A Tree Accurst: Bobbie McMillon
and Stories of Frankie Silver

By Daniel Patterson (Chapel Hill, N.C.:
Univ. of North Carolina, 2000) $18.95,
paper. ISBN: 0807848735, 224 pp.


As literary subjects go, nobody’s hotter than Harry Potter—but Frankie Silver is also in demand. In the past five years alone, a novel, a nonfiction book, several films, a ballet, and at least two websites have been devoted to the story of the young Western North Carolina woman hanged in July 1833 for the murder of her husband. Prominent among these are Sharyn McCrumb’s novel The Ballad of Frankie Silver (Dutton, 1998), The Untold Story of Frankie Silver by Perry Deane Young (Down Home Press, 1998), and Appalachian filmmaker Tom Davenport’s documentary The Ballad of Frankie Silver (produced in association with the UNC Curriculum in Folklore, 1998). In addition to these treatments, The North Carolina Folklore Journal recently devoted an entire issue (Winter-Spring 2000) to Tom Davenport’s film.

On the heels of these projects comes Daniel Patterson’s book A Tree Accurst: Bobby McMillon and Stories of Frankie Silver. It is certainly worth asking, now that Sharyn McCrumb has given the novel a high-quality literary treatment and Perry Deane Young has helped establish the facts of the crime, is there room for another account? There is when it’s Patterson’s.
McCrumb’s novel mixes known details of the Silver case with a fictional present-day plot designed to parallel the theme of the 1830s account—stick with your family, no matter what. Young, a journalist, pored over official documents of the case and papers of involved parties to establish a clear distinction between fact and folklore.

Patterson, a folklorist and retired UNC professor, is interested in the legend of Frankie Silver and that legend’s longevity in the imaginations of Western North Carolinians for over 150 years. He is especially interested in its life in the imagination of one North Carolina mountaineer— singer/storyteller Bobby McMillon, featured in Tom Davenport’s film.
Foremost among the strengths of Patterson’s book is the filter of McMillon, a descendant of Charlie Silver who as a boy first heard the tale of Frankie and Charlie from relatives. An avid transcriber of folktales and ballads, McMillon, born in 1951, heard of his ancestor’s demise from his grandmother’s uncle Lattimore Hughes, born at the turn of the century. He heard the ballad attributed to Frankie Silver from “Granny” Lou Hopson, the grandmother of his first cousins.

McMillon is a rare individual who can both collect folk material from those around him and analyze it from a critical distance. McMillon’s reference to the Frankie Silver case as “a story that happened” is dead-on in its characterization of material which sometimes seems to defy classification. His insistence that a legend’s aesthetic effect is preeminent, superseding its didactic or purely historical value, reveals his awareness of folklore’s artistic strategies. McMillon manages, simultaneously, to be folk and folk artist, and in the dual perspectives he brings to the legend cycle, he is indispensable to Dan Patterson. He is, as Patterson says, a “traditional historian” (p. 163), as opposed to an academic one.

In addition to the presence of McMillon, Patterson’s book is shored up by the professor’s own expertise in North Carolina history and folklore. An especially good chapter traces the evolution of the broadside ballad “Frankie Silver’s Confession.” The ballad is not, as some say, related to “Frankie and Johnny” but to a “confession” written in Kentucky around 1824 by Jereboam Beauchamp (subject of Robert Penn Warren’s novel World Enough and Time). Patterson deftly reconstructs the trail between Frankfort, Ky., and Morganton, N.C., and explains how the ballad circulated again in Burke County 30 to 40 years after the execution as a substitute for Frankie’s “real voice ... silenced by circumstance.” His account of Frankie’s actual ballad and the subgenre of 19th-century crime literature in particular convinces a reader that his classroom must have been a fascinating place.

If Patterson’s book has a flaw, it is an apparent logical inconsistency concerning Governor David Swain, who dominates the last third of the book. Confronted with the opportunity to pardon Frankie Silver just before her execution, Swain chose to give the impression that his hands were tied by time. Patterson speculates that Swain’s decision was motivated instead by the nonconformity of his own wife and daughters. An example Patterson cites is the marriage of Swain’s daughter Ellie to the Union commander of troops occupying Chapel Hill in April 1865. The behavior of the Swain women, Patterson argues, frustrated the governor’s assumption that women should be submissive and obedient, leaving him “singularly ill equipped to deal with such a convention-defying act” as a wife’s ax-murder and dismemberment of her husband (p. 148).

The problem with this assertion is that several of Patterson’s examples involve Swain’s daughters’ conduct in the 1860s — 30 years in some cases after he declined to pardon Frankie Silver. As Patterson points out at the end of chapter six, “A Tale of a Governor,” when Swain received the petitions requesting Frankie’s pardon, he had been married less than ten years. Ellie, who was 21 at the time of her marriage, wasn’t even born. Thus, it is hard to argue the effect of her “radical” act on a decision Swain made three decades before. Patterson probably means to suggest that the Swain daughters’ behavior reflected Eleanor White Swain’s own nonconformity, a tendency which was present from the outset of the marriage and which influenced her husband in 1833 in deciding Frankie Silver’s fate. The arguments about Swain’s attitudes toward women are instructive but belabored and not always logical. In chapter six, Patterson needed the advice of an attentive editor.

Patterson devotes 47 pages in a 163-page book (appendices excepted) to David Swain. His interest in the governor is hinted at when he describes Swain’s failure to pardon Frankie as “of all the issues in the case, ... the one least susceptible of explanation” (p. 145). Patterson’s other arguments for Swain’s prejudice against Frankie, based on class and ethnic origin (Swain was English; the Stewarts Scots-Irish), have been offered by others, such as McCrumb and Young. Perhaps in his eagerness to offer a novel theory, Patterson got carried away.

Whereas Perry Deane Young’s book and the Frankie Stewart Silver website include a number of official court records, Patterson’s appendices provide several transcribed variants of the legend. In addition to “Uncle Latt” Hughes’s interview with McMillon, Patterson reprints the account of Lucinda Silver Norman, half-sister to Charlie Silver (1826-1927). “Aunt Cindy” was Muriel Early Sheppard’s primary source for the chapter devoted to the Silver story in Cabins in the Laurel (1935; reissued by the UNC Press, 1991). Patterson’s appendices also include a version told to Charlotte Daily Observer reporter H.E.C. Bryant in 1903 by Charlie Silver’s half-brother Alfred. The most remarkable aspect of the Hughes, Norman, and Silver versions is the consistency of detail in the accounts of three tale-tellers whose lives, collectively, span 150 years. In fact, one of the book’s most useful aspects is Patterson’s outline of major components in the legend cycle and his exploration of which account, when confronted with conflicts, Bobby McMillon chose, and why.

Despite Patterson’s expertise, his book is marred by an occasional amateurish turn. Discussing Thomas Worth Wilson’s poor handling of Frankie’s defense, Patterson writes, “I myself suspect, however, that Wilson’s greatest disservice to his client Frankie Silver resulted less from his ineptitude than from an injury unintentionally inflicted. At a more appropriate point in the story—Chapter 6—I will offer my speculation about what this injury may have been” (p. 64). This sort of teaser is better suited to prime-time television than a scholarly book.

From time to time, Patterson also cites Bobby McMillon’s notes on the manuscript of A Tree Accurst, a technique which, though used sparingly, seems awkward, if not self-congratulatory. Late in the conclusion, he writes, “I sent Bobby a draft of this passage with a note, ‘This is what I feel when I hear your words—am I pushing it too far?’ Bobby’s reply was, ‘No. You hit the nail on the head.’” There is a more graceful way to work in McMillon’s analysis, and, fortunately, Patterson often finds it.

Just as Bobby McMillon has fashioned a legend from oral tales, a person seeking to understand Frankie Silver must sift through the growing body of accounts, searching, as McMillon does, for both the plausible and the pleasing. For the most part, A Tree Accurst satisfies on both counts. It explores the folkloric elements of the legend as well as folklore in general, particularly in its revelation of a community’s qualities and quirks. More significantly, it offers the analysis of both a deeply-rooted storyteller and an expert academic. It transcends the more pedestrian arguments about fact to explain why the story has endured, and how.

LANA WHITED

Lana Whited teaches English and journalism at Ferrum College and has done extensive research on murder narratives. She recently established a website devoted to Frankie Silver resources—
http://www.ferrum.edu/lwhited/silver.htm . A memorial web site is also maintained by Frankie Silver’s great-great-great granddaughter at http://www.frankiesilver.com .

This review is reprinted with permission of Appalachian Journal, a regional studies review edited by Dr. Sandra L. Ballard
and published at Appalachian State University, Boone, N.C. It appeared in vol. 28, issue no. 3 (Spring 2001), pages 394-97.

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