from notes to “Classic American Ballads,” by Jeff Place, Katie Ortiz, and Max Smith (SFW4021):
The ballad “Omie Wise” dates back to the 19th century. It was first published in 1874 in conjunction
with a story written by Braxton Craven, president of North Carolina’s Trinity College, about
the 1808 murder by Jonathan Lewis of his pregnant lover Naomi Wise in Randolph County, North
The real Naomi was born in 1789 and (most likely because she was an orphan) worked for a
family, the Adams family, in Randolph County. Jonathan Lewis worked as a clerk in a store owned
by Benjamin Elliot in Asheboro, North Carolina, and every weekend he would ride his horse past
the Adams farm on his way to visit his family.
The story goes that Naomi and John fell in love when he stopped one day to ask her for a drink of
water, then helped her carry her bucket back to the house.
From there, the variations in the story take all sorts of twists and turns. Some say the two shared
a genuine love until Lewis’ mother urged him to marry a wealthier woman; most claim that Naomi
was murdered to cover up a pregnancy out of wedlock; all tell of the pure and beautiful woman who
so naively placed her trust in a malicious man’s love.
The only contemporary account available of Naomi Wise comes from a handwritten poem entitled
“A true account of Nayomy Wise” by Mary Woods. According to Woods’ poem, and backed by
the records for “bastardy bonds” in the Randolph County Papers (located in the North Carolina
State Archives), Naomi Wise had borne two children out of wedlock by the time she met Lewis:
Nancy and Henry Wise, born in 1799 and 1804 respectively.
In Woods’ version of the tale, Naomi became pregnant by Lewis and demanded that he marry her
rather than post a bastardy bond. Naomi is still the victim of murder, but she is not the innocent and
virginal character in the ballads.
Whatever the circumstances of Naomi Wise’s situation, her story ended when she was drowned
in the Deep River in 1808 by Jonathan Lewis, who was arrested and held in the Randolph County
jail. He managed to escape—it is worth noting that his employer (and brother of the woman he
planned to marry instead of Naomi) was in charge of guarding his cell.
Many years later, Lewis was recaptured and brought to trial, but he was acquitted for lack of
sufficient evidence. It is said that he confessed to the murder of Naomi Wise on his deathbed in 1820.
Today Randolph County still has several landmarks dedicated to its most famous murder. The
Naomi Wise Spring and Naomi Falls are both located in the Deep River, where her body was found
and her gravestone lies.