Thursday, December 2, 2010

Poor Ellen Smith

Poor Ellen Smith and How Was She Found,
Shot through the Heart
Lying Cold on the Ground

These are lyrics from a once popular song about one of the most famous murders in Piedmont North Carolina. This murder occurred in our West End Neighborhood. There are numerous versions of the song with varying lyrics by a variety of artists including the Kingston Trio.

Ellen’s body was discovered in the Winston portion of our Salem around 8:00 AM on July 21st 1892. A “colored woman”, possibly an employee of the hotel, was told by a white man, possibly the murderer, that there was a woman’s body in a thicket near the spring behind the new West End Hotel Zinzendorf. This would be near where the YWCA’s (recently closed) tennis courts are now located off of Glade Street. On looking the woman discovered the lifeless body of “Poor Ellen Smith” carefully placed on a bed of greenery. On investigation by the authorities it was discovered that Ellen had been killed by one shot through the heart at close range. There were powder burns on her clothing. It is thought that Ellen, found with an apron on, may have been a maid at the hotel. A note was found on her body and, although the contents were never revealed, it is thought to have been from her lover, Peter DeGraff, asking her to meet him at the spring behind the hotel. It is thought that Peter may also have been a hotel employee.

Drawing from Local Newspaper
Ellen was said to be very attractive, of dark complexion, with pleasant features and a good figure. Her short dark hair tended to curl accentuating her blue eyes and straight white teeth. It is thought that she had moved to Winston for employment and was most likely from Yadkin County. The 1880 Yadkin County census lists Ellen Smith, age six, a mulatto, as the daughter of Julius Smith, white, and his wife, Julia, also listed as a mulatto. It was very common, at that time, for a census taker to list folk with “dark skin” as mulatto with no determination for why their skin was “dark”. Many folk with Indian blood were listed as mulatto and many folk with African American blood claimed to be Indian. If this census is the correct Ellen Smith she would have been about 16 when she was murdered. It is believed that Ellen had born a child by Peter DeGraff but that the child had died. The location of Ellen or the child’s grave in unknown.

Drawing from Local Newspaper
Peter DeGraff was about 22 with a mustache, wore his hair parted in the middle slicked back. He was born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina in 1870. He moved to Winston with his parents at six years old. He had a reputation, very young, for leading a reckless life, drinking whiskey and carrying a pistol. He had been arrested early on for carrying a pistol and fled to Virginia. This was only the first of many run-ins with the law, escapes and flights from justice.

It is thought that the couple may have met while working at the new palatial Hotel Zinzendorf in the West End of Winston. DeGraff was apparently a “ladies man” having  numerous affairs with young women broken off by his initiation of a quarrel to end the relationship. He supposedly had “ruined” or “gotten in trouble” many of these women leaving them to deal with their “problem” alone by leaving town to avoid matrimony. His relationship with Ellen apparently followed this pattern with a child and a quarrel.

A warrant was issued that day for Peter DeGraff who had not been seen since the murder. A local newspaper article implied that DeGraff was the murdered girl’s “paramour” and that he had been implicated in the Goins murder last year.” Apparently, there was little effort to apprehend DeGraff leading to questions in the community and questions about the sheriff. The sheriff of Forsyth County was soon replaced by a new sheriff and Peter DeGraff was promptly discovered in Mount Airy and arrested.

Although DeGraff persisted in claiming his innocence the trial lasted three days with the jury deliberating for twelve hours. The jury returned a verdict of guilty and DeGraff was sentenced to hang. There was an appeal, which he lost, and the Governor refused a stay of execution. DeGraff wrote a letter to a local newspaper claiming to “forgive his persecutors.” DeGraff predicted that following his hanging the real perpetrator would be found. Many attempted to get DeGraff to confess his guilt but he repeatedly refused.

On February 8, 1894, in a new black suit provided by the county for the occasion, DeGraff walked to the gallous holding the family bible. Peter took his hat off, handed the bible to his brother and bowed to the crowd as the rope was placed around his neck. He requested to speak to the crowd and clearly stated, “I killed Ellen Smith”. It is reported that he also said that he loved Ellen and intended to marry her but was drunk when he killed her. Thousands were in attendance for the gruesome event, with a carnival atmosphere, as DeGraff was hanged at the county poorhouse, across from what is now the Z. Smith Reynolds airport. This was the last public hanging in Forsyth County.

It is thought that DeGraff may have wrote the first version of the song “Poor Ellen Smith” The song became so popular with the public that it became a misdemeanor to sing in a gathering of any size because it was sure to start a riot.

One version of the song "Poor Ellen Smith":

Poor Ellen Smith, how was she found
Shot through the heart lying cold on the ground
Her body was mangled, and all cast around
A blood marks the spot where poor Ellen was found

They picked up her body, and carried it away
Now she's a-sleepin' in some lonesome grave
Who had the heart, and who had the brain
To shoot my little darling on that cold lonesome plain

They picked up their rifles, and hunted us down
They found us a loafin' all around town
The judge may convict me, and God knows he can
But I know I died as an innocent man

I've been in this prison for seven long years

Each night I see Ellen through my bitter tears
I got a letter yesterday I read it today
The flowers on her grave have all faded away

The warden just told me that soon I'll be free
To go to her grave 'neath that old willow tree
I'm free from the walls of that prison, at last
But I'll never be free from my sins of the past

Poor Ellen Smith, how was she found
Shot through the heart lying cold on the ground  

Death in North Carolina's Piedmont: Tales of Murder, Suicide and Causes Unknown
More Detail Here

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