“Omie Wise” is, like many another “murder ballad”, based on a true story, one that left an imprint both in local history and in the spirit realm—so say some who live in the area.
Naomi (Omie) Wise was, as the story is most usually told, a nineteen year old orphan girl, ward and field hand to William Adams, a wealthy Randolph County, North Carolina landowner, and his wife. In 1807 or thereabout, Omie met and fell in love with a man rather above her station in life: Jonathan Lewis, of a nearby family. Jon Lewis was apprenticed to an apothecary in a neighboring town, and first met Omie at Squire Adams’s house. Within a very short time, they became lovers—and inevitably, Omie became pregnant.
Jon Lewis had an ambitious mother, whose fondest desire was that he court and marry the daughter of his employer. Jon, in principle, agreed, but he had to do something about Omie, who was pleading with him to marry her for their child’s sake, first.
In April of 1808 (the exact date is no longer known), he and Omie made plans to meet at Adams’s Springs, artesian springs on her guardian’s farm. Omie left the house that evening carrying a bucket as if she were going to fetch water, and was never seen alive again.
As detailed in the ballad, Jon coaxed her to ride with him by telling her they were going to be married in secret. Instead, he took her to the nearby river, in spring flood at the time, throttled her senseless, tied her skirts over her head, and threw her in to drown.
Neighbors heard screams coming from the river, and next day, when Squire Adams and others came searching for Omie, directed them to the riverbank, where her body was found floating in a backwater.
Jon Lewis was suspected, arrested, and committed for trial. At that point, Doc Watson’s ballad ends.
History records that Lewis, with the connivance of the sheriff and others, escaped from jail and fled to Kentucky. In 1811, his whereabouts were discovered, and bounty hunters captured him and returned him to North Carolina for trial. In a gross miscarriage of justice, he was acquitted of the murder of Omie and their unborn child, but convicted of escape, and served forty-seven days in jail. Upon his release, he returned to Kentucky. It’s said that, on his deathbed (some sources say he died in 1817, others in 1820), he confessed to having murdered “poor little Omie Wise.”
The ballad was, evidently, composed within a very short time of Omie’s death, and, among North Carolina murder ballads, holds a place second only to “Tom Dooley”, which deals with a post-Civil War murder.
Omie and her unborn baby were buried in the Providence Friends Cemetery, not far from where they died that April, two centuries ago.
There are those who say, though, that she never left the riverbank. In April, so the story goes, the sounds of a woman weeping and screaming can be heard along that stretch of swift, cold water.
The people around say it’s Omie, still pleading for her—and her baby’s—lives.
(“Omie Wise” exists in a number of versions. Doc Watson learned this eerie one, in C minor, from his grandmother.)