Poor Naomi Wise, “Sacrificed to the Beast in Man”

On April 8, 1808, Jonathan Lewis was arrested for the murder of Naomi Wise. Wise, an orphan, cook and an occasional field hand noted for her beauty and her innocence, lived in the household of William Adams in Randolph County. Lewis was a frequent visitor to the Adams house.

Courting Naomi while promising marriage to another woman, Lewis led the pregnant Wise to the Deep River and pushed her off a bluff, drowning her. Jailed in Asheboro, he escaped and made his way to Ohio. He was eventually tracked down by a bounty hunter and returned North Carolina, where he was acquitted of murdering Wise for lack of evidence. Legend has it that he confessed to the crime on his deathbed.

Much of what we know of the murder comes from an account by Braxton Craven, president of nearby Trinity College, who researched the story. Craven based his 1851 retelling of crime on the memories of local residents. Lewis, by Craven’s account, was a “merciless wretch, a hyena.”

The site of Wise’s death came to be known as Naomi Falls. The story was brought to people nationwide largely through the folk ballad, “Naomi Wise,” which was a favorite of Doc Watson’s.  Like “Tom Dooley” and “Frankie and Johnny,” the song relates the story of a North Carolina murder with drama and pathos.

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7 responses to “Poor Naomi Wise, “Sacrificed to the Beast in Man””

  1. Sherry Fowler says :

    My grandmother sang some of these ballads to us as children. What a haunting tale.

  2. Tim Lahey says :

    “Poor Ellen Smith” is another North Carolina murder ballad. I think of the song whenever I drive past the spot where her body was found “lying cold on the ground” in Winston-Salem.

    • Dick Dobson says :

      She was found in Mount Airy, NC

      • Tim Lahey says :

        Thanks, for replying, Dick. I would like to hear more of your thoughts on the story.

        There seem to be as many versions of the murder as there are of the song. Most of what I have heard and read indicates that her body was found behind the Zinzendorf Hotel in what is now Hanes Park in Winston-Salem. That is the version I first heard from Paul Brown and is also the version recounted in Wikipedia, for what that is worth. Tommy Jarrell used to say that his father, Ben, heard the story from Peter DeGraff himself which would indicate a Mt. Airy connection. In Tommy’s version, also recorded by Tom, Brad and Alice,

        “They grabbed their Winchesters, they hunted me down,
        But I was away in old Mount Airy town.”

        To me that would indicate that the event didn’t happen in Mt. Airy. I guess it depends on whose version of the story we choose to believe and probably no version of the song is historically correct.

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