The Murder of Naomi Wise | Randolph County, NC | April 1807
I’ve always been an enthusiast of the roadside historical marker because I love the little tidbits that you can learn about the place you’re passing through on your way to somewhere else. And the sign I saw on this day shared a tidbit of history so intriguing that I had to learn more. The story I found was a sad but fascinating one that I share here because I’m almost certain that most people nowadays have never heard the legend of Naomi Wise, despite having been immortalized in a ballad.
Who Was Naomi Wise?
Naomi “Omi” Wise (b. about 1789-1807) was an orphan, indentured as a child to William and Mary Adams, farmers near New Salem in Randolph County, North Carolina, who raised Naomi as a daughter. She lived with the Adams family in a small village called New Salem near Randleman in Randolph County, North Carolina. While working for the Adams Family as a cook and fieldhand, Naomi met a local man named Jonathan Lewis (1783-1817) who came from a powerful family who were known to be unruly.
Who Was Jonathan Lewis?
Lewis worked for a wealthy storekeeper, named Benjamin Elliott, in Asheboro. He boarded with his employer on workdays, and each Saturday night he would ride fifteen miles back to his family’s home, then each Sunday night he would ride back to Asheboro. His route took him past the Adams’s farm.
According to the story, one evening, Naomi was carrying water from the spring, Jonathan stopped and asked if he could have a drink of water. She obliged, then he dismounted and helped her carry her buckets to the house. Naomi fell in love with Jonathan Lewis then, and he seemed smitten as well. He would stop on each journey and they would spend time together by Adams’s spring. The Adams Family warned Naomi about Lewis, who was said to be good-looking, but unstable, and quick to temper. But Naomi was taken under his spell and quickly fell in love with Lewis.
Naomi thought that she and Jonathan would soon marry and began to prepare for the wedding. But Jonathan’s mother had other ideas. His employer, Mr. Elliot, had a daughter, Hattie, who Mrs. Lewis thought would be a perfect match for her son. At his mother’s insistence, Jonathan began courting Hattie Elliot and broke Naomi’s heart when he would ride by the Adams’s farm without stopping. She thought she had been engaged to Jonathan Lewis, but he proved faithless. When this news reached Hattie Elliot, she confronted Jonathan who said the rumors were untrue, he was never engaged to Naomi, and that he loved only Hattie. But when he discovered that Naomi was pregnant- he realized that his prospects with Ms. Elliot would likely be ruined.
Lewis Plots Murder
Lewis asked Naomi to meet him at Adams’ spring late one evening under the guise of promising Naomi marriage so that she would not be disgraced from an illegitimate pregnancy. Naomi went to the spring to wait for Jonathan and they proceeded to ride toward Randleman. When they reached a river ford, Lewis reportedly told Naomi how naive she had been to believe him and then he proceeded to throw her from his horse and drown her. When he knew she was dead, he rode away.
The next morning, the Adams Family noticed that Naomi was missing and Mr. Adams gathered a search party that followed the horse tracks from the spring. Shortly after, they found Naomi’s body below the ford in the river. Mrs. Ann Davis, a resident close to the water, confirmed that she had heard a woman screaming the night before.
The search party found a woman’s footprints leading to a tree stump. On the other side of the stump were hoof prints. They gathered that Naomi had used the stump to climb onto a horse, behind Jonathan Lewis. She thought he had come to marry her and got on his horse willingly. The coroner from Asheboro examined the drowned and battered body of Naomi and found her pregnant.
Suspicions immediately turned toward Jonathan Lewis as the murderer. Lewis, who was 23 at this time, was captured and brought to the river for the inquest and pronounced guilty. He was indicted and jailed for the murder of Naomi, but soon escaped jail and fled westward. In 1811, he married in Indiana where he had two children. Several years later he was found and brought back to stand trial. By that time, many of the witnesses had either died or moved away and there was not sufficient evidence to convict him. On his deathbed, it was said the apparition of Naomi was ever before Jonathan and he was tormented by her image. Before his last breath, he confessed to her murder.
Omi Wise’s Ballad
The legend of Naomi Wise was so prolific, that a ballad was written to immortalize her. It is said to be North Carolina’s only contribution to American balladry, thus making Naomi and her death one of North Carolina’s best-known folk ballads. Omi Wise’s Ballad”—first written as a poem by Mary Woody in the early 1800s, is also one of the country’s oldest murder ballads.
According to lore, the ballad was written shortly after Naomi’s murder. One legend said it was the singing of the ballad a few years after Naomi’s death, that made people notice a man acting peculiar and upon discovering it was Jonathan Lewis, led to his re-arrest.
Although there are various renditions of the ballad, here is one version that is a good representation of the lyrics:
I’ll tell you a story about Omie Wise,
How she was deluded by John Lewis’s lies.
He promised to marry her at Adams’s spring;
He’d give her some money and other fine things.
He gave her no money, but flattered the case.
Says, “We will get married; there’ll be no disgrace.”
She got up behind him; away they did go
They rode till they came where the Deep River flowed.
“Now Omie, little Omie, I’ll tell you my mind:
My mind is to drown you and leave you behind.”
“Oh, pity your poor infant and spare me my life!
Let me go rejected and not be your wife.”
“No pity, no pity,” the monster did cry.
“On Deep River’s bottom your body will lie.”
The wretch he did choke her as we understand;
He threw her in the river below the mill dam.
Now Omie is missing as we all do know,
And down to the river a-hunting we ‘II go.
Two little boys were fishing just at the break of dawn;
They spied poor Omie’s body come floating along.
They arrested John Lewis; they arrested him today.
They buried little Omie down in the cold clay.
“Go hang me or kill me, for I am the man
Who murdered poor Naomi below the mill-dam.”