This is the gravestone of Naomi Wise.

She was murdered in 1808, and her body was thrown into the Deep River.

After her killer was found and escaped punishment, the killing became famous, and a ballad (or two or three) was written about the murder, Omie Wise.

Omie Wise, it seems, is the wellspring of a particular tradition in American murder balladry, centered on the theme of a cad doing in his pregnant girlfriend by the banks of a river. Pushing beyond a strict folkloric interpretation, one might argue that the murder ballad gives rise to crime stories, and in particular murders, as a central narrative element in popular entertainment. An element in many of these songs is a verse which describes the grisly moment of the killing, often in conjuction with a first-person perspective. The best-known example of this is Knoxville Girl, which is in and of itself not based on a true murder, unless it is Omie Wise’s death which has been crossbred with the older British sources. At any rate, one can draw lines straight from this gravestone to today’s police procedurals, such as CSI. One wonders if a pregnant murder victim, done in by her fiance and tossed into the river, figures in any of these contemporary works. One certainly hopes so.

In the last week of March, my family and I drove to the cemetery where this stone stands. (I was in North Carolina to visit my parents and for a business conference). It is an old cemetery, and most of the original stones are long gone. I was able to locate three from just after 1808. Instead of the typical arch-top marble slab we think of as a gravestone, these early markers were made from a slick, greenish-grey local stone similar to slate. They were lightly engraved by, as one might say, ‘divers hands.’

In researching this, it became clear to me that the stone I took a picture of is a replacement. In addition, near the stone, there is a large block-shaped marker in the center of an area without markers. The stone is inscribed as a memorial to the cemetery’s anonymous dead. Given these three elements (very few original markers, one replacement marker only for a well-known interment, and an open section without markers identified as containing unknown interments), I would speculate that the stone bearing the name of Naomi Wise might be a memorial stone rather than a true grave marker. However, the headstone is accompanied by a footstone, a mostly-neglected practice whereby a smaller stone is placed at the foot of the grave.

In the older graves in this cemetery, the practice was clearly standard. Markers switch to professionally engraved white marble sometime around 1840 or 1850, and these markers continued the practice of placing a headstone and footstone pair at the site of the interment. So it’s quite possible I am wholly off base in my surmise.