By Janice Willis-Barnett
Was Frankie Silver guilty?
Frances Stewart Silver, called Frankie, was from over Carolina way as we used to say when talking about Mitchell or Yancey Counties. And even though it has been almost 200 years since she allegedly took the axe to her husband Charlie Silver, Frankie’s actual guilt is still a source of speculation. Journalists, novelists, and others obsessed with cracking unsolved cases are still trying to come up with the solution to the mystery. For many of us here in eastern Tennessee, our familiarity with the story comes from reading bestselling and acclaimed novelist Sharyn McCrumb’s take on it. Sharyn is sort of like “kinfolk” to many of us because she has ties to Unicoi County through her father’s family and the Clinchfield Railroad.
And now we have the opportunity to see Sharyn’s version of the Frankie Silver story performed on stage. As my fellow columnist Connie Denney noted in her June column, The Ballad of Frankie Silver will be playing at Parkway Playhouse in neighboring Burnsville, North Carolina through the weekend of June 18th. My husband Leo and I saw it this past Friday night. I love going to Burnsville the “old way,” so I talked him into taking Hwy 107 through Limestone Cove and going across Iron Mountain and down through Buladean instead of taking Interstate 26. That way I had plenty of adrenalin going by the time we made it to Burnsville. There is something about having to rein in your automobile on those curves on Iron Mountain to keep from careening down the mountainside that puts some real kick in the trip. And having little space to pull over if you have car trouble also adds excitement. But hey, if you are headed to see a play set in frontier days, this is the perfect way to get into the atmosphere of the time.
McCrumb’s Ballad stories tend to have supernatural and ghostly settings and themes. This is another reason to take the “back way” to Burnsville to see the Frankie play. Driving back across Iron Mountain in the only vehicle on the road, can keep you in that ghostly mindset created by the story. But in all honesty, the Frankie Silver play didn’t have as much of the supernatural feel to it as the Parkway’s production of McCrumb’s Ghost Riders, another of her novels that Parkway director Andrew Gall made into a play. The night that Leo and I saw Ghost Riders, I’m fairly sure that I wasn’t the only one who felt that ghosts of Civil War soldiers in those Carolina mountains had been stirred up. Of course, that is what good acting and a good script does. It allows us to suspend our rational mindset and enter into the world of the play. Parkway Playhouse actors and its director do a great job at this. Like McCrumb, their telling of Frankie’s tale leaves it to the audience to decide whether or not Frankie was guilty.