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Jonathan Lewis (1783-1817)

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Jonathan Lewis
Sex: Male
Birth: April 29, 1783
Death: April 24, 1817
Father: Richard Lewis (1759-1826)
Mother: Lydia Fields
Spouse/Partner: Sara McCain


Jonathan Lewis (the accused)Edit

Jonathan Lewis was born April 23, 1783 in Randolph County, North Carolina, the second child of Richard Lewis and Lydia Field. In 1807 when he was 23 years old, he was arrested and indicted for the murder of Naomi Wise. Six months later he escaped jail.

These events became a famous legend in story and song. Many versions of the folksong, Omi Wise, have been sung and recorded during the last 200 years; the most recent in 2006 by Elvis Costello on The Harry Smith Project: The Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited.

The FictionEdit

The first written account by Braxton Craven, under the pen name of Charlie Vernon, appeared in two installments of the January and February, 1851 editions of the Evergreen newspaper in North Carolina. It was reprinted April 29, 1874 in the Greensboro Patriot and again in pamphlet form in 1888, 1908 and by the Rotary Club of Randleman in 1944 and 1962. Folks came from miles around to visit her grave and the city of Randleman named streets, churches, mills and manufacturing plants after Naomi Wise. Braxton Craven was a Methodist Preacher and Educator. His biographer states in his book, The Life of Braxton Craven: a Biographical approach to Social Science, “that it is reasonable to believe Craven’s chief reason for choosing education as his life work was a deep sense of the need of better men and women in his part of the world.” At Trinity College (later called Duke University) Craven taught Ancient Languages, Mental and Moral Science, Metaphysics, Rhetoric and Logic, National and Constitutional Law, and Biblical Literature.

In 1954, Manly Wade Wellman, enhanced Craven’s story with his book titled “Dead and Gone” published by The University of North Carolina Press. However, he acknowledged, “So romantic was the tale of Naomi Wise’s fate that it is called fiction within recent years.”

Both authors instilled fear and loathing of the Lewis family by their imagined portrayal of events and narration of fictitious conversations.

The FactsEdit

The following was extracted from an article titled “The Historical Events Behind the Celebrated Ballad “Naomi Wise” by Robert Roote and published by the “North Carolina Folklore Journal”, Vol. 32, No. 2, of the Fall-Winter 1984 edition.

  • The Randolph County Superior Court Minutes of March 20, 1807 recorded: “The Grand Jury returned a bill to the Court against Jonathan Lewis for Murder & indorsed thereon a trial bill upon which the said Jonathan Lewis was arraigned, plead not guilty and put himself upon his country.” Witnesses for both sides were summoned and a trial date of October 26th, 1807 was set in the Guilford County Superior Court. Jonathan was arrested on April 8th and locked in the Randolph County jail. A pre-trial hearing was held October 5th and he was indicted for the murder of Omi Wise, a single woman. On October 9th, he escaped the jail and fled to parts unknown.
  • Several men, including the Sheriff, Isaac Lane, were arrested for aiding Jonathan’s escape. The sheriff was cleared of guilt on a motion of nolo prosequi (do not proceed) because he was instrumental in returning Jonathan to the Orange County jail in the fall of 1811. Others were imprisoned until Governor William Hawkins granted executive clemency to William Fields, John Lewis, Ebenezer Reynolds and John Green on December 17, 1811.
  • Jonathan remained in jail from his recapture in the fall of 1811 until November 20, 1813. Records show that he was in the custody of the Orange County Jailer and eventually transferred to Randolph County. In October, 1812 Randolph County Superior Court Clerk, Thomas Caldwell, accepted 500 pounds as bail bond from Jeremiah Fields and Thomas Kirkman.
  • A year later, on October 4, 1813 Jonathan Lewis finally went to trial… for escaping jail, not the murder of Naomi Wise. The jury delivered a verdict against Jonathan; it found: The Defendant Guilty of breaking Jail & rescuing himself as charged in the bill of Indictment, but Not guilty as to the rescuing of Moses Smith (a fellow prisoner) from legal confinement: Judgment of the Court that the Defendant pay a fine of Ten Pounds and costs & be imprisoned thirty days.

He actually spent 47 days in jail because he was unable to pay the fine and court costs. On November 20, 1813 he was issued the Oath of an Insolvent Debtor, relieved of his debt and set free.

The real NaomiEdit

In 2003 Eleanor R. Long-Wilgus wrote “Naomi Wise, Creation, Re-Creation and Continuity in an American Ball Tradition” published by The Chapel Hill Press, Inc. Her book dissects folk music in general and the “Omi Wise” ballad in particular. She explains four types of singer/songwriters as: Perserverators, Confabulators, Rationalizers and Integrators.

Within the book she included a long narrative poem entitled “A true account of Nayomy Wise” written by a young girl, Mary Woody, born in 1801 in North Carolina. The handwritten poem was found in a commonplace book that had been donated by Mrs. Thomas B. Williamson in 1952 to the UCLA Research Library. To understand the poem Wilgus studied the law, traditions and history of the early 1800’s in North Carolina. Her research led to several important facts that reveal the fallacy of the original story and folk song:

  • Naomi Wise was quite a few years older than Jonathan.
  • At the time of her death, Naomi already had two children out of wedlock, Henry age 4, and Nancy age 9.
  • Mothers of illegitimate children had no expectation of marriage. They would, however, connivingly agree to name another man responsible for a pregnancy in court as required by the laws governing bastardy bonds. A gift of money and/or other “fine things” was expected.


So, not even her headstone is correct as to her birth or death. It is a memorial stone probably erected around the time the city of Randleman was incorporated. To further expose this specious account of Naomi Wise and Jonathan Lewis, Richard Lewis, father of Jonathan, listed his son as an heir in his written will of 1826. Therefore, Jonathan could not have confessed the murder to his father because Jonathan died in 1817 unbeknownst to his father.

On March 30, 1811, Jonathan Lewis married Sarah McCain in Clark County, Indiana. They had two children: Priscilla born March 4, 1812 and Thomas Willis born September 1816. Jonathan died of unknown causes on April 25, 1817.


ChildrenEdit

Name Birth Death
Children of Jonathan and Sara Lewis


Priscilla Lewis March 4, 1812


Thomas Willis Lewis September 4, 1816





ReferencesEdit

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