Salem resident George Newman Hinshaw that the narrative poem first printed by Braxton Craven was written by Levi Beeson and his mother soon after the event.  The format of the poem copies a traditional “ballad of experience,” which always begins with a call to the audience (“Come all ye-“) and then proceeds to explain the sad story of the subject victim.

There are MANY different versions and printings of the original Craven story, and even more versions of the ballad.  The original ballad, reconstructed by Eleanor Long-Wilgus, was said to have been sung to the hymn tune “How Firm a Foundation,” composed in the 18th century by Anne Steele (It works- try it with the Craven ballad transcription).   Two of the most recent singers to try out the ballad are Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello- quite a journey from the banks of Deep River in 1807!

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22 Responses to “Naomi Wise”

  1. Ron Alexander Says:

    This is an absolutely fantastic blog. Randolph County will always be home to me, and I have always loved it’s history.

  2. Beth W. Duncan Says:

    Mac – thoroughly enjoyed your walk/talk yesterday at Leadership Randolph!

  3. Ann Says:

    Is there any chance you’ll ever do a walk/talk tour for the public? We collect old post cards (some are real photo p/c) from the area and love the history.

  4. DLPardue Says:

    Highly informative blog. Thank you for your efforts to publish this.

  5. Rena & Eddie Whitehead Says:

    I live in Ramseur but my sister lives in Georgia. She recently remarried and her husband is a history buff in Georgia. he found a file on Noami Wise in a antique store and was devasted that my sister did not know the tale of Noami Wise. She called me and I told her she was raised in Randolph County and should know the tale. I sent Bill(her husband) the information from your website and he was Thrilled. they are coming for a visit and of course he wants to visit the site. Is the bridge the one in Randleman? My son lives off WOW road in Randleman so do I want to take him downtown Randleman? I know the Providence Church Road area. Thanks, Rena Whitehead

    • macwhatley Says:

      The bridge is the one beside the Naomi factory in Randleman, downstream from the US 220 Business bridge.

  6. Billy Says:

    Hey,
    In the past few months I have become very interested with this story. I was wondering where i might find more information on it? Also I live in the area and was wondering where exactly the spring is at, can you help me?

    Thanks

  7. Cheryl Mckay Says:

    I enjoyed this blog very much. My father was born in Cedar Falls, he grew up in Worthville. I have always wondered about the history of the Worthville Cemetary. I was there a few years ago and noticed a family had lost 6 or 7 children none of them appears to have reached beyond the age of two. Does anyone know how and why this tragedy happened? Would any local historians have any information? Looking forward to your reply, Thank You

    • Doris Lamb Says:

      Cheryl, you’ll find many, many multiple child graves in old cemetaries. My mother and I used to walk thru many cemetaries in SC. There were so many diseases, so few cures. 6 or 7 losses was not unusual.

  8. griff Says:

    My father played guitar with doc watson who sang the ballad of namoi wise in 1976. The whole town seems like was there. All of my family is from there. My granparents lived first on the east side of namoi st..then the west side where CVS drugstore is now. It was a great experience. Seems like They should make it an attraction in Randleman. We dont have petty anymore.

  9. anthony muckenfuss Says:

    okay this is really cool i go to thhis spot all the time and i did not kno thats weres she dided omg also i have visted naomi’s grave we left flowers i have been studying all about naomi also when my dad was 13 he lived in the land where naomi lived and they said that they could leave for a hour or two and come back and every door and window was opened that wats got me started on the naomi this is really cool

    anthony muckenfuss

  10. John Garst Says:

    I would like to visit the site.

  11. Lori Randolph Says:

    I’m a descendant of Jonathan Lewis, and I appreciate your balanced treatment of this event.

  12. Ludy MarvinWilkie Says:

    By any cahnce can you e-mail me a complete version of the 1920’s ballad–the one found on a voter registration form? I am considering doing a play on the subject.
    Mr. Ludy Marvin Wilkie
    ludy@shelbynet

    • macwhatley Says:

      I really don’t understand what you’re referring to. I’ve never seen a version of the ballad on a voter registration form.

      • Ludy Wilkie Says:

        Greetings, I was referring to this entry on your website referring to Naomi Wise. events occurred.

        (a copy of the ballad of Naomi Wise in the handwriting of Miss Laura Worth, on a 1920s voter registration form)

        The “standard” version of the ballad is the one attached to the 1851 narrative story by Braxton Craven entitled “Naomi Wise: Or, The Wrongs of a Beautiful Girl.” Craven, the headmaster at that time of the Normal College, soon to be Trinity College and ultimately Duke University, romanticized the story so as to make Naomi Wise an innocent victim and heroine of the story in a fashion that is still familiar with the Lifetime movie channel, Nancy Grace and Greta van Susteren on cable TV. In Craven’s story, the innocent virginal 18-year-old orphan girl was lured to her doom by a dastardly sexual predator who was ultimately caught and punished for his crime. That’s the version perpetuated in the ballad text printed by Craven, and in its numerous reprintings and transfigurations over the years. It’s a version that was probably written to conform with the age-old English song tradition of “Murdered Girl” ballads.

        I would like to see the whole version of the s ong if possible. Thanks, Ludy Wilkie

      • macwhatley Says:

        OK, you should contact the Randolph Room of the Asheboro/ Randolph County Public Library, 201 Worth St., Asheboro, NC 27203. Marsha Haithcock, who is the reference librarian there, can find that for you. The library number is 336-318-6800.

  13. Meg Whalen Says:

    The UNC Charlotte College of Arts + Architecture will present “Deep Water: The Murder Ballads,” a contemporary interpretation of the Omie Wise murder ballad, along with two others from NC – Frankie Silver and Ellen Smith – on May 31 at the Knight Theater in Charlotte. This trio of murder ballad works are dance theatre pieces with original scores, all performed by ensembles of professional dancers and musicians. Folksinger Riley Baugus will perform each of the original ballads as preludes to the dances. Info at http://coaa.uncc.edu/academics/department-of-dance/murder-ballads.

  14. Jake Says:

    Has anyone noticed the face in the waterfall behind the woman on the right?

  15. Bastardy Bonds | raptnrent.me Says:

    […] Randolph County historian pieced together a lot of this from various primary source documents. It’s fascinating to look at these stories, supposedly […]

  16. Abby the Spoon Lady Says:

    if Naomi Wise was born in 1789, and her daughter Nancy in 1799…. she was a ten year old mother?

  17. Killer Legends Available on DVD and iTunes | Omaha Sun Times Says:

    […] also fanciful details that made them better stories. Often, such added elements are folk motifs. The traditional ballad “Omie Wise” ostensibly recounts the real 1807 murder of Naomi Wise by Jonathan Lewis, but since no one was […]

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