The Story of Little Omie Wise
by Andy Eversole
North Carolina is a treasure trove when it comes to myths, legends, and the aural traditions that tell them. Musical storytelling, the method of conveying historical events through song, is one of these aural traditions. Through music, the story, which is often a true historical event, is able to be passed on, from generation to generation, allowing history to live and breathe. One of my favorites of this genre, and North Carolina’s oldest murder ballad, is the sad tale of Omie Wise.
The story is told a couple different ways, and there are at least 2 completely different versions of the song, but here is the gist. Naomi was murdered by John Lewis in 1808 in Randolph County, North Carolina. She was an orphan girl, who was being raised by Squire William Adams and his wife Mary. John Lewis, who lived in Guilford County, would ride his horse to work in Randolph Co. at the beginning of each week, then back home for the weekend. Along his route was the Adams farm, where he would stop by and court the beautiful Omie. This apparently continued until she became pregnant.
Coming from a well-to-do family, John Lewis’s mother had plans for him to court another woman, Hettie Elliot, whose family was also in “high standing”. Rather than deal with an illegitimate child from an orphan girl, Lewis decided to murder Omie and dispose of her body in the Deep River, near Randleman, NC.
Once everyone noticed that Omie was missing, Mr. Adams gathered a search group and followed the horse tracks down the spring. There they found her beaten, pregnant body floating in the river. A woman later testified she heard screaming in that area the night of the murder.
John Lewis was found and brought to jail. Only one month later, he escaped and traveled to Kentucky, where he soon started a new family. Several men, including the Sheriff, were arrested for aiding John’s escape.
Word soon got back to Randolph County concerning John’s whereabouts, and they demanded he be returned and tried for his crimes. He was brought back to North Carolina from Kentucky, and remained in jail from 1811 until 1813 awaiting his trial. Despite overwhelming evidence and eye witnesses, when brought before the court he was only tried for escaping jail, and not for the murder of Naomi Wise. He was found guilty and spent 47 days in jail, after which, he was a freed and traveled back to Kentucky.
No one knows for sure who killed Omie, as there was never a confession. However, legend has it that John Lewis confessed to Omie’s murder on his deathbed. He died on April 25, 1817 of unknown causes.
*Naomi Wise is buried at Providence Friends Home, in Randleman, NC. You can actually visit her grave, which is nestled in a cemetary right across the road from the Church. As we filmed the video, we were told by a member of the Church that back then her burial was very controversial. Because of her circumstances in pregnancy out of wedlock, none of the churches wanted to accept her burial. Providence Friends Home, a Quaker meeting place, took her in, and there she rests to this day.
*In this case, the song, Little Omie, could have actually played a part in the arrest of John Lewis. It is said that someone became quite agitated as a musician played the ballad in a bar in Kentucky. After a little investigating, it was found that the overly disturbed man was John Lewis himself, and the incident was instrumental in bringing him back to North Carolina to face trial. I’m not sure if this part of the story is true, but it does add a wrinkle to the tale…
*I first heard the song played by the great Doc Watson, a legendary North Carolina musician. My version is based on his, but with different instrumentation. The Banjo Earth version features Abigail James on vocals and me on banjo. The video was filmed in the graveyard where Omie is buried, and in the exact location of the Deep River where she is said to have been found.
Banjo Earth w/ Abigail James – Omie Wise
-sources found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omie_Wise
-historical consulting by David Long