From a letter found in the Randolph County, N.C. archives dated May, 1808.
My name is John Lewis and in just a few hours the authorities will hang me by the neck until my final life’s breath is choked out of me. I’m not saying I don’t deserve it. I do. For what I did, I deserve worse. I’m not even sure why I did what I did. I loved that pretty little girl, more than life itself. We even talked about our future wedding day. But when she broke this heart of mine, I couldn’t take it anymore. The devil must have got a hold of me, for me to do what I did. But I did it. And now I have to pay. But there was a time, not long ago, when our love was young and tender and sweet.
Her name was Naomi Wise, but just like most everybody else, I called her Omie. She was adopted by a wealthy family, the Adams’ who lived on the other side of the mountain. We weren’t supposed to be together since her momma and daddy had another boy picked out for her and they said I was nothing but trouble and beneath her; and they warned her to stay away from me. But one fine spring day, we met. And before long we were seeing each other as often as we could, but we had to be sneaky about it, as she didn’t want her parents to know.
Her eyes were green like emeralds and she had the prettiest red hair. Freckles dotted her face and her skin was as white as new fallen snow. When I stroked her hands, they were as soft as the pedals of a newly bloomed rose and her lips were the color of the reddest wine. When I was around her, I felt as if I was so light I might float off into the sky and along with the clouds, just hover over her and look down upon her forever. When she spoke to me, her voice was so sweet it would shame the prettiest sounding songbird and my poor heart would melt like butter. I would have done anything to win her love.
Even though I didn’t have a penny to my name, I promised Omie money and other fine things. Fine things I couldn’t afford, but that her parents had in abundance. I promised her trips to France and Spain. I promised her the world and she may have even believed me. But deep down, I think she knew that I wasn’t ever going to deliver on my promises. I was never going to be good enough.
After a few months of us seeing each other, she began to grow cold and come up with excuses why we couldn’t meet. At first I believed her, but then I heard that she was seen around town with Herbert Elliott, the more respectable suitor her parents had chosen for her. I wrote her letters, telling her of my love, but they weren’t returned. I went to her home to see if I could catch her alone. One day I did.
I found her alone at Adams’s spring, not far from her parent’s home. I think I startled her when I stepped out from the trees and I had to place my hand across her mouth to keep her from screaming out. I held her tight until she settled down and I said, “Won’t you take a little walk with me?” I could see she was afraid and to reassure her, I put my arm around her as we walked.
I said, “Why my darling have you been evading me? I’ve written letters, but you’ve not returned a one of them. What is the matter Omie? I thought we were to be married someday.” I turned her shoulders so she could look me in the eye. She tried to turn away, but I held her tight. Finally she said, “I never said I loved you John. Besides, my parents would never approve.”
I grew angry and shouted, “But you did love me. Who is it? Elliott? That pansy ass. You think he’s gonna be your man? Let me ask you this; who’s gonna put shoes on your feet? Or gloves on your hands? And who’s gonna kiss those sweet little lips better than I can?” I took a breath and tried a different approach. I softened my voice and pleaded with her, “Darling, say that you’ll be mine and that we’ll be happy in our someday home.” But she only turned her face away from me. And then I grabbed her and kissed her. She fought me and pushed me away, but I pursued her into the woods and grabbed her and held her tight. Between clinched teeth I said, “What about our wedding day?”
She laughed and mocked me, “Wedding day? You are crazy John Lewis. I can’t marry you.”
“Go with me Omie. We can go away and get married and no one will know. I love you Omie. I don’t care about your parents or Elliott or anybody else. I only care about you.”
The look on her face told me all I needed to know, but what she said next threw me into a rage. “I’m pregnant. And it’s not your baby.”
I grabbed her by her pretty white hands and began dragging her through the woods to the river. The Ohio has some very swift and deep waters and there was a spot I remembered, not far from where we were. She stumbled and fell and I pulled her up and continued on the path to the river. And then the clouds began to pour down a heavy rain and I could barely hear her as she cried out, “John Lewis, John Lewis, where are you taking me? Tell me your mind and what you intend to do?”
The rain was heavy and both of us were now soaked to the bone. The tears running down my face, tears of anger and disappointment were unrecognizable in the rain and I cried out to her, “Omie, I’ll tell you my mind. My mind is to drown you and leave you behind. If you won’t have me, nobody will have you.”
She cried out, “Have mercy on my baby and spare me my life,” but I was deaf to her pleas and continued dragging her down the muddy path. At one point she struggled away from me and began running through the woods, but I ran her down and overpowered her and it wasn’t long before I was again dragging her, at times nearly carrying her, toward the river.
Between flashes of lightning and the driving rain, I recognized the spot along the river I was looking for. Down the bank of sand I pushed her until we arrived at the river’s edge. I could see the desperation and fear in her eyes as we drew closer to the now raging river, but I was not moved. At the water’s edge, I hit her with my fist and knocked her to the ground and continued to beat her, blow after blow, with her mocking laugh ringing in my ears. She was nearly unconscious when I picked her up and tossed her into the deep, muddy waters below.
I wandered around dazed and found my pony, and as I mounted it to ride away I could hear her desperate screams over the sound of the river and the pounding rain. I rode my horse hard, but where I was going I didn’t know. In my saddlebag I had two skins full of good old wine and when I found a lonely place up in the mountains, I drank them both dry, trying to drown the memories of the pretty little girl I loved. The girl I killed because she would not marry me.
News around Randolph County was that Omie had run off with a boy from nearby Orange County, but other reports were closer to the truth. A neighbor said on the night Omie disappeared she could hear screams coming from down by the river. But a body had yet to be found. Until one day it was.
Two boys were fishing down on the river one fine summer day and they saw little Omie’s body go floating by. So they followed her downstream and threw their net around her and dragged her to shore. As she lay on the bank, all wet and muddy, they called for the sheriff, who then came after me. Everyone in town knew we had been having relations and so I was the likely suspect. Sheriff Isaac Lane took me to her body and when I looked down upon her, I showed no emotion and even though Sheriff Lane badgered me and accused me, no confession did he get. His final words were, “You’ll pay for this awful crime you’ve done.”
They threw me into this old jail cell, with no friends or family to go my bail. I waited here alone and forsaken until the trial started. Their case was weak and mostly circumstantial, but I had been seen with her by many witnesses and the father of her child testified that Omie was afraid of me and was planning on breaking off our relationship. So they had established a motive. The Sheriff also testified of the bruises on her face and arms and the condition of my hands and knuckles when they arrested me. After only a one day trial, I was convicted by a jury and sentenced to hang.
So here I am awaiting my death. I think of Omie often and how my heart longs for her. I know why I did what I did, but there is no justification and I have no excuse. I am a murderer and I deserve to hang.
There was a time when I would sing to Omie, when our love or rather my love was first in bloom. The words I sang to her are from an old traditional song from the old country and go something like this:
I love you till the sea runs dry,
And the rocks all melt in the sun.
I love you till the day I die,
Though you will never be my own.
I must stop here as the hangman is at my door. May God have mercy on my soul.
*This fictional story was inspired from three different tunes sung by Doc Watson: Omie Wise, The Banks of the Ohio, and A Rovin’ on a Winter’s Night. All three tunes are traditional, although much of the latter tune was taken from a poem written in 1794 by the Scot, Robert Burns titled A Red, Red Rose. The song Omie Wise is based on a real life individual who was murdered in Randolph County, North Carolina in 1807. Her murderer was never brought to justice, although the rumors certainly abounded. I’ve found that the saddest songs are the most beautiful and if you want to hear some pretty music, click on each song above for the link to a YouTube video.