The Untold Story of Frankie Silver. By Perry Deane Young. Down Home Press, 220 pages, $14.95.

What is the statute of limitations on a legend, the shelf-life of a fable? How long before a story is certified as fact when it repeatedly passes from one person’s lips to another’s ears?

Perry Deane Young proved that 160 years isn’t enough. In his recent book, “The Untold Story of Frankie Silver,” Young takes on one of the most compelling tales in North Carolina history. Although many who fed the fire of this legend aren’t around to learn the truth, Young’s goal is for this generation—and future generations—to know the facts behind the fiction.

Young’s book, based on more than 40 years of research, dismantles the considerable myth that grew over time. Frankie Silver died on the gallows in Morganton in 1833, but her legacy lives today.

For the past century-and-a-half, Silver was widely considered to be the first woman hanged in North Carolina. Silver’s guilt for murdering her husband, Charlie, was also believed to be the subject of the “Ballad of Frankie and Johnny,” one of the most popular folk songs in United States history. Neither is true.

Young discovered that at least nine North Carolina women were hanged or burned at the stake before Silver, and that the song, originally believed to be based on Silver’s eleventh-hour confession, arose from the Mississippi Delta blues tradition.

The book contains an introductory chapter outlining the most popular fables as well as reprints of the documents Young found essential to discovering the truth. Besides dispelling long-standing myths, the book also has a far-reaching appeal as a historical narrative. It is divided into short, concise chapters, and Young uses a limited voice while allowing the facts to tell the story.

Sentenced for brutally chopping up her abusive husband with an axe just three days before Christmas 1831, Frankie Silver spent 18 months in jail before she escaped, was caught and subsequently hanged July 12, 1833.

The story has all kinds of elements,” Young says. “First of all a woman striking back—at that time. Women put together a petition to show support for Silver. That very same year, a man had beaten his wife to death with a piece of his gun and it had taken a couple of weeks for him to do the deed. He got off with court costs in the same courthouse, same jail, same everything. He was never even jailed for this.

I’m not sure I know why it’s caught people’s imagination. It’s amazing. You run the topic through the Internet and there’s a ballet in Switzerland, five plays, four video projects, one’s going to be a documentary where they restage the thing—it’s just incredible the amount of interest.”

So compelling is the subject, former U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin found time to reply to a query from Young by letter during the height of the Watergate hearings in the early 1970s. Ervin is a descendent of Thomas Worth Wilson, who Young discovered was Silver’s lawyer.

Mark Briggs was a student who formerly contributed to Endeavors.

Perry Deane Young is a graduate of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He is a former Vietnam War correspondent and the author of seven nonfiction books including Two of the Missing, The David Kopay Story, and God’s Bullies. He recently finished the screenplay for Two of the Missing with Ralph Hemecker (a director of the X-files and Millenium television series).