The Ballad of Frankie Silver

A Ballad Novel

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The New York Times Bestseller

Set in the Appalachian wilderness and blending legends and folklore with high suspense, this stellar novel, The Ballad of Frankie Silver, is considered one of McCrumb’s crowning achievements.

In 1833 Frankie Silver was an eighteen-year-old girl convicted of murder in Burke County, North Carolina. Through a detailed investigation, the local sheriff, and soon all the townsfolk, discover reason to question her guilt—but the wheels of justice were mercilessly unstoppable, and she was hanged.

Now, more than a century later, another woman is convicted of murder in the lush hills of Tennessee. Her life is in the hands of Spencer Arrowood, a man who begins to discover that the convictions of these two women have deep and haunting parallels. Although Frankie’s fate cannot be changed, there is still time to alter the fate of another innocent woman.

In a voice that could only be Sharyn McCrumb’s, the worlds of these two murders, these two women, intersect in this densely plotted and lyrical novel–and characters, generations, and history are breathlessly painted against an Appalachian canvas.




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The Ballad of Frankie Silver

This dreadful, dark and dismal day

Has swept my glories all away;

My sun goes down, my days are past,

And I must leave this world at last.

Oh! Lord, what will become of me?

I am condemned, you all now see;

To heaven or hell my soul must fly,

All in a moment when I die.

Judge Donnell my sentence has passed,

These prison walls I leave at last;

Nothing to cheer my drooping head

Until I’m numbered with the dead.

But Oh! That awful judge I fear,

Shall I that awful sentence hear:

“Depart, ye cursed, down to hell

And forever there to dwell.”

I know that frightful ghosts I’ll see,

Gnawing their flesh in misery;

And then and there attended be

For murder in the first degree.

Then shall I meet that mournful face,

Whose blood I spilled upon this place;

With flaming eyes to me he’ll say,

“Why did you take my life away?”

His feeble hands fell gently down,

His chattering tongue soon lost its sound,

To see his soul and body part

It strikes with terror in my heart.

I took his blooming days away,

Left him no time to God to pray;

And if sins fall upon his head,

Must I not bear them in his stead?

The jealous thought that first gave strife

To make me take my husband’s life,

For months and days I spent my time

Thinking how to commit this crime.

And on a dark and doleful night

I put the body out of sight,

With flames I tried to him consume,

But time would not admit it done.

You all see me and on me gaze,

Be careful how you spend your days;

And never commit this awful crime,

But try to serve your God in time.

My mind on solemn subjects rolls,

My little child, God bless its soul;

All you that are of Adam’s race,

Let not my faults this child disgrace.

Farewell, good people, you all now see

What my bad conduct’s brought on me;

To die of shame and disgrace

Before the world of human race.

Awful indeed to think of death,

In perfect health to lose my breath;

Farewell my friends, I bid adieu,

Vengeance on me you must now pursue.

Great God! How shall I be forgiven?

Not fit for earth, not fit for Heaven;

But little time to pray to God,

For now I try that awful road.

A rumor was prevalent in Burke County that Silver wrote some verses which were tantamount to a confession of her guilt and read them while on the scaffold to the surrounding throng just before she was executed.

The mind of Squire Waits A. Cook, a highly respected justice of the peace in the Enola section, was a veritable storehouse of legends and events of Burke County’s earlier days. He told me that the verses Frankie had allegedly written were composed by a Methodist minister whose surname was Stacy.

—Senator Sam J. Ervin, Jr.
Burke County Courthouses and Related Matters



Sheriff Spencer Arrowood had dodged a bullet. At least in the metaphorical sense he had; that is, he did not die. Literally, he had not been lucky enough to dodge. The bullet had hit him solidly in the thorax, and had cost him his spleen, several pints of blood, and a nearly fatal bout of shock before the rescue squad managed to get him out of the hills and into the hospital in Johnson City. He had been enforcing an eviction—unwillingly, and in full sympathy with the displaced residents. The fact that he had been shot by someone he knew and had wanted to help made the attack on him that much more bitter to his family and his fellow officers, but he had not cared much about the irony of it. The injury seemed disassociated somehow from the events of that day, as if he had been drawn into another place and it did not matter much how he got there. He felt no bitterness toward his assailant, only wonder at what had happened to him. Coming so close to death had been a shock to his mind as well as his body, and its effects were so intense that it seemed pointless to consider the cause of the injury; its effect overshadowed all that went before. In the hospital he did not speak of these feelings to anyone, though. They might be mistaken for fear, or for an anxiety that might require the ministering of yet another physician. Spencer kept quiet. He wanted out of there.

That confrontation on a mountain farm had taken place three weeks earlier, and now, newly released from the Johnson City Medical Center, he was recuperating from his injuries at home.

He was able to get dressed by himself now, and to hobble around the house taking care of his own needs, microwaving what he wanted to eat, walking a bit to keep from getting stiff, and watching movies on cable until he was sick of the flickering screen. Three days earlier he had insisted that his mother go back to her own house and leave him to take care of himself. He understood that she was concerned about him, but her hovering presence had dragged him back into childhood, and he chafed at the old feelings of dependence and helplessness. He had claimed more strength and energy than he had really felt in order to convince her that he was well enough to be left alone. He had walked her to the door, waved a cheerful farewell, and then closed the door and leaned against it for ten minutes until he was strong enough to make it to a chair.

He was better now. His mother still phoned him four times a day to make sure that he was still alive, but he bore that without complaint. He knew how frightened she had been when he was shot, and how many years she had dreaded that moment. He did not begrudge her the reassurance that all was well. In fact he was determined to put an end to his convalescence as soon as he possibly could, to end her worry and his own boredom at his confinement.

He was lying in a lounge chair on his deck looking out at the valley and the mountains beyond, enjoying the spring sunshine and the ribbons of dogwood blooms across the hills, but he was still thinking about death. Physically he was recovering well, but the shock of coming so close to nonexistence had left its mark on him. Although he was past forty, he had never really thought about dying before. As a young man he’d had the youthful illusion of immortality to carry him through the daredevil stunts of adolescence and the rigors of a hitch in the army. When Spencer was eighteen, his brother Cal had been killed in Vietnam, but there had been an unreal quality about that, too: a death that occurred a world away, and a closed-casket funeral in Hamelin. The tiny part of his mind that was only ascendant in the small hours of the morning told him that Cal might not be in that box in Oakdale. To this day he might be roaming the jungles of Southeast Asia, or hanging out in bars in Saigon. Spencer would say that he did not believe any of this, of course, but the tiniest fraction of possibility existed, and he welcomed that doubt because it distanced him from death.

As the years went by, Spencer stayed too busy to think much about philosophical matters. Brooding on death was not a healthy pastime for someone in law enforcement. It was better to take each day as it came without anticipating trouble. Now, though, he found himself with unaccustomed time on his hands, and he was under orders to restrict his physical activity until his body had more fully recovered. He thought too much.

The sound of a car horn in the driveway stirred him from contemplation. He lurched over to the railing of the deck and looked out in time to see a white patrol car coming to a stop in front of the garage doors. Deputy sheriff Martha Ayers got out, and he waved to her, to let her know she should come out to the deck instead of going to the front door.

“Up here, Martha!”

“Figures you wouldn’t be in bed!” Martha yelled back, but she sounded cheerfully resigned to his defection from bed rest.

He tottered back to the chaise lounge and lowered himself carefully onto the canvas, allowing himself a wince of pain because Martha wasn’t close enough yet to see him grimace. She hurried up the wooden steps to the deck, pausing for a moment as she always did to admire the view. “It sure is peaceful up here.”

“I like it,” he said.

When he bought the twelve acres of ridge land a couple of years back, he had a local contractor build him a wood frame house, three stories: two bedrooms on the top floor, kitchen and living room on the middle floor, and a den, office, and laundry room on the ground floor, garage attached. Both living room and den had sliding glass doors facing the east, where the slope fell away to reveal a landscape of meadows threaded by a country road, and beyond them the wall of green mountains that marked the beginning of Mitchell County, North Carolina—out of his jurisdiction. He had painted the house barn-red, and he had built the decks himself little by little in his free time. Now they encircled the house on the ground floor and the one above, giving views from every conceivable vantage point. Spencer Arrowood liked to see a long way. The view diminished the problems of a country sheriff, because looking out at the green hills made him feel that it could be any century at all, which made his problems seem too ephemeral to fret about. Just lately, though, that same timeless quality had been showing him just how fleeting and fragmentary his own life was against the backdrop of the eternal mountains. The feeling of insignificance disturbed him. For once he was glad to have company.

Martha Ayers leaned against the back of the other deck chair. “I’m on break,” she told him. “Can’t stay long, but I thought I’d see if there’s anything you needed. Glass of water? Pills?”

He shook his head. “I’m fine.”

“I brought you your mail,” she said. “But only because you insisted.”

“I appreciate it, Martha.”

He was still too thin, and his cheekbones were still too prominent, making him look haggard, she thought, but some of the color was coming back to his cheeks. The gray sweatshirt and sweatpants he wore hid the bandages. “Pull up a chair,” he said. “You’ll excuse me if I don’t get up.”

Martha snorted. “I’d like to see you try. I’ll have your mother over here faster than white on rice. And don’t think I didn’t see you over there at the railing waving at me when I drove in. I should report you to Miss Jane.”

He grimaced. “The training academy didn’t do anything for your sweet disposition, did it, Martha? How are things at the office?”

“It’s a good thing I came back when I did,” said Martha. She considered the deck chair for a moment, and then sat down in one of the wrought-iron garden chairs. “LeDonne may think he’s Superman, but even he can’t pull two shifts a day seven days a week. He’s nobody’s idea of a diplomat, either. But we manage.”

“Any arrests?”

“Nothing to speak of.” Her tone told him that he wasn’t going to get any details from her. “If you had any sense, Spencer, you’d just lie back in that lawn chair and drink your iced tea without giving the department another thought. Lord knows you could use the rest, and I’ve been telling you so for years now. Trust you to get shot before you’d take my advice.”

Sheriff Arrowood smiled. “Well, Martha, all I can say is: I wish I’d got shot at the beach, or maybe in Hawaii, because this business of laying around the house with nothing to do but watch talk shows is about as dull as ditchwater. The view is nice, but it doesn’t change enough to keep me occupied. I’ve taken to spying on the deer in the evenings. I try not to meddle in the department business, but sometimes the boredom is overpowering.”

“Sounds like you’re feeling better then,” said Martha. “This time last week, you weren’t nearly this feisty. I guess we’ll have to take your car keys soon.”

“I’m fine. Cooking my own meals even. You want some lunch? I have a whole freezer full of frozen dinners.”

“I can’t stay that long,” she told him. “This is my lunch break, but I ate an apple on my way up the mountain to check on you.”

He smiled as he sifted through the stack of letters—mostly junk mail, brochures for various law enforcement–related products, but among the few first-class envelopes he saw an official-looking one from Nashville with the state seal of Tennessee incorporated in the design of the return address.

“What’s this?”

Martha sighed. “I knew I should have left that one on your desk. It looks like the state wants something from us, which means you’ll either be filling out more forms in triplicate or else driving all over creation going to committee meetings.”

He tore open the letter and began to scan its contents. “I can always plead ill health if they—”

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

Spencer’s pale face had gone gray, and he was staring at the letter as if he’d forgotten that she was there. Martha clenched her fingers around the iron rim of the garden seat, wondering if she ought to run into the house and phone the rescue squad. The sheriff was supposed to be recovering nicely from the operation that removed a bullet and his injured spleen, but she supposed that even a week later something might go wrong. A blood clot, perhaps? She wondered if her rudimentary knowledge of first aid would be of any use.

“I’m fine, Martha.” He didn’t look up, and his voice had that perfunctory tone that meant he wasn’t listening. He was staring past her, gazing at the white-flowering dogwood tree as if he expected it to walk away.

“Don’t give me that,” said Martha. “What’s in that letter? You looked better right after you’d been shot. Tell me what’s wrong.”

He handed her the letter. “I’ve been invited to an execution.”

*   *   *

The waiting was the hardest part. Spencer had given his testimony hours earlier, but he was still dressed in his dark suit and starched white shirt, feeling as if he, not the defendant, were on trial.

Closing arguments had ended a little after four, and the jury had filed out to begin their deliberations in the case of the State of Tennessee v. Fate Harkryder. Now there was nothing to do but wait. He sat awkwardly on the bench in the reception room of the sheriff’s office, hot and uncomfortable in the unaccustomed business suit. It was just as well that he wasn’t set to go out on patrol that night. He was too jumpy to be much good at it.

Spencer had testified in court cases before, of course, but those trials had been insignificant compared to this one. In previous cases the defendants had faced fines or a few weeks in the county jail at most if his testimony helped to convict them. This time it was a matter of life or death. He felt solemn, weighed down by the fate of the prisoner. He also felt angry at him for committing a vicious and senseless crime and setting this chain of events in motion, soiling so many lives with his recklessness.

“Why don’t you go on home?” asked Nelse Miller, sitting down on the bench beside him.

Spencer shrugged. “Can’t. The jury might come back early, and then we’d have to take the prisoner back to the courtroom. I figure—what with his family and all—all of us ought to be on hand to escort him over.”

“I don’t figure the Harkryders to open fire on a crowded courtroom, like folks in that Hillsville shoot-out over in Virginia. No, the Harkryders would prefer to ambush an unarmed man in the dark some night, preferably at odds of four against one. It’s their way.”

“I’m not worried about them,” said Spencer.

“Now, I’m not saying I don’t appreciate your offer of an extra guard when we have to walk the prisoner back over to the courtroom, because the Harkryders might be in the same melodramatic mood that seems to have seized you—but that jury isn’t coming back tonight.”

“You don’t think so? The case is open-and-shut. We had enough evidence to convict him twice over.”

“Yes, but it’s detailed evidence. Complicated for ordinary folks. Blood evidence, and the forensic testimony about the defendant being a secretor. That’s a lot for a jury to digest. The jewelry is probably the clincher, but it’s circumstantial. Even with an ironclad case, the state wants to make sure it removes any shadow of a doubt, jurors being what they are. It’s hard to convince honest average citizens that there are monsters in this world. They look at the defense table and they see a boyish young man in a Sunday suit with a new haircut, and they just have a hard time believing that this soft-spoken lad would have put a knife to the throat of a twenty-one-year-old boy and severed the windpipe and jugular while the victim’s girlfriend watched, tied to a tree, crying, screaming for him to stop, and knowing she was next. It just doesn’t seem possible.”

“I’ve felt that way myself.”

“Give yourself a few years as a peace officer, then. You’re young yet. The time will come when you’ll count your fingers after shaking hands with the preacher. You’ll lose your faith in humanity if you stay in police work long enough. But juries never get seasoned to evil. Every case is tried before a new bunch of innocents, and you have to bury them in evidence to get it through their heads that clean-cut young men can be guilty of the terrible crimes we’ve charged them with.”

“So you think they’ll take a long time to deliberate?”

“Did you look at those jurors? Some of them were taking notes like there’d be an exam to follow. They won’t want to let that effort go to waste. They’re probably retrying the case right now, just to prove to one another that they were paying attention. And reasonable doubt! Reasonable doubt, mind you. Some juries would make a cat laugh. Why, they’re probably in there looking for loopholes as if this was Perry Mason on TV. What if this fellow had a twin nobody knew about who just happened to own a gun exactly like his—all that hogwash not fit for a fairy tale, much less a court of law. Makes them feel important. This is a big event for Wake County, you know. We go years without having anybody tried for murder.”

“I could have done without this time,” said Spencer.

“It’s finished. Your part is, anyhow. You said your piece in court, and the lawyers said theirs, and now the matter rests in the hands of twelve other people. And I know for a fact that the judge has dinner plans. It’s over for the night. So go home.”

Spencer shook his head. “I wouldn’t be able to get my mind off it. Might as well be here.”

The old sheriff sighed. “You sure do beat all, boy. Now, if it was me having to testify against that little piece of bull turd, I’d leave that courtroom with a spring in my step and never give him another second’s thought. That boy is trash and trouble, like all his kinfolk up there in the holler, and if he didn’t do this crime, he did a lot more we never caught him at, and he deserves what he gets.”

“What do you mean if he didn’t do this crime?” said Spencer.

“Oh, nothing. It’s not our job to decide guilt anyhow. That’s for judges, lawyers, juries. We just catch the suspects and round up such evidence as we can find. After that, it’s their call.”

“I know that, but what do you mean if he didn’t do this crime? Don’t you think he’s guilty?”

“Well, personally, I don’t care,” said Nelse Miller. “You could have looked into Fate Harkryder’s cradle and told that he was going to end up in prison. If it wasn’t one thing, it’d be another. I’ve known his kin for more than fifty years, and there’s not a solid citizen in the bunch. You’d stand a better chance of getting a thoroughbred out of a swaybacked donkey than you would of getting a good man out of the Harkryder bloodline.”

Spencer just looked at him, waiting.

Finally Nelse Miller let out a sigh, and looked away. “Oh, hell. I just got a feeling, that’s all.”

“But the case is ironclad. Blood type. Forensic evidence. The victims’ possessions found on him. We have him dead to rights. Everything but a confession.”

The sheriff shrugged. “It’s not up to me. Or you. We gather the evidence. They decide.”

“Why didn’t you say anything about this feeling of yours before now?”

“Because feelings aren’t evidence. They’d have laughed me out of the courtroom. Maybe Elissa Rountree would believe me. Sensible woman. She’s the only juror that would have! But nobody cares what your opinion is in a murder case. Facts. Evidence. Fingerprints. Then they make up their own minds. We’re well out of it.”

Spencer nodded. “I think he’s guilty,” he said. “I was there that night. I’m the one who arrested him. I wouldn’t have testified for the prosecution if I thought he wasn’t guilty.”

“Oh, you’d have testified. You were the law that night, and what you saw and what you did is the state’s business. But it helped that you had a moral certainty. Now stop fretting about it.”

Spencer wanted to protest that he hadn’t been fretting at all about the matter of guilt until the sheriff brought it up, but instead he said, “You’ve testified in capital cases before. Are you ever unsure of the man’s guilt?”

“Well, son, I tell you: I’ve been lucky that way. The doubts I’ve had have been in trifling cases, most of them. The punishment was at most a couple of months in jail, and like I said, most of the folks we arrest have that coming to them on general principles. But a capital case? There’s only two murder cases in these mountains that I’m not happy with. And I may be wrong on both of them, mind you.”

“What two cases?”

“One is the fellow you’re about to put on death row. And the other one is Frankie Silver.”

*   *   *

“What do you mean, an execution? In Tennessee?” Martha shook her head. “It just doesn’t happen.”

“It does now.” Spencer handed her the letter. “That judge who has been granting automatic stays for all these years finally retired, and now it looks like the state is going back into the capital punishment business.”

“After all these years? When was the last time we executed anybody in Tennessee?”

“The early sixties. But we didn’t abolish capital punishment. Juries kept handing out death sentences right along. We just haven’t carried one out in a very long time. Decades. Apparently, that’s going to change in about”—he glanced at the letter—“six weeks.”

“Why are they telling you about it?”

“Tradition. The sheriff of the prisoner’s home county is usually asked to be one of the official witnesses when the sentence is carried out.”

“Can you refuse? Like you said: plead ill health. Or decline the honor—if that’s what you’d call it—of being a witness.”

He didn’t answer for a moment. “I don’t think I can do that, Martha.”

“Sure you could. Dr. Banner would write a letter to get you out of it. And it wouldn’t even be a lie, Spencer. You just had major surgery. Shot in the line of duty. They shouldn’t ask you to hand out doughnuts at a choir meet, much less do something as stressful as—as watch a man die.”

Spencer didn’t answer. He was looking out at the ridge lines, where a bank of dark clouds settled in low on the horizon, adding a new mountain chain at the edge of the mist.

Martha tried again. “How do we do it in Tennessee these days? Lethal injection?”

“No,” he said. He watched the cloud lines with even greater attention. “It’s still Old Sparky. No options.”

“Oh. The electric chair. I see.” Martha shuddered. After another stretch of silence she added, “Of course, the victims didn’t get any options, either. You’ve got to remember that.”

“I’ll try to bear it in mind.” Spencer folded the letter and slid it under the rest of the stack of mail.

“You’re not against capital punishment, are you? Not after what we see in this job. Not after what happens to children at the hands of some of these people.…”

“I can’t say I’m against capital punishment, no,” said Spencer. “I see the victims, which is a misfortune that most people don’t have. It’s just this one. Just—this—one.”

On Sale
Mar 26, 2013
Page Count
416 pages