If you’re at all a fan of folk or old-time music, you’re no doubt familiar with the classic 19th century American murder ballad ‘Omie Wise.’ The song, which has been performed and recorded by just about everyone short of Bieber, is frequently described as based on a true story. Which it is. Just not in the way that you might think.
I told this story – complete with a rendition of an early version of the ballad – at the Hamilton Arts Collective‘s ‘Old Time Peanut Gallery Showcase’ on April 6, 2012.
In April 1808, in the hills of central North Carolina, a young woman by the name of Naomi Wise was murdered by her boyfriend, John Lewis. Omie, as she was called, was an orphan girl who had been taken in by a landowning family named Adams. That’s where she met John Lewis, the scion of another prominent Randolph County family.
The two hit it off so well that a few months later, young Omie found herself in a family way. Fearing the ignominy and economic privation associated with out-of-wedlock births, particularly for a woman of a lower social class, Omie begged John Lewis to make an honest woman out of her.
He agreed, or at least appeared to, promising her gifts of “money and other fine things” if she met him for a tryst near a spring on the Adams’ property. Omie trustingly consented, but instead of gold and gifts and betrothal, John Lewis brought with him only death. Ignoring her pleas on behalf of their unborn child, he beat her, strangled her, and then tossed her into the Deep River, where she drowned.
A couple of boys were out fishing a few weeks later when they saw Omie’s corpse in the river. Suspicion immediately fell on her paramour, John Lewis, who was summoned to the scene. There he tearfully confessed and was hauled off to jail.
And that is the story of poor Omie Wise…or at least the one told by the ballad that bears her name.
One source for that ballad was a piece written by one Braxton Craven, a Methodist preacher and the longtime president of Duke University. In 1851, he published a story titled “Naomi Wise, or the Wrongs of a Beautiful Girl” which recounts the narrative basically as outlined above, only with a few discrepancies and a lot of additional details.
For example, Craven describes Omie as a lovely girl of 19, “her figure beautifully formed, her face handsome and expressive.” The Lewis family was a fightin’, feudin’ clan known for its pugnacity and its mistreatment of women and horses alike. Craven describes John Lewis as “composed of the fiercest elements, [whose] wrath was like whirlwinds and scathing lightning [and whose] smile [was] like sunbeams bursting through a cloud.”
Lewis was a clerk in the office of Benjamin Elliott, who had a sister named Hettie. John was under pressure from his disapproving mother (whom Craven describes as an “evil genius”) to cut off his engagement to Naomi Wise in order to court Hettie Elliott, whose family was considered a more fitting socioeconomic match. He was under equal pressure to marry Omie, who informed him that if he broke his vow to her, she would take up the matter with the law.
So John asked Omie to meet him at Adams’ spring, from whence they would elope to be married by the magistrate in Asheboro. They rode south along the Deep River until John reined up and asked Omie in a “strange and incoherant” [sic] voice if she preferred a slow death, or a sudden one. Deaf to her entreaties, he took her by the throat and plunged her into the water, where he held her with his foot until she drowned.
When Omie’s body turned up the next day, suspicion immediately fell on John Lewis, who was promptly tossed in jail. His escape from jail was equally prompt. He fled to the banks of the Ohio, where he eventually married, fathered a child, and prospered. He was apprehended by bounty hunters a few years later and dragged back to Randolph County, where he was put on trial. But because the only evidence against him was circumstantial, and due to a lack of material witnesses, John Lewis was released.
He died a relatively young man. On his deathbed, he finally confessed to his father his murder of Naomi Wise. He said that his sleep was forever “broken by her cries for mercy, and in the dim twilight her shadowy form was ever before him, holding up her imploring hands.”
And that is the story of poor Omie Wise…except that it’s not.
See, when Braxton Craven wrote that narrative, he wasn’t writing in his capacity as preacher or academic. His hobby was penning folksy fiction under the pen name Charlie Vernon. So although his version of the story was handed down as true crime reporting for over 100 years, at best it was “creative non-fiction.”
Think about it. Craven presumably wasn’t on hand to witness the murder, and John Lewis never confessed to it on the record, so how could he have known what even happened that night, much less what words were exchanged between John and Naomi?
So what’s the true story of Omie Wise?
In the late 20th century, University of North Carolina folklorist Eleanor Long-Wilgus discovered a handwritten poem entitled “A true account of Nayomy Wise,” evidently written by a young girl named Mary Woody shortly after the events described in the ballad. That poem paints a very different picture of the murder victim.
Woody describes Omie not as a fair maiden of 19, but as a grown woman considerably older than John Lewis. According to this version of the story, Omie already had two illegitimate children by different fathers before she became pregnant by John. In fact, she went around the town sewing scandal by gossiping about John had knocked her up. She was already known as something of a hoochie-mama, so she didn’t have anything to lose. For a young, upstanding man like John, it was a different matter.
When Omie met John on the Adams’ property that night, it wasn’t to convince him to marry her; it was to extort money from him under the threat of posting a “bastardy bond” with the court that would have tarnished his name and required him to pay child support. In this analysis, the “money and other fine things” John promised Naomi were not a betrothal gift, but hush money. Seeing in his illegitimate child and its conniving mother the doom of all his prospects, John murdered Omie and threw her corpse in the Deep River. A jury later convicted him.
Except that’s not what happened either.
Professor Long-Wilgus discovered court records showing that John Lewis pled not guilty at his arraignment in March 1807 – a full year earlier than in Craven’s account – and was detained in the Asheboro jail. He was indicted for the murder of Omie Wise on October 5, but he escaped before his trial scheduled for October 26. Among the prominent locals arrested for aiding and abetting his escape was none other than the Randolph County sheriff himself.
John was recaptured in 1811 and remained in jail until he finally was brought to trial in October 1813 and convicted…of jailbreaking, not murder. He was fined 10 bucks, sentenced to 30 days in jail, and sent on his way. There is no record of John Lewis ever confessing to the murder of Naomi Wise.
The novelist L.P. Hartley famously wrote: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Whenever you try to grasp historical truth, the facts crumble to dust and evaporate like smoke. Plunge into the study of history and you find yourself trying to stay afloat in water as murky and treacherous as the Deep River at midnight.
Here is what I know to be true about the story of Omie Wise: that in 19th century North Carolina, as in our time, women were oppressed and disenfranchised and forced into all manner of hideous circumstances by a patriarchal and misogynistic systems; that then, as now, people in relationships do each other harm and wrong over sex, love, and money; that Omie Wise is dead.
And that all we have left of her is a song.