The Murder of Omie Wise

Before there were Hippies, there were Folksingers in Washington Square Park in New York. In 1965, I lived in the Village and went to hear the Muse that began a new American Revolution. There is a ballad to be sung in the Rosamond Overturf murders.

Jon Presco

Omie Wise or Naomi Wise (1789–1808) was an American murder victim, who is remembered by a popular murder ballad about her death.[1]

Omie Wise’s death became the subject of a traditional American ballad. One version opens:

Oh, listen to my story, I’ll tell you no lies,
How John Lewis did murder poor little Omie Wise.
In accordance with the broadside balladtradition, lyrics to the original version of the song were written shortly after the murder itself; a 19th century version of the ballad text has recently been discovered.[2][3] The first recorded version of the song was performed by G. B. Grayson, who recorded the song in 1927 in Atlanta, Georgia.[4]

The song has been performed by Doc Watson, who learned the song from his mother. Watson relates that “Naomi Wise, a little orphan girl, was being brought up by Squire Adams, a gent who had a pretty good name in the community as a morally decent human being. Omie, however, was seeing a ne’er-do-wellnamed John Lewis, who never meant anything about anything serious, except some of his meanness.John Lewis courted the girl, seemingly until she became pregnant, and he decided that he’d get rid of her in some secret sort of way. He persuaded her to skip off with him and get married, then pushed her into the water and drowned her. Everyone knew that he had been mean to Omie, and when the body was taken out of the water, there was evidence that she had been beaten quite a lot.”[5]

Bob Dylanperformed the song; a live bootleg recording exists of his performance at the Riverside Church Folk Music Hootenanny in 1961. Other performers who have recorded versions of this song include Clarence Ashley, Dock Boggs, Roscoe Holcomb, Shirley Collins, Greg Graffin, Judy Henske(Henske’s version is titled “The Ballad of Little Romy”), The Pentangle, Scott H. Biram and Okkervil River.

The song is thematically related to other American murder ballads such as “Banks of the Ohio” and “The Knoxville Girl”. Each of these songs relates the tale of a woman murdered by her lover, who then disposed of her body in a river.

On July 11, 2006 Greg Graffin released a folk album titled Cold as the Clay. “Omie Wise” is the second track on that album and tells the story in the traditional lyrics.

Another recording was released in 2006 by Kate and Anna McGarrigle with Elvis Costello introducing his original version as a second part on The Harry SmithProject: The Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited. On June 2, 2009 Costello released his sequel to the Appalachian murder ballad, “What Lewis Did Last”, as a bonus track on the vinylrelease of Secret, Profane & Sugarcane and as an Amazon MP3 exclusive.

[edit] The fictionLittle is known about the real Omie Wise, but records indicate that she was an orphan girl who was taken in by William Adams and his wife Mary Adams in Randolph County, North Carolina. At the Adams’ farmhouse, Jonathan Lewis, son of Richard Lewis, met Naomi. Naomi and Jonathan Lewis became lovers quickly, but Jonathan was advised by his mother to pursue Hettie Elliott, whose family was “in good standing” both socially and financially. Naomi found out about Jonathan’s courtship to Ms. Elliott, and although jilted, did not stop their affair.

The day itself can not be determined, but it is said that in April, 1808 Naomi went missing. Mr. Adams gathered a search party and followed the horse tracks to Asheboro, North Carolina, where they found Naomi Wise’s body in the river. Mrs. Ann Davis, a resident close to the water, confirmed that she had heard a woman screaming the night before. The coronerfrom Asheboro examined the drowned and battered body of Naomi and found her pregnant.

Jonathan Lewis was found and taken to jail, where he escaped a month later. As the notoriety of the case grew, many members of the Lewis family began to move out of North Carolina and settled in Kentucky, where Jonathan Lewis himself was said to have started a family six years after Naomi’s death. Word of Lewis’s whereabouts reached Randolph County; the citizens demanded he be apprehended. Jonathan Lewis was found and placed in jail once more. His trial was moved from Randolph County to Guilford Countyin 1815. He was found not guilty, despite witnesses and evidence, and was free to return to Kentucky. Five years later, in 1820, Jonathan Lewis was said to have died of an illness, confessing to the murder of Naomi Wise on his deathbed.[6]

[edit] The sourceThe first written account of this murder story was by Braxton Craven, under the pen name of Charlie Vernon. It first appeared in two installments of the January and February, 1851 editions of the Evergreennewspaper in North Carolina. It was reprinted several times until 1962. Folks came from miles around to visit Naomi’s grave and the city of Randleman named streets, churches, mills and manufacturing plants after Naomi Wise.

In 1954, Manly Wade Wellman[6] enhanced Craven’s story with his book titled Dead and Gone.

The story is based on the death of Naomi Wise and the arrest of Jonathan Lewis but all else is fiction. No one really knows who killed Naomi.

[edit] The factsThe following was extracted from an article titled “The Historical Events Behind the Celebrated Ballad “Naomi Wise” by Robert Roote, published by the North Carolina Folklore Journal, Vol. 32, No. 2, of the Fall-Winter 1984 edition.

The Randolph County Superior Court Minutes of March 20, 1807 recorded: “The Grand Jury returned a bill to the Court against Jonathan Lewis for Murder & indorsed thereon a trial bill upon which the said Jonathan Lewis was arraigned, plead not guilty and put himself upon his country.” Witnesses for both sides were summoned and a trial date of October 26, 1807 was set in the Guilford County Superior Court. Jonathan was arrested on April 8 and locked in the Randolph County jail. A pre-trial hearing was held October 5 and he was indicted for the murder of Omi Wise, a single woman. On October 9, he escaped the jail and fled to parts unknown.

About Royal Rosamond Press

I am an artist, a writer, and a theologian.
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