The Great American Murder Ballad - The Murder of Omie Wise
"Oh, listen to my story, I'll tell you no lies; How John Lewis did murder poor little Omie Wise"
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Last Sunday I wrote a short introduction about Doc Watson’s version of Ready for the Times to Get Better - here for those that missed it (I embedded a video, which apparently is something that spam filters hate…).
That got me thinking more about some of the folk songs that Doc popularized, and I ended up learning the chord changes to Omie Wise (Youtube link, won’t embed videos anymore due to spam filters), a song with a chilling story - a murder ballad. The linked version has Doc’s son, Merle, playing the banjo - it was recorded shortly before Merle was unfortunately killed on the family farm in a tractor accident… maybe it is bad luck to dig in here, then again…
… was Omie’s story fiction? Or was it true - or somewhere in between?
The American Murder Ballad
But as I thought about it a bit more, I realized that murder ballads are not that rare in American folk and bluegrass music (Others had obviously already noticed this, but better late than never…). Nor are they rare historically. Many American folk songs have their origins in Europe (and some in Africa, which is also where the banjo originated).
As to traditional American songs, you have ones such as “The Banks of the Ohio” (version by Doc Watson and Bill Monroe), where an unhappy potential suitor is rebuffed by his sweetheart, so…
I took her by her pretty white hand,
I led her down the banks of sand,
I plunged her in
Where she would drown,
An' watched her as she floated down.
You then have Pretty Polly (version by Abigail Watson and Bela Fleck, a husband-wife banjo duo), which most likely is a modified-and-shortened story inspired by The Gosport Tragedy, an old English ballad from the 1700s. That song tells the story of lust-turned-murder after an out-of-wedlock pregnancy threatens a sailor’s life at sea.
Back in Appalachia, Pretty Polly was led deep into the woods where…
She went a little further and what did she spy?
A newly-dug grave with a spade lying by…
Polly, Pretty Polly, you’ve guessed about right,
I dug on your grave the best part of last night…
He stabbed her in the breast and her heart’s blood did flow,
And into the grave Pretty Polly did go…
He threw a little dirt over her and turned to go home,
Leaving no-one behind but the wild birds to mourn.
A bit less popular than the above, The Knoxford Girl (version by the Louvin Brothers) is still sung today. Similarly, the song seems to have taken on a new form in the Americas after being inspired by events in England, this time in the late 1600s - a ballad called The Cruel Miller.
Again, an unwanted pregnancy scares a suitor into murder, with the Knoxford Girl following her lover into the woods where…
She fell down on her bended knees, for mercy she did cry
"Oh Willy dear, don't kill me here, I'm unprepared to die"
She never spoke another word, I only beat her more
Until the ground around me within her blood did flow
I took her by her golden curls and I drug her round and around
Throwing her into the river that flows through Knoxville town
A final example, for now, and less of a ballad - but still about murder - is the popular Tom Dooley (version by Billy Strings). Inspired by the 1866 murder of Laura Foster and subsequent conviction / hanging of her previous lover, Tom Dooley. While Tom was being sent to the gallows, there were still rumors going around that a jealous cousin murdered Laura in an attempt to get Tom to herself.
Depending on the version of the song, you have another lover-turned murderer - or a young man convicted of a murder he did not commit. Sitting in a prison cell, it’s…
Trouble, oh it's trouble
A-rollin' through my breast;
As long as I'm a-livin', boys
They ain't a-gonna let me rest
I know they're gonna hang me
Tomorrow I'll be dead
Though I never even harmed a hair
On poor little Laurie's head."
But what about Omie Wise?
What do we know about her story?
Omie Wise, Selected Lyrics
Oh, listen to my story, I'll tell you no lies
How John Lewis did murder poor little Omie Wise
He told her to meet him at Adams' Springs
He promised her money and other fine things…
“John Lewis, John Lewis, will you tell me your mind?
Do you intend to marry me or leave me behind?”
“Little Omie, little Omie, I'll tell you my mind.
My mind is to drown you and leave you behind.”
“Have mercy on my baby and spare me my life,
I'll go home as a beggar and never be your wife.”
He kissed her and hugged her and turned her around,
Then pushed her in deep waters where he knew that she would drown…
Two boys went a-fishin' one fine summer day,
And saw little Omie's body go floating away.
They threw their net around her and drew her to the bank.
Her clothes all wet and muddy, they laid her on a plank.
Then sent for John Lewis to come to that place -
And brought her out before him so that he might see her face.
He made no confession but they carried him to jail,
No friends or relations would go on his bail.
As might be expected, it is hard to track down the whole truth of something that happened so long ago. But there are a few clues and hints - collected by numerous people more curious and more determined than me - that we might be able to piece together - so let’s start with what we do know is (almost) certainly true.
Omie Wise & John Lewis
Omie (actually, Naomi) Wise and her song-stated murderer, John Lewis, were actual people that lived in the early 1800s in and around Randolph Country, North Carolina - which was settled in the 1740s as immigrants moving south from Pennsylvania and west from the coast found themselves in what is now the heart of North Carolina. It was said that the County was made up of “on the one hand, men who distinguished themselves for vice, rapine and the most villainous of crimes; on the other hand, men who displayed the noblest virtues and highest patriotism.”
John Lewis’ grandfather, David Lewis, was one of the earliest settlers in Randolph County, and served as the patriarch of a line of “tall, broad, muscular and very powerful men… [that] sought occasions of quarrel as a Yankee does gold dust in California.” Richard, one of David’s sons, fled to a nearby county after killing his own brother, Stephen, following a far too complicated story involving home invasions, a fleeing wife, and an odd court ruling stating that, despite the fact that Richard had snuck into Stephen’s home while he was in bed and shot him, Richard had acted in self-defense. It was in this nearby county that John Lewis was born.
John grew, much like the other men in his family, into an imposing figure and inherited his father’s character traits, which, while not being the noblest, might have been viewed as desirable if you were a woman living in the Carolina wilderness in the early 1800s.
At the time of this story, John was in his early 20s and working as a clerk at a store owned by a Benjamin Elliott, which happened to be 15 miles from his permanent home. Making this journey every weekend, John often stopped by the home of William Adams, in the northern portion of Randolph County. It is said it was at Mr. Adams’ house that Naomi first laid eyes on John.
And that is where the closest items to facts in this story end in order to make way for a folk tale to begin.
A Folk Tale Begins
Legend states that Noami was an orphan in Randolph County, bound as a child to Mr. and Mrs. Adams to work in their kitchen and garden. The Adams’ were said to be fond of the girl, who at the time of the story had just passed the age of 18. Accounts from the day point to an industrious, happy, and noticeably pretty young Naomi. As young people are wont to do, the two fell head-over-heels for each other.
But, unlike Noami, John’s mother was still alive, and “that mothers are ambitious everybody knows… [and despite] that they are the worst of matchmakers being equally well known,” his mother had set her eyes on another young woman, of higher status than Naomi, and unrelentingly did the one thing no one else in the County could do to a man of the Lewis family - she beat him down.
The new woman’s name was Hettie Elliott, daughter of John’s employer, and it was well known in the County that John had affection for Naomi despite his formal courting of Hettie. Hettie eventually pushed him on the question of marriage, seeing the politics of the situation as in her favor, and well aware that politics were indeed in her favor, Lewis assured Hettie of his intention to marry her.
A few days later, Naomi left the Adams’ home to fetch water, pail in her hand - but she did not return that evening, nor return alive ever again.
A Night Ride on Horseback
The Adamses awoke the next morning and knew something was wrong. A search party was gathered after Naomi’s footprints were followed to a spot where hoof prints marked that a rider had lifted her up and headed toward a secluded river. A widow living nearby had heard a scream the night before and the search party’s hearts sank when they found Noami’s body tangled in the weeds on the bank of the river.
“Drowned by violence” was the official verdict written on Naomi’s death certificate by the County’s coroner. Naomi’s throat was torn and bruised by powerful hands. Her skirt had been wrapped around her face in order to muffle her cries. Unexpectedly, however, came perhaps the biggest surprise. Naomi had been pregnant when someone took her life.
No one questioned who the prime suspect might be - John Lewis’ name was on everyone’s minds. And it just so happened that he was not at his normal clerking position that morning… instead, his mother innocently shared that he had come home late last night in soaking wet clothes. His horse had thrown him in the river so he needed to change, John had said, before taking off again.
A Prison Escape
John was caught the next night by a deputy from Randolph County - a man named Hancock was throwing a party and free drinks were too much for John to ignore. Arriving late that night, with a few friends alongside him, the deputy found John in the parlor of a nearby home with a young woman on his lap. Without putting up a fight, John was led back to Randolph County, handed a murder charge, and tossed in jail.
Stories spread throughout the County - a murder of a young woman like this was unheard of - and many in the community wanted blood. County officials appointed a small group of guards to protect John from the increasing threats of vigilante justice.
Meanwhile, John professed his innocence to unlistening ears. Seeing a hangman’s noose in his future, John pulled some strings with friends and family.
He disappeared after thirty days in jail and was nowhere to be found.
The Long Arm of the Law
With public sentiment strongly against them, and rumors of them playing a part in John’s escape, the Lewis family slowly moved out of the area. But even as they left, no one in the County could forget what had happened to Naomi. In her honor, a song had begun to be sung - “A sorrowful story you quickly shall hear; A story I’ll tell you about ‘Omi Wise; How she was deluded by Lewis’ lies.”
In 1814, Randolph County became aware that the Lewis families had settled in Kentucky. Rumors trickled in that John himself was now married with a son, living south of the Ohio River as if he had never done anything wrong.
Six years’ time was not nearly enough for the community to forget about the lack of justice for Naomi. A small group of men head off for the Ohio River, hired a couple of headhunters to not arouse suspicion in John in case he recognized them, and had them ambush John after posing as members of a deer hunt.
Hands tied behind his back, and despite a second escape attempt, John was brought back to Randolph County, and this time he was thrown in a much more secure jail.
But the Long Arm Isn’t Strong
His trial took place in a nearby county given the prejudice against him in Randolph. And many witnesses came forward with impassioned stories and pleas for justice. Mrs. Adams told of the relationship John had with Naomi. The widow shared stories of the screams she heard the night of the murder. The men who captured John both times - and even Benjamin Elliott, John’s employer - all shared their piece. But what was not available was any form of evidence.
It is not written down exactly how the jury came to its decision. But John did leave the courthouse a free man after the trial. The final verdict? John was fined for attorney’s fees, which he could not pay, and thus declared bankruptcy before swiftly making his way back to Kentucky.
Six years later, word came back to North Carolina - sickness had taken John to an early grave. Perhaps there was some justice in that? But rumors then started to spread of a deathbed confession - the guilt of a man facing heaven with a dead woman still in his heart.
John said that Naomi had pleaded endlessly for him to marry her. Eventually, she realized tears would not persuade him, so she threatened to stir up trouble with Hettie, John’s mother’s choice for a wife, by preaching to every passerby that John had promised to make her his wife.
This threat was too much for John, and so he lied. He said that he would marry her. He said she should meet him outside the Adamses’ house and he would carry her on horseback to a preacher on the other side of the river.
She soon realized his real intentions and begged for her life - promising to quietly forget about John and never say a word about their relationship to another soul. Unfortunately, John had moved past the point of no return and threw her dead body into the river hoping it would never be found.
And thus ends the story of Naomi’s murder… or does it?
A Twist in Naomi’s Past?
In the 1980s, a notebook was uncovered in a set of materials from Randolph County that had been donated to UCLA. The notebook was owned by one Mary Woody, born in 1801, and she had written a long poem entitled “A true account of Nayomy Wise” shortly following the murder of Naomi. It is the only near-contemporary account yet discovered and was probably written about the time of John’s second trial.
And what does it tell us?
1) Spelling aside, children in the 1800s could kick today’s high school students in the butt when it comes to literature - and 2) Noami might not have been as naive as the popular story likes to suggest.
Interestingly, the poem ties with additional evidence discovered after inquiries were made following the discovery of the poem… the most relevant part of Mary’s poem to a change in our story is copied below:
To Such as here and Wants to know
A woman Came Some years ago
Then from a Cunty named by hide [Hyde Count North Carolina]
In Randolph after did reside
And by Some person was defild
And So brought forth a basturd Child [first child out of wedlock]
She Told her name neomy Wise
Her Carnal Conduct Some did despise
It was not long till She another
that might be Cald a basturds Brother [second child out of wedlock]
And Being poor and Credit low
From hous to hous She had to go
And labor hard in tiol and pain
Herself and babes for to maintain
Naomi had two children - and we now even know that they were named Nancy (born in 1799) and Henry (born in 1804). This knowledge is thanks to the childcare system of the time, and specifically “Bastardy Bonds” - a system whereby fathers were forced to cover the expense for children out of wedlock by posting a bond with the County. These bonds can be found in the North Carolina State Archives (not yet digitized apparently).
But then, the third child is on the way - this time, John’s Lewis’ child.
In Eighteen hundred Six the year
She was over come a gain we here
And by a lewis was defiled [John Lewis]
And a third time became with Child
It now seems that Naomi knew she was pregnant like the rumors of John’s deathbed confession suggest. But, following the poem further, it seems that she pressed hard on John not to post a “Bastardy Bond” like the two other fathers had done, but having happened on something equivalent to a poor North Carolina woman’s lottery for the early 1800s, she pressed John for the security that comes with marriage. After all, he had a stable job as a clerk, and she was soon to have three mouths to feed.
But remember that John’s mother wanted nothing to do with Naomi - and if she did really have two children out of wedlock, doesn’t that fit 1800s stereotypes for the kind of woman a mother would want her son to avoid? John risked both public shaming at having a child outside of marriage and the risk of losing Hettie’s hand in marriage.
Thus he turned to murder as a way to try to escape. Unfortunately for him, he has now been immortalized in song as the cowardly murderer of his future child’s mother.
If history is anything to go by, just like the songs from Europe discussed up top - maybe 200 years from now someone singing a version of Omie Wise will remind listeners of why it is that John Lewis was despised.
Take care and have a great week,
But What For? Writing about anything, as long as it’s interesting.