By Gina Phillips
Boy meets girl. Boy marries girl. Girl has baby. Boy's body is found chopped up and buried around their homeplace. Girl receives an unfair trial and is hanged. Fade to black.
SPRUCE PINE, N.C. — People often speak of Halloween as being a scary time. But rugged mountaineers in the 1830s apparently didn't need carved pumpkins or haints to spook their neighbors. The plain, unvarnished truth was scary enough.
Most everyone agrees that the girl in this story, Frances Stewart Silver — called Frankie — had something to do with the death of her husband, Charlie, on that cold December night in 1831. Exactly what is uncertain. But we do know a few things for sure: Charlie was brutally murdered with an ax and parts of him were burned in the fireplace; Charlie is buried at the Old Kona Baptist Church in not one but three graves. (Evidently, they kept finding pieces of him buried around the house.) And Frankie didn't receive a fair trial.
Frankie was the first woman legally executed in the state of North Carolina, 42 years after the former colony became a state. Charlie's murder remains one of the most gruesome in the state's history, and one of the most discussed. This story and enduring questions about what really happened that night have been explored in countless books, plays, conflicting oral histories, and even podcasts.
This year, Frankie and Charlie are getting a new type of attention. And while this mysterious murder might seem an odd centerpiece for a festival designed to bring a community together 200 years later, we tend to do things our own way in the mountains.
Using the Frankie and Charlie story as a bit of a centerpiece, partners from across Mitchell County, North Carolina, are planning a multi-day “Hilloween” festival at the end of October 2022. While there will be numerous events across the county, much of the activity will center on three “HILLOWEEN Night Festivals” — one in Bakersville on Oct. 27; one in Buladean on Oct. 28; and the grand finale in Spruce Pine on Oct. 29. To see a schedule of events, visit Hilloweennc.org.
A personal note: I grew up in Mitchell County, and am a relative of Charlie Silver. This, however, isn't terribly uncommon in my neck of the woods. Charlie's father had 17 children.
I remember the first time my father shared this story of these relatives with me. Indoctrinating children early in life to the Pro-Charlie side of the tale was a rite of passage in our family. Pop, bursting with equal parts pride and ritual solemnity, would exercise his storytelling prowess (probably exactly as related to him by his elders) by describing how Frankie took an ax and removed Charlie’s head while he was holding their baby, Nancy, “still warm in his arms.”
And why is it, exactly, that so many are eager to recount this tragic story? I understand that a young woman as murderer is sensational and uncommon. But growing up, it seemed as if it were almost a point of pride among our family that a relative of ours was chopped to bits. After researching this story, just a little, I now realize that the first version I heard was undoubtedly colored by the fact it was Charlie’s family’s version. His family members were prominent settlers in the area, and his grandfather was given a huge land grant for military service, which was typical of the day.
The truth often has many sides. Was Frankie a heartless murderer or did she act in self-defense? Did she act alone or did she have help? As a woman of a certain age myself now, I wonder if Frankie might have been protecting herself or her young daughter.
Whatever her actions or reasons, during her lengthy imprisonment Frankie became known to some as a cause celebre, and to others as the most loathed woman in the South. People on both sides felt very strongly about her. One needs only to look at the murder trial transcript to see that if tried today Frankie would not be sentenced to death. Her trial and the events that followed are full of all kinds of scintillating details — a head located in a hollow tree stump, a soothsayer, a jailbreak, a near pardon from the governor, a questionable burial location, a mysterious poem, and a series of ways this young woman was probably used as a political pawn. But there is one thing you won't see in the transcript: anything from Frankie. She never uttered a word in her own defense. At that time, North Carolina law did not allow a woman to testify in her own defense. When she was given the opportunity to speak from the gallows, her father supposedly shouted, “Take it to yer grave, Frankie!” And she did.
After reading so much about this fascinating piece of history, my history, I know one thing emphatically: Charlie's murder and Frankie's subsequent trial threatened to tear the small mountain community apart. Charlie was obviously a victim. But even then many wondered if Frankie was a victim, too — including jurors at her trial. Today, people in these mountains still feel passionately about this story despite all of its conflicting narratives and differing points of view. The story is so powerful precisely because both sides are so compelling. Both Frankie and Charlie died before the age of 20 — a tragedy in any century.
The idea for HILLOWEEN came during the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a time when this community, like most, was divided over concepts such as vaccines and masks. And yet people on both sides were prone to kindnesses, such as anonymously delivering casseroles to the porch of a sick or quarantined neighbor.
Not so many decades ago, Mitchell County was a vibrant producer of Christmas trees, apples, tobacco and other crops. That large-scale agricultural production is now largely gone. As recently as 20 years ago, Mitchell County was home to a broad range of furniture and textile plants that employed a large percentage of people across three counties. These businesses are gone as well, victims of the North American Free Trade Agreement and a range of socio-economic downturns affecting the region.
Alarmingly, employment numbers have fallen while the use of methamphetamines — and other substances that disproportionately affect those short on money, hope, or both — have been on the increase. With these realities in mind during the planning of a countywide celebration, some questions arose: “What are the good things about Mitchell County that will endure? What can be focused on with pride? What could bring residents together despite the challenges?” The answer was simple: The history, culture and natural beauty of the area.
In a county, and country, that has been torn by elections, vaccine debates, and toilet paper shortages, the focus of this festival will be on something unapologetically fun: Halloween.
Birth of a festival
Using Frankie and Charlie’s story as a centerpiece, a team of volunteers has spent the past 18 months planning a series of events across Mitchell County during the last few days of October this year. Hilloween, Inc., is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization focused on promoting Mitchell County. Events will highlight the mountain community’s history and culture. Some events will be scary. Some will be educational. All are designed to be fun, safe, family friendly, and engaging for all ages.
The festival is planned as a yearly fall event. The inaugural celebration will present a lighthearted look at the harvest season. In addition to the legend of Frankie and Charlie Silver, future festivals will include other local lore and mysteries. And there are a lot of them: from Estatoe, a Native American princess here before white settlers arrived and for whom our Toe River is named, to Slewfoot, a barn-size bear that people swear they have seen. Others include the Wampus cat, Brown Mountain Lights, the McHone Mountain Monster, Mitchell County’s own Sam Brinkley and his famous beard, and the many incarnations of Tanny Bogus. (If you know, you know.)
Mitchell County is a place with tremendous beauty, both in its mountains and its people. Behind the festival are three specific goals: drive economic development opportunities for businesses; create educational opportunities for children; and celebrate the history, culture and natural beauty of Mitchell County.
State, local partners
The University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA), in addition to a broad range of community contributors and supporters, is a co-creator behind the festival. The school has included the festival project in its curriculum. Working with faculty advisors, UNCSA students Taylor Gordon and Matthew Kupferer led a team of students in developing a multimedia sound and light show that tells the story of Frankie and Charlie Silver — projected onto the historic Mitchell County Courthouse in Bakersville. UNCSA has also created similar Halloween productions that have been projected onto the White House in Washington, D.C.
“This has been a phenomenal experience for both our students and our faculty,” Michael Kelly, dean of Design & Production at UNCSA, said. “Each year, our graduates go on to (work with) the biggest names in the business — in New York, Los Angeles and around the world. But it is so important to give them real-world experiences right here in North Carolina while they are still in school. Watching our students lead these Hilloween projects — and seeing firsthand the amazing buy-in from business, civic, and education leaders across Mitchell County supporting this effort — really has been amazing.”
Numerous events will be included among three “HILLOWEEN Night Festivals” across Mitchell County: Bakersville, Oct. 27; Buladean, Oct. 28; and Spruce Pine, Oct. 29. While each night will be different with its own surprises, all are designed as old-fashioned fall festivals styled for modern audiences.
Each night’s festival begins at 6:30 and will offer live music, area storytellers sharing spooky tales, and local artisans showcasing Appalachian crafts and foods. Other “spooktacular” elements unique to Hilloween will include a lantern float for children down the Toe River, and fun ways to learn more about the legend of Frankie and Charlie — ax throwing, for one.
Festival events are free, except for a nominal participation cost for a haunted pub crawl for adults and a countywide scavenger hunt for folks of all ages.
Stakeholders from across the community — including government, education, civic, and business leaders, and numerous members of the Silver family — have come together in support of this effort.
If you are looking for a uniquely Appalachian way to celebrate Fall and kick off Halloween, grab your costume and plan a trip to beautiful Mitchell County, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. And, if you look real hard, you might catch sight of ol’ Slewfoot!
Gina Phillips is the Founder and Executive Producer of Hilloween. For more information about Hilloween, please visit www.hilloweennc.org.