Naomi Wise’s tombstone
by Harold Schechter
The oldest form of true crime literature is the one folklorists call “murder ballads,” a genre dating at least as far back as the Middle Ages, when these sung or recited verses spread the news about shocking real-life homicides among the illiterate peasantry. By Shakespeare’s time, traveling peddlers had figured out a way to profit from the public’s love of sensationalism by producing printed versions of murder ballads. Whenever a particularly ghastly slaying occurred, it was immediately translated into page-long sheets of doggerel called “broadsides” that sold for a pittance–the Elizabethan equivalent of today’s tabloid news.
Imported to America, the traditional murder ballad, both in its sung and printed forms, flourished well into the twentieth century. Though the vast majority of these “bloody versicles” (as one crime historian calls them) have long since faded into obscurity, a handful have become a lasting part of America’s folklore heritage. One of the most famous is “Little Omie,” a prime example of a sub-category of the genre known as “murdered-girl ballads,” tear-jerking tunes about trusting young women impregnated and slain by heartless seducers. During the folk music craze of the late 1950s, the song was a coffeehouse standard and has been recorded by scores of artists, from Bob Dylan to Elvis Costello. Though it exists (like virtually all folk songs) in many versions, the earliest known lyrics go like this:
Come all good people, I’d have you draw near,
A sorrowful story you quickly shall hear;
A story I’ll tell you about Omie Wise,
How she was deluded by Lewis’s lies.
Her promised to marry and use me quite well;
But conduct contrary I sadly must tell,
He promised to meet me at Adams’ springs;
He promised me marriage and many fine things.
Still nothing he gave, but yet flattered the case.
He says we’ll be married and have no disgrace,
Come get up behind me, we’ll go up to town,
And there we’ll be married, in union be bound.
I got up behind him and straightway did go
To the banks of Deep River where the water did flow;
He says now Naomi, I’ll tell you my mind,
Intend here to drown you and leave you behind.
O pity your infant and spare me my life;
Let me go rejected and not be your wife;
No pity, no pity, this monster did cry;
In Deep River’s bottom your body shall lie.
The Wretch then did choke her, as we understand,
And threw her in the river below the milldam;
Be it murder or treason, O! what a great crime,
To drown poor Naomi and leave her behind.
Naomi was missing they all did well know,
And hunting for her to the river did go;
And there found her floating in water so deep,
Which caused all the people to sigh and to weep.
The neighbors were sent for to see the great sight,
While she lay floating all the long night;
So early next morning the inquest was held;
The jury correctly the murder did tell.
Like other specimens of the genre, “Little Omie,” while based on an actual crime, takes considerable liberties with the truth, turning a sordid case of early American homicide into a highly sentimentalized morality tale. Though the historical record is scanty, scholars have established certain facts about the tragedy.
In contrast to the “Poor Omie” of legend–invariably portrayed as an innocent maiden who loved not wisely but too well–the historical Naomi Wise appears to have been a woman of somewhat dubious character. Born in 1789 and orphaned in childhood, she became a bound servant in the household of Mr. and Mrs. William Adams of Randolph County, North Carolina. Though some accounts paint her as a paragon of youthful femininity–a “gentle, confiding creature” with a soft-spoken manner, fetching personality, and cheerful temperament”–the most reliable contemporary record describes her as a loose-moraled menial who bore two bastard children by two different employers while still in her teens and, by 1807, had become pregnant with a third by yet another man, a “sprightly” young clerk named Jonathan Lewis.
Scion of a long-settled Randolph family whose male members were notorious for their hot-blooded, quarrelsome ways, Lewis boarded with his employer in the village of Asheboro, returning to his family home on Polecat Creek each Saturday night, a fifteen mile journey that took him past the Adams farm. “Once, as Naomi was carrying water to the spring,” writes one historian, “Jonathan stopped and asked if he could have a drink. She obliged, then she dismounted and helped her carry her buckets to the house. Naomi fell in love with Jonathan Lewis then, and he seemed smitten as well.” In view of their shared reputation for promiscuity (“over-fondness for carnality,” as one contemporary puts it), it is no surprise that Naomi soon found herself with child.
Far from displaying the slightest shame at her condition, the brazen young woman openly boasted of having become pregnant by a “man of so high a rank as Jonathan.” Lewis, in the meantime, had turned his attention to his employer’s sister, Hettie Elliott, hoping to make a match that would raise him several rungs on the social ladder. When Hettie confronted him about the now-widespread stories that he was the father of Naomi’s unborn child, he insisted that it was a “base, malicious slander, circulated by the enemies of the Lewis family to ruin his character.” Naomi, however, not only continued to broadcast his paternity but threatened to bring him to court and sue him for child support–a “bastardy bond,” as it was known–if he did not make her an honest woman.
Jonathan appeared to relent, agreeing to elope with her and arranging to meet her at the spring below the Adams’ house a few days thence. On the appointed evening, Naomi, taking bucket in hand and pretending to go fetch some water, hurried down to the spring, where Lewis awaited on horseback. Leaving the bucket behind, she mounted the back of the horse and the two rode off into the night, ostensibly on the way to the home of the magistrate who–so Jonathan assured her–would perform the nuptials.
The next morning, upon discovering that Naomi had never returned from her errand the previous evening, her employer, William Adams headed down to the spring. From the evidence–the abandoned water bucket, the hoof prints in the mud, the tracks of Naomi’s boot soles–he quickly deduced that she had been carried away on horseback, though whether voluntarily or not there was no way to tell. In short order, he had rounded up a search party of half-dozen neighbors who followed the horse’s trail along the banks of the river. They found her body in the water, half afloat among tangled weeds, her throat bearing the unmistakable marks of manual strangulation, her skirt pulled up over her face, as though to stifle her screams.
From the facts of the case, it seems clear that Jonathan Lewis was an early specimen of the type of malignant narcissist journalist Marilee Strong calls an eraser killer: a seemingly upright young man who sees his pregnant wife or girlfriend as an impediment to his own gratifications and cold-bloodedly sets out to rid himself of her. (Later examples include Chester Gillette–whose murder of his factory girl lover, Grace Brown, served as the basis for Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy–and Scott Peterson, whose case partly inspired Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.) Immediately fingered as the prime suspect, Lewis was tracked down and arrested that same day. Hauled back to the scene of the crime and confronted with Naomi’s corpse, he stoutly maintained his innocence, displaying so little emotion at the sight of his murdered lover that several of his outraged captors had to be restrained from lynching him on the spot.
He was locked up in the Randolph County jailhouse, a rickety frame building from which he managed to escape while awaiting trial. Recaptured in 1811, he was tried and acquitted, apparently for lack of evidence. Exactly where and when he died remains a matter of debate, though some accounts claim that, on his deathbed 1820, he finally confessed to Naomi’s murder–a tragedy that, by then, had already entered into local legend.
Harold Schechter is the author of historical true crime books and editor of an anthology of American true crime writing published by the Library of America. His book The Mad Sculptor was a 2015 Edgar nominee. His most recent book is Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men.