The Grave of Naomi Wise

June 18, 2013 |

The ballad of Omie Wise has been sung many times. It has been included in Jim Comstock’s West Virginia Songbag, sung by Maggie Hammons and other West Virginian ballad singers.3 Some say that Naomi Wise, or Omie Wise, of ballad fame is actually from Randolph County, WV:

I’ll tell you the story about little Naomi Wise
Of how she was flattered by John Lewis’ lies.

            In the West Virginia versions, Cheat River is named as the place where poor Naomi was drowned, putting her death not far from US 219. In just about every version of the ballad, the story is relatively similar. Poor Naomi goes to meet her lover John Lewis by Adams spring. He claims to promise her riches and a wedding, that their love will not be shamed, probably alluding to the fact that she’s become pregnant. But he does not marry her or bring her rubies or gold. Instead, he throws her into the river and drowns her, then flees.

In the 1990s, West Virginia folklorist Gerald Milnes first heard that there was a grave in Randolph County, WV claiming young Naomi Wise. In 1995, he published an article about the West Virginia claim, with mixed feelings about the results of what he learned. “People need their folk heroes, heroines, and villains, and poor little Naomi was ripe for the claiming.”2 Last fall, Gerry and I drove the backroads along the Cheat River to find her again. As he drove over Pheasant Mountain, Gerry talked about his old friend Leroy Wingfield who started the search for West Virginia’s Naomi Wise.

“Leroy Wingfield told me that back during the Depression he was helping his father-in-law cut timber on family property near the Cheat River when he noticed some roses growing in a clump in the woods in a peculiar place. On closer inspection, he could make out what appeared to be a grave site.” 3

Leroy then asked a local grist miller named Robert Channell about the rose bush, and the grist miller said, “That lassie was kinfolks to you.” “In fact,” he said, “I was there and I even helped pull her body from the water when she was found floating in the millrace.“4 It seems, however, Robert Channell didn’t recall her name. The girl was buried in a solitary grave, and above her a single rose bush began to grow. Nobody was sure who had planted it, but it continued to bloom year after year. Leroy Wingfield knew the ballad of Naomi Wise, and he believed without a doubt that he had discovered the historic site where she was buried. He enlisted the help of two local researchers, Mr. and Mrs. Chapman, who have since passed away. They discovered that the closest cabin to the grave was occupied by a man named Randolph Wise, and some said he had adopted the girl.

Now in Randolph County, North Carolina there is solid evidence that a girl named Naomi Wise was drowned, probably by her lover John Lewis who was acquitted of the murder.5 There is even a large monument there in North Carolina in her honor. Nevertheless, West Virginia continues to claim her too. The Randolph County Historical Marker put a gravestone on top of Pheasant Mountain which reads “Naomi Wise, Killed in the Late 1870s”. Jim Comstock put the Naomi Wise Ballad into the West Virginia Songbag and the West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia, declaring Naomi Wise as a “bonafide” West Virginian.6

We trudged up the hillside in the mud and rain to the grave marked “Naomi Wise”. I neglected to bring either my coat or Gerry’s umbrella on the walk, and my shoes were soaked, though I hardly noticed. I went to bed that night with my mind stirring with questions of the girl— who was she? If she wasn’t named Naomi, then surely her name is just as important to tell. Gerry Milnes thinks she really was named Ruhuma Nelson, but he said he didn’t want to disappoint his friend Leroy Wingfield too much, who passed away a few years ago, and I’m going with Gerry on this. Ruhama, Naomi, Omie, whose body now lies in Randolph County, WV, beneath a rose bush that was discovered by Leroy Wingfield, who brought Gerry to see, who then brought me. I woke up the next morning with a cold that didn’t leave for over a week, and my thoughts all tangled as to how to ever tell the story of West Virginia’s Naomi Wise.


1. Gerald Milnes. “West Virginia’s Omie Wise: The Folk Process Unveiled,”Appalachian Journal, Vol. 22, No. 4 (SUMMER 1995), 376-389. Gerry Milnes recorded this fragment verse from Thelma Andrews in Randolph County, West Virginia, May 23, 1993.

2. ibid.

3. ibid.

4. Gerald Milnes, interview by Roxy Todd, Sept. 18, 2012.

5. ibid. In his article, Gerry Milnes reference numerous accounts that the murder of Naomi Wise was a historic event in North Carolina: including, 1. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, ed. Newman Ivey White (Durham: Duke University Press, 1952-64), Vol. 2, p. 690. 2. Craven’s text of “Poor Naomi,” first reprinted by The Randleton News, Randleton, North Carolina. See Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, Vol. 2, pp. 692-3. Craven’s text is published in The Viking Book of Folk Ballads of the English-Speaking World, ed. Albert Friedman (New York: Viking Press, 1966), along with a tune transcribed from Victor 21625 (1927).

6. See Jim Comstock, West Virginia Songbag (Richwood, W.Va., 1974), pp. 449-501, and The West Virginia Encyclopedia (Richwood, W.Va., 1976), Vol. 23, 5142.

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