This text appeared originally on Medium.com as part of the series "Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem in the Old North State." See the whole post with sources here.
Story by Mike Coffey of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Archives and History Office.
The Ballad of Naomi Wise
The ballad-cycle associated with the murder of Naomi Wise by Jonathan Lewis in Randolph County is one of the better-known cases of murder balladry from North Carolina. Like the ballads associated with Frankie Silver, the Naomi Wise ballads draw upon older ballad traditions, sometimes referred to by folklore scholars as the “Murdered Girl” ballad tradition, which produced many examples in both Great Britain and the United States.
The facts involving the Naomi Wise case are few. For many years, the “true story” was widely believed to have been established in a writing originally published under the name of Charles Vernon, later identified as Trinity College president Braxton Craven. Craven’s account, published under various titles beginning in 1851 and more widely circulated following its reprint in a newspaper in 1874, was supposedly based on material that he had collected from surviving contemporaries. His work was in fact a novel, complete with fictitious conversations. According to Craven, Naomi Wise was an orphan from New Salem, Randolph County. She met Jonathan Lewis on his travels from his home to Asheboro, where he clerked for Benjamin Elliott, and the two fell in love. Although Jonathan proposed marriage and Naomi accepted, his mother, however, desired for her son to marry Elliott’s sister Hettie and thereby be connected to a wealthy and respectable family. Naomi threatened to sue Lewis when the latter balked at marrying her. In the meantime, Hettie Elliott heard rumors that Naomi was pregnant, all of which Jonathan angrily denied. Lewis then told Naomi that he agreed to the marriage, and the two rode off together on his horse. Instead of going to the magistrate, Jonathan instead rode into the middle of the river and drowned Naomi. Her body was found by searchers the next day. Lewis was captured by members of the local militia company, although the evidence against him was largely circumstantial. Lewis later escaped jail, was recaptured, tried and acquitted in Guilford County, and died a few years later in Kentucky, confessing to his father on his deathbed that he had murdered Naomi.
Another and perhaps earlier tale, “A True Account of Nayomi Wise,” written as a lengthy poem and transcribed into the commonplace book of North Carolina native Mary Woody, depicts a Naomi Wise who was older than Jonathan Lewis and who already had two illegitimate children by other men.
The details of the actual events are largely lost. Naomi Wise’s headstone even gives 1808 as the year of her death. Fragmentary evidence exists in various Randolph County court records, however, that reveal hints of what actually occurred. In late March 1807, the grand jury of the county superior court charged Lewis with murder, to which he pled not guilty. An order in early April from a magistrate to the county jailer to take Lewis into custody, specified that Lewis was “Charge with the Murder of a Certain Omia Wise.” Among other things, these documents establish Jonathan Lewis and Naomi Wise as genuine historical figures, and that the date of the murder was in 1807 rather than 1808. Other documents establish the names of witnesses called to testify in the trial; note concerns that Lewis planned to escape and the establishment of precautions to prevent it; and indicate that Lewis did in fact escape on October 9. Captain Benjamin Elliott of the Militia then makes his appearance in the records, providing information about the prison guards on duty at the time of the escape, although there is nothing to indicate whether or not he ever employed Lewis or had a sister named Hettie. Various parties were eventually charged with assisting Lewis, who was finally recaptured in 1811. There is no surviving documentation to indicate that Lewis ever went to trial for the murder of Naomi Wise; instead, he was tried in Greensboro for his Randolph County jail escape but discharged in November 1813 for being an insolvent debtor.
Ballads purporting to tell the story of Naomi Wise appeared quite early, and there are many different songs, with in turn many different variations, that purport to tell her story. Naomi’s name appears differently in various ballads — in some she is Nomie, in others Omie, or Nomy, or Omy. In some versions, Naomi’s killer was named George or John Luther. The version that Craven set down in 1851 was called “Poor Naomi,” and ran as follows:
Come all you good people, I’d have you draw near,
A sorrowful story you quickly shall hear;
A story I’ll tell you about N’omi Wise,
How she was deluded by Lewis’ lies.
He promised to marry and use me quite well;
But conduct contrary I sadly must tell,
He promised to meet me at Adams’ Springs
He promised me marriage and many fine things.
Still nothing he gave but yet flattered the case,
He says we’ll be married and have no disgrace,
Come get up behind me, we’ll go up to town,
And there we’ll be married, in union be bound.
I got up behind him and straightway did go
To the banks of Deep River, where the water did flow;
He says, “Now, Naomi, I’ll tell you my mind,
I intend to drown you and leave you behind.”
O! pity your infant and spare me my life;
Let me go rejected and not be your wife.
“No pity, no pity,” this monster did cry,
“In Deep River’s bottom your body shall lie.”
The wretch then did choke her, as we understand,
And threw her in the river below the milldam.
But it murder or treason, Oh! what a great crime
To murder poor Naomi and leave her behind.
Naomi was missing they all did well know,
And hunting for her to the river did go;
And there found her floating on the water so deep,
Which caused all the people to sigh and to weep.
The neighbors were sent for to see the great sight,
While she lay floating all that long night,
So early next morning the inquest was held,
The jury correctly the murder did tell.
Another version, with nearly completely different lyrics, was recorded by Doc Watson for his 1964 self-titled album:
The ballads concerning the murder of Naomi Wise indicate how traditions regarding sensational events grow over time into legends, independent of whatever factual details underlie them.