The morning of July 21, 1892 the body of Ellen Smith was found behind the Zinzendorf Hotel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She had been shot through the heart. The story of Ellen Smith’s murder is a classic tale of seduction and betrayal. A beautiful but innocent young woman strays from the path of righteousness for a faithless lover who soon becomes her killer. It is the stuff of Victorian cautionary literature and mountain murder ballads.
Date: July 20, 1892
Location: Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Victim: Ellen Smith
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Accused: Peter DeGraff
"Poor Ellen Smith" - Estil C. Ball
Facts of the Ellen Smith murder are sparse. Much of the story is based on supposition and contradictory accounts. Ellen Smith was probably born in Yadkin County, North Carolina in 1874. The 1880 census for Yadkin County lists Ellen Smith, age six, mulatto. She was probably dark-skinned, but mulatto was a catch-all category in 1880—she could have been part American Indian or Melungeon. She is sometimes portrayed as very beautiful; an acquaintance described her as:
“not bad looking” with a “a rather bold continence” and a “rather sharp nose. Her short hair tended to curl and she had blue eyes and straight white teeth.”
It is unclear exactly what prompted the murder. DeGraff may have initiated a quarrel to break off the relationship when Ellen began to push for marriage. Or he may have been jealous of her relationship with another man. One theory speculates that Ellen sent DeGraff a note saying she did not want to see him anymore. In either case, DeGraff probably sent Ellen a note asking her to meet him in the woods behind the Zinzendorf. A note from him was found on her body but the content has been lost.
Peter DeGraff was known to be Ellen Smith’s lover and he had not been seen since the murder. He became the prime suspect and warrant was issued for his arrest. But beyond issuing a warrant, very little was done to apprehend DeGraff. The sheriff of Forsyth County was sharply criticized for his inaction and was accused of cowardice. The newspapers speculated that DeGraff had not been arrested because he had more knowledge of,
“…extraordinary settlement of other cases, than the Sheriff would like to have divulged.” And wondered “…why persons charged with murder are thus permitted to strut about the country in broad daylight while our officers timidly keep out of their way.”
Reportedly, Peter DeGraff showed himself to many people and taunted the sheriff to come and get him. But nothing was done until Forsyth County elected a new sheriff.
On June 23, 1893, the new sheriff, Sheriff McArthur, received word that DeGraff had been seen getting off a train at Rural Hall. He sent officers to DeGraff’s parents’ house and other places he was known to frequent. But DeGraffs destination was the woods behind the Zinzendorf Hotel—the scene of the crime. Witnesses saw him there and heard him cry out,
“Ellen, if you are in heaven arise; if in hell, stay there.”
That evening he was found hiding under a feather mattress in a house near a tavern where he had once worked.