Poor Omie (John Lewis) (Little Omie Wise) [Laws F4]
DESCRIPTION: John Lewis, to free himself of his pregnant sweetheart, offers to marry her but instead plans to drown her. She begs for her life, promising to go begging, but he throws her in the river. The body is found and Lewis imprisoned. (He escapes into the army.)
EARLIEST DATE: 1874
KEYWORDS: pregnancy homicide rejection prison drowning
1807 (some sources, including her tombstone, say 1808, but see below) - Drowning of Naomi Wise in North Carolina
FOUND IN: US(Ap,MA,SE,So)
REFERENCES (34 citations):
Laws F4, "Poor Omie (John Lewis) (Little Omie Wise)"
Belden-BalladsSongsCollectedByMissourFolkloreSociety, pp. 322-324, "Oma Wise" (2 texts)
Randolph 149, "Poor Oma Wise" (5 texts plus 2 excerpts and 1 fragment, 2 tunes)
Randolph/Cohen-OzarkFolksongs-Abridged, pp. 163-166, "Poor Oma Wise" (1 text, 1 tune -- Randolph's 149A)
High-OldOldFolkSongs, pp. 37-38, "Poor... Oma" (1 text)
Abrahams/Riddle-ASingerAndHerSongs, pp. 56-57, "Little Lonie" (1 text, 1 tune)
Brown/Belden/Hudson-FrankCBrownCollectionNCFolklore2 300, "Poor Naomi (Omie Wise)" (5 texts plus 1 excerpt and mention of 2 more; it appears that Laws places texts "A" and "D" here, but "H" is also this song, with "F" and "G" being "Naomi Wise" [Laws F31])
Brown/Schinhan-FrankCBrownCollectionNCFolklore4 300, "Poor Naomi (Omie Wise)" (2 excerpts, 2 tunes, both probably this)
Brown/Schinhan-FrankCBrownCollectionNCFolklore5 786, "(no title)" (1 tune with no text, which Schinhan says is closely related to the tune in Brown/Schinhan-FrankCBrownCollectionNCFolklore4)
Lunsford/Stringfield-30And1FolkSongsFromSouthernMountains, pp. 28-29, "Poor Omia Wise" (1 text, 1 tune)
Morris-FolksongsOfFlorida, #38, "Naomi Wise" (2 texts, 1 tune, with the "A" text and tune, locally titled "Sweet William," being "Poor Omie (John Lewis) (Little Omie Wise)" [Laws F4], while the "B" text is "Naomi Wise" [Laws F31])
Hudson-FolksongsOfMississippi 63, pp. 187-188, "Poor Omie" (1 text)
Burton/Manning-EastTennesseeStateCollectionVol1, pp. 64-65, "Omie Wise" (1 text, 1 tune)
Burton/Manning-EastTennesseeStateCollectionVol2, pp. 84-86, "Omy Wise" (1 text, 1 tune)
Moore/Moore-BalladsAndFolkSongsOfTheSouthwest 169, "Pretty Molly" (1 text, 1 tune)
Cambiaire-EastTennesseeWestVirginiaMountainBallads, pp. 30-31, "Oma Wise" (1 text)
Henry-SongsSungInTheSouthernAppalachians, pp. 73-75, "John Lewis" (1 text)
Bush-FSofCentralWestVirginiaVol3, pp. 61-62, "Omie Wise" (1 text, 1 tune)
Burton-TennesseeTraditionalSingers, pp. 52-53, "Omie Wise" (1 text, 1 tune)
Leach-TheBalladBook, pp. 793-795, "Naomi (Omie) Wise" (2 texts)
Friedman-Viking/PenguinBookOfFolkBallads, p. 202, "Naomi Wise" (1 text, 1 tune)
Warner-TraditionalAmericanFolkSongsFromAnneAndFrankWarnerColl 116, "The Ballad of Naomi Wise" (1 text, 1 tune)
Carey-MarylandFolkLegendsAndFolkSongs, p.111, "Little Onie" (1 text)
Lomax-FolkSongsOfNorthAmerica 138, "Omie Wise" (1 text, 1 tune)
Pound-AmericanBalladsAndSongs, 51, pp. 119-120, "Poor Omie" (1 text)
Sharp-EnglishFolkSongsFromSouthernAppalachians 123, "Poor Omie" (7 texts, 7 tunes)
Burt-AmericanMurderBallads, pp. 25-28, "Omie Wise" (1 text plus some fragments, 1 tune; also an excerpt from another Naomi Wise song, seemingly neither this nor Laws F31)
Cohen-AmericanFolkSongsARegionalEncyclopedia1, p. 232, "Poor Naomi" (1 text plus an excerpt of a second)
Leach-HeritageBookOfBallads, pp. 143-144, "Omie Wise" (1 text)
Darling-NewAmericanSongster, pp. 200-201, "Omie Wise" (1 text)
Dunson/Raim/Asch-AnthologyOfAmericanFolkMusic, p. 42 "Ommie Wise" (1 text, 1 tune)
Cohen/Seeger/Wood-NewLostCityRamblersSongbook, p. 149, "Deep Water" (1 text, 1 tune)
Silber/Silber-FolksingersWordbook, p. 225, "Omie Wise" ; p. 227, "Deep Water" (2 texts)
DT 627, OMIEWISE* OMIWISE2*
Finley Adams, "Omie Wise" (AAFS 2796 B1)
Clarence Ashley, "Naomi Wise" (Columbia 15522-D, 1930; rec. 1929; on Ashley04)
Clarence Ashley & Doc Watson, "Poor Omie" (on Ashley03)
Dock Boggs, "Little Omie Wise" (on Boggs3, BoggsCD1)
Mrs. W. R. Buchanan, "Little Omie Wise" (AAFS 2857 B3)
Acie Cargill, Debra Cowan, Kristina Olsen, "Omie Wise" (on HCargillFamily)
Ruth Clark Cullipher, "Little Onie" (AAFS 1031 A1)
Morgan Denmon, "Naomi Wise" (OKeh 45075, 1927; rec. 1926)
Minnie Floyd, "Naomi Wise" (AAFS 1301 A1)
Cleophas Franklin, "Omie Wise" (AAFS 2891 B2)
[G. B.] Grayson & [Henry] Whitter, "Ommie Wise" (Victor 21625, 1927; on AAFM1, GraysonWhitter01, ConstSor1)
Goldie Hamilton, "Little Omie Wise" (AAFS 2829 A1)
Aunt Idy Harper & the Coon Creek Girls, "Poor Naomi Wise" (Vocalion 04354 [or 04345], 1938)
Roscoe Holcomb, "Omie Wise" (on Holcomb1, HolcombCD1)
A. J. Huff, "Omie Wise" (AAFS 2877 B3)
Sarah Ison, "Little Omie Wise" (AAFS 2810 B1)
Aunt Molly Jackson, "Oma Wise" (AAFS 824 B2, 1935) (AAFS 3340/3341 A)
Polly Johnson, "Poor Omie" (AAFS 2760 A4)
Mrs. Esco Kilgore, "Oma Wise" (AAFS 2772 A2)
Alexander Kirkheart, "Naomi Wise" (AAFS 1700 A1)
Alec Moore, "Poor Omie Wise" (AAFS 57 B1)
Johanna Shepherd, "Omie Wise" (AAFS 1405 B2)
Lillian Short, "Naomi Wise" (AFS; on LC12)
Della Sibert, "Omie Wise" (AAFS 1486 A2)
Doug Wallin, "Omie Wise" (on Wallins1)
cf. "Naomi Wise" [Laws F31] (plot)
cf. "Tragic Romance" (tune)
NOTES [860 words]: Eleanor R. Long-Wilgus wrote an important monograph on this piece ,Naomi Wise: Creation, Re-Creation, and Continuity in an American Ballad Tradition. Chapel Hill: Chapel Hill Press, 2003. viii + 88 pp.
Dr. Long-Wilgus's monograph on Naomi Wise proceeds from the apparent original "True Account of Nayomy Wise" to show how both folksongs, "Poor Omie" (Laws F4) and "Naomi Wise" (Laws F32), grew out of this original under the influence of two broadsides (on other murders) from the 18th Century, both exemplifying the "murdered girl" narrative theme. The first printed version of "Poor Omie" was published by Braxton Craven in 1851, the second, "Naomi Wise," was recorded in 1925 by Carson Robison. But Long-Wilgus argues convincingly that the songs are older, modeled on the murdered girl theme (cf. Banks of the Ohio [Laws F5], the Wexford Girl [Laws P35], or Rose Conoley [Laws F6]), and while they show communalities with the eighteenth and nineteenth century broadsides, do not derive strictly from them, but rather increasingly fulfill the conventions of the "murdered girl theme" implied by that original "True Account." - DGE
Arthur Palmer Hudson called this North Carolina's "Principal contribution to American folksong" (Roote, p. 70).
A good brief account of the whole incident is on pp. 51-57 of Polenberg; there is a bibliography (far from complete, but a start) on p. 266, which indicates that the piece by Long-Wilgus is the only published book on the subject although there is a 1982 masters thesis by Robert Thomas Roote (which Polenberg considers the most important source for the song. This is not the Roote article cited here; the citations are to a 1984 summary).
Polenberg lists two early accounts of the Naomi Wise murder, with the first one, a poem by Mary Woody, being the "True Account of Nayomy Wise" mentioned above; the other, later and less accurate, was by Braxton Craven. Craven (born 1822) published his account in the January and February issues of Evergreen (Polenberg, p. 52; Roote, p. 70, who summarizes Craven's account on the next pages). It is not only unreliable but heavily fictionalized, including, e.g., conversations between Naomi and Lewis that could not have been preserved by anyone (some are quoted on p. 73 of Roote). Nonetheless it was the basis for a 1944 account, The Story of Naomi Wise, by Randelman (Roote, p. 74).
Although Craven said Wise was 19, and this seems to have infiltrated some versions of the song (indeed, her tombstone gives her dates as 1789-1808 -- but we know she was murdered in 1807!), she was certainly older although her exact age is unknown (she was an orphan who had been raised and indentured as a servant by William and Mary Adams of Randolph County; Polenberg, p. 54). She already had two children by the time she became pregnant by John Lewis: a nine-year-old daughter Nancy and a four-year-old son Henry. The fathers (plural) were known but had not married her (Polenberg, p. 53).
John Lewis was 24 and lived in neighboring Guilford County. Although he had seemingly gotten her pregnant, he did not want to marry her. He reportedly took her away on his horse to the mill dam at Adams's Spring near her home (Polenberg, p. 52, has a later photo of this mill dam). Ploenberg gave the year as 1807, although this apparently is in doubt. She was strangled and/or drowned; the commotion was heard although no one was able to reach the scene of the crime in the dark.
The Adamses searched the next morning and found artifacts; calling on neighbors, they eventually found Naomi's body (Polenberg, pp. 54-55).
A Grand Jury returned a bill on March 30, 1807 accusing John Lewis of murder (Roote, p. 74).
Eventually they located John Lewis and took him into custody (Polenberg, p. 55). It is interesting, in light of the use of the name "Omie" in this song, that at least one of the court documents pertaining to his custody, refers to Naomi as "Omia Wise" (quoted on p. 74 of Roote). Lewis was in prison for eight months, but managed to escape (probably with help; several people got in trouble about it; Roote, p. 76) shortly before going on trial (the trial was scheduled for October 26, 1807, and Lewis got away on October 9; Roote, p. 75). He emigrated to the west. Supposedly (believe this if you want to!) he was discovered when someone sang a song about Naomi (Polenberg, pp. 55-56). In any case, he was finally brought back to North Carolina, but did not stand trial until October 1813. Given the long time lapse and the lack of physical evidence, it apparently was not possible to prove the case (at least, Roote, p. 78, can find no records of a murder trial, though he allows the possibility that one took place); the only thing Lewis was convicted of was the minor crime of breaking jail. Having been given a month's sentence (he actually serve 47 days, according to Roote, p. 77) and shown that he did not have the money to pay his fine, he was freed and allowed to head west to return to the wife he had married in 1811.
Although he had escaped justice, he did not enjoy freedom for long; he died in 1817, still in his early to mid thirties (Polenberg, pp. 56-57). - RBW
Last updated in version 6.1
- Polenberg: Richard Polenberg: Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired Stagolee, John Henry, and Other Traditional American Folk Songs, Cornell University Press, 2015
- Roote: Robert Roote, "The Historical Events Behind the Celebrated Ballad 'Naomi Wise'," article in NorthCarolinaFolkloreJournal, Volume XXXII, Number 2 (Fall-Winter 1984), pp. 70-81
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