Saturday, July 3, 2010

Poor Ellen Smith.

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.”

She was seventeen, and probably working at the newly opened, luxurious, Zinzendorf Hotel in the West End of Winston when she met Peter DeGraff. DeGraff was in his early twenties and probably worked at the hotel as well. He lived a reckless life; at an early age, he began, drinking whiskey and carrying a pistol. DeGraff had many run-ins with the law and was arrested at least once. He had been arrested and jailed for carrying a gun but managed to escape and flee to Virginia. The newspapers described him as a ladies man who had seduced and “ruined” or “gotten in trouble” many young women. His relationship with Ellen Smith followed much the same course. Ellen was pregnant in July 1892 and she may have already borne DeGraff a child that had died in infancy.

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.

Ellen was killed on the afternoon of July 20, 1892, by a single gunshot through the heart. There were powder burns on her apron and dress indicating that she was shot with a pistol at close range. The body was found in the woods behind the hotel the next morning after an unknown man told several people where to look. It is speculated that the man was Peter DeGraff who wanted Ellen’s body to be found.

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.

Trial: August 11, 1893
DeGraff was charged with murder in the first degree and he pled not guilty. He claimed he did not murder Ellen Smith, but when he took the stand DeGraff said he returned to the scene of the crime because he heard an old saying that if a person who committed a murder returned to the scene and spoke the right words, the victim would appear—exactly what he was seen doing the day of his arrest. That one statement probably sealed DeGraff’s fate. The trial lasted three days and the jury deliberated for twelve hours before returning a verdict of guilty.

Verdict: Guilty – First-degree murder

The case was appealed on several technicalities but the verdict was upheld. DeGraff’s attorneys petitioned North Carolina Governor Julian S. Carr for a stay of execution but that was declined as well. DeGraff was sentenced to hang.

On February 8, 1894, people came from all over North Carolina to see Peter DeGraff hang. An estimated six thousand people were on hand, giving the scene a carnival atmosphere DeGraff was pressured to confess, but still maintained his innocence as he climbed the scaffold. The party mood continued as the noose was placed around DeGraff’s neck but many in the crowd joined in as DeGraff sang the hymn “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?”

The crowd hushed when DeGraff indicated that he wished to make a statement, and the gasped when he said:

“I killed Ellen Smith. The only words she said after I shot were, ‘Lord have mercy on me.’”
He said he loved Ellen Smith and had intended ot marry her.DeGraff gave no reason for the murder except that he was drunk at the time. With a Bible in his hand, DeGraff spoke his last words to the crowd:
"I stand here today to receive my just reward. I again say to the people here, beware of bad women and whiskey...don't put your hands on cards, bad women and dice. Hear my dying words."
Peter DeGraff handed his Bible to his brother Lee, the hood was pulled down over his face and moments later he was swinging lifeless before the crowd. It was that last public hanging in Forsyth County. DeGraff buried in the county’s “potter’s field.”

The ballad “Poor Ellen Smith” appeared soon after the execution. It tells the story from the point of view of the condemned man and it was allegedly written by DeGraff himself. This is unlikely; the same claim was made in the cases of Frankie Silver and Tom Dula. It has also been claimed that the ballad, which professes the condemned man’s innocence, was so inflammatory that it was outlawed for a time over the fear that it would incite violence.

Casstevens, Frances Harding. Death in North Carolina's Piedmont: Tales of Murder, Suicide and Causes Unknown. Charleston, SC: History, 2006.

"Across Generations, Traces of a Poor Maid’s Murder" - New York Times, February 1, 2009

Ballad Lyrics (from Mudcat Cafe)
"Poor Ellen Smith"


Jack Nadelle says:
October 3, 2010 at 11:07 AM

This is an excellent accounting! I hope it's accurate although if it isn't it's still really good.
How were you able to research this? Very enjoyable I've just recently started learning the ballad of Poor Ellen Smith. I love the song (Don Reno and Bill Harrell version)with the back story it's even more enjoyable.

Robert Wilhelm says:
October 25, 2010 at 9:00 PM

The story comes from the sources listed above, particularly the book _Death in North Carolina's Piedmont_. It is a good song as well.

Caroline says:
February 11, 2012 at 4:24 PM

Where did you hear that she was pregnant at the time of the murder? I've researched this case somewhat thoroughly, and several sources tell of the child who died at birth, but none mention her being pregnant at the time of her death. I'm not saying you're wrong, but I'd like to see where you got that.

Robert Wilhelm says:
February 13, 2012 at 11:52 AM

I'll have to dig out the book to verify, but it must have come from _Death in North Carolina's Piedmont: Tales of Murder, Suicide and Causes Unknown _ by Frances Harding Casstevens

Caroline says:
March 2, 2012 at 5:53 PM

Gracias. I saw another source say she was pregnant. Such is the problem with stories like this, where many of the facts have been lost.

Robert Wilhelm says:
March 3, 2012 at 12:57 PM

Caroline, do you remember the other source? I re-read the story in the Casstevens book - he says DeGraff got Ellen "in trouble" and it was believed she had already borne DeGraff's child. I can't tell for certain if he is referring to two seperate pregnancies or only one. Another source would be good to see.

Caroline says:
March 17, 2012 at 4:58 PM

I could probably find it. I'm sure I have it on my favorites.

Ah, here we go.

I'm not exactly sure where this person got that information. It'd be nice if everyone listed their sources.,r:5,s:0

This is from the Myspace of Randy Furches, a relative of DeGraff.

(Ugh... that picture gives me the creeps.)

Robert Wilhelm says:
March 18, 2012 at 12:10 PM

Thanks for the links, Caroline, I think I will add both of them to the post. I agree, it would be helpful if everyone listed thier sources.

Caroline says:
March 23, 2012 at 4:44 PM

Nothing to it.

Unknown says:
May 12, 2013 at 9:18 AM

I am related to Peter Degraff also, but not sure of the relationship. My great-grandmother was a DeGraff and my dad (who is now deceased) always told us we were related to the infamous Peter DeGraff. I grew up in Winston-Salem and have lots of relatives around the area...maybe we are related? I am older than you of course--just turning 65. Would love to hear from you.

Unknown says:
August 2, 2014 at 1:06 AM

The last link, to the MySpace Account, is no longer valid. Perhaps he has gone on to Face Book or can be found on Ancestry?

Harlan Gray says:
May 5, 2017 at 11:11 AM

Just heard the song and wanted to research on this. Thanks for the information. Interesting story for a movie.

Unknown says:
July 20, 2019 at 8:24 AM

Excellent. Lived in Winston for 22 years and never heard this story

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