Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Poor 'Omi Wise

The story of Naomi Wise is a sad and tragic one. The song that her story spawned is perhaps the most recognized song in the Old Time genre.

The story of “Poor ‘Omi Wise” took place in Randolph County, North Carolina at the turn of the nineteenth century. Naomi Wise was a poor orphan girl whom had been bound out in service to Mr. & Mrs. Adams. Naomi worked in the Adams’ kitchen and sometimes in the fields. The Adams’ treated her kindly, keeping her in nice dress and often loaning her a horse to ride to church. It is said that while she was fetching water from the spring she met a young man on horseback as he paused and ask her for a drink.
That young man was Jonathan Lewis.

Jonathan Lewis’ grandfather, David, had come to Randolph County from Pennsylvania; some say just two steps ahead of the law. According to local records, David Lewis had several run-ins with the law starting around 1780, Pennsylvania records show a David Lewis as a known thief and moonshiner. He built a cabin along Sandy Creek and made brandy from the peaches growing in his orchard. He had two sons, Richard and Stephen, who were said to have been strong, well-built, and handsome young men. The elder brother, Stephen, had a quick and ruthless temper and was known to seek out a quarrel. Stephen had beaten his wife with something called a “hobble rod” and she fled her home, hiding out with a neighbor so well that Stephen had not found her for several months. Younger brother Richard promised to deliver the woman if Stephen promised no more hobble rod beatings. When the promise was made, Richard kept his end of the bargain. Once Stephen found out that his wife had been at Richard’s all along, he loaded his gun and set out to visit his brother. Stephen’s shot missed and Richard return fire, wounding his older brother. Knowing his brother would return in the morning, Richard visited his brother that night and, peering through a crack in the wall, shot Stephen in the heart. He was exonerated of any wrongdoing on a plea of self defense.

Richard moved across the line into Guilford County where he built a cabin along Polecat Creek. He married and had a son, Jonathan, who grew into a handsome young man. Jonathan was well employed as a clerk at Benjamin Elliott’s store in Asheboro. Jonathan boarded in Asheboro during the week and returned to his parents’ home for weekends. The trip took him past the farm of William Adams in Randolph County, where Naomi Wise worked as a bound servant. Remember Naomi? I’m sure you were wondering if I was ever going to get back to the story of ‘Omi Wise.

Well the young man that stopped for a drink as Naomi was at the spring was Jonathan Lewis. He made a regular stop at the Adams’ farm on his trips to and from Asheboro on weekends and the two struck up a relationship. Jonathan had also started courting young Hettie Elliott, the beautiful daughter of his employer in Asheboro. His mother thought that the daughter of a well-off merchant would be a better catch than a poor orphan girl and encouraged Jonathan along that path.

The news got back to Naomi and she was heartbroken. But Jonathan continued to stop at the Adam’s farm on his weekend journeys. According to Mrs. Adams, Naomi left with pail in hand one day to fetch water from the spring and did not return for supper.
As darkness fell, the Davis family, who lived along the Deep River just a few miles south of the Adams’ farm on the road to Asheville, were settling in for the night when the peace was broken by blood-curdling screams. Mrs. Davis and her two sons ran out into the night and to where they had heard the screams. They heard a loud splashing and the sound of hoofs rushing off. They called out but got no answer and could see nothing due to the darkness.

In the morning the Davis’ visited the Adam’s to tell of the horrible screams the night before. Other neighbors were fetched and a search was made of the river, where they found the body of Naomi tangled in weeds near the shore. Her long heavy skirt had been pulled up over her head, possibly to quiet her screams, and her neck was bruised by strong hands. The coroner declared that young Naomi (she was 19 at the time) had been “Drowned by violence”. He also noted that she had been expecting a child.

Jonathan Lewis was found the next day and brought to jail. He was held for nearly thirty days awaiting the judge and his trial, but before he could be tried he escaped with the help of his kin.

One by one the rest of the Lewis family left North Carolina in shame. Years later it was learned that they had settled in Kentucky. The fine folks of Randolph County voted to send men to find them. Three men, not known to the Lewis family set out and found the Lewis settlement. Posing as hunters the men requested a meal and beds for the night. In the morning they were invited to join a hunting party with the Lewis men. Once in the woods they stuck close to Jonathan and as they lost sight of the other members they overtook and bound him. He was brought back to Randolph County and tried but by then they had no evidence and no proof, so Jonathan was released. He lived the rest of his life in his father’s cabin on Polecat Creek. He took ill and it is said that just before he died he confessed to his father that he had been the one that had drowned Naomi Wise and that he was haunted by her every day of his life.

Coon Creek Girls - Poor Naomi Wise.mp3
This version by the Coon Creek Girls, is very close (as far as the lyrics go) to the original song that was sung in Randolph County shortly after the murder and was partly responsible for the Lewis family leaving North Carolina.

Dock Boggs - Little Omie Wise.mp3
This version is closer to the version we all know today. Over the years some of the facts of the story have been changed a bit, but thanks to this song the tragic story of Jon Lewis and poor 'Omi Wise is known around the world.


Blogger Kat said...

Such a tragic story and one I hadn't heard before this. Music keep just so much of the past alive for all of us, the past which would have been long forgotten without these wandering minstrels.

January 12, 2007 7:33 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

'Tis an awfully tragic story, Kat.
I’m often thankful that many of the residents of the early frontier were illiterate and passed the news of such events through music. I’m sure that the written records would have been long forgotten had it not been for a song.

January 12, 2007 10:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Check out this for an academic analysis:
“’My Mind Is To Drown You and Leave You Behind’: ‘Omie Wise,’ Intimate Violence, and Masculinity,” in Crossing the Threshold: Domestic Violence in Early America, Christine Daniels and Michael V. Kennedy, eds. (New York and London, 1999), 94-110.

January 15, 2007 8:22 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Wow! "Over the Threshold: Domestic Violence in Early America", looks like facinating, albeit, disturbing reading. Thanks for the tip.

For anyone further interested, here is a link to "Over the Threshold" at

January 16, 2007 2:32 PM  

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