Ellen Smith [Laws F11]
DESCRIPTION: Peter Degraph claims that he has been falsely accused of murdering his sweetheart Ellen Smith. He describes his apprehension and sentence. He will be hanged, but says "My soul will be free when I stand at the bar"
EARLIEST DATE: 1936 (Brown)
KEYWORDS: homicide execution
1893 - Peter Degraph (sometimes spelled De Graff) is sentenced to die for the murder of Ellen Smith
FOUND IN: US(Ap,MA,MW,SE)
REFERENCES (11 citations):
Laws F11, "Ellen Smith"
BrownII 305, (No title; in a section headed "Ellen Smith and Peter De Graff" (1 text plus mention of 3 more)
BrownSchinhanIV 305, "Ellen Smith" (2 excerpts, 2 tunes)
Hudson 67, pp. 193-194, "The Ellen Smith Ballet" (1 text)
Combs/Wilgus 65, pp. 188-189, "Ellen Smith" (1 text)
Fuson, p. 132, "Poor Ellen Smyth" (1 defective text, too short to classify with certainty; Laws places it here though I would incline to classify it with "Poor Ellen Smith (I)")
Carey-MarylandFolkLegends, p.112, "Ellen Smith" (1 text)
Cohen-AFS1, p. 237, "The Fate of Ellen Smith" (1 text)
Darling-NAS, pp. 204-206, "Poor Ellen Smith" (2 text, of which the "B" text goes here and the "A" text with "Poor Ellen Smith (I)")
ADDITIONAL: _Sing Out_ magazine, Volume 21, #2 (1772), p, 21, "Poor Ellen Smith" (1 text, 1 tune, the Mollie O'Day version. The notes make the curious observation that, soon after recording this song with a hymn tune, O'Day gave up singing secular songs and turned to singing just gospel music)
Henry Whitter, "Ellen Smith" (OKeh 40237, 1924)
Mollie O'Day and the Cumberland Mountain Folks:, "Poor Ellen Smith" (Columbia 20629, 1949)
cf. "Poor Ellen Smith (I)"
How Firm a Foundation (Bellevue) (Original Sacred Harp/Denson Revisions. 1971 edition, p. 72)
Poor Ellen Smith
NOTES: To distinguish this from the other Ellen Smith ballad (which begins "Poor Ellen Smith, How was she found, Shot through the heart, Lying cold on the ground"), refer to these stanzas:
Come all kind people, my story to hear,
What happen'd to me in June of last year.
It's of poor Ellen Smith and how she was found,
A ball in her heart, lyin' cold on the ground.
I choked back my tears, for the people all said
That Peter Degraph had shot Ellen Smith dead!
My love is in her grave with her hand on her breast
The bloodhound and sheriff won't give me no rest.
The crime took place near Mount Airy, North Carolina. Folklore has it that DeGraph sang this song as he awaited execution. Richardson reports that "So great was the feeling, for and against Degraph, that it had to be declared a misdemeanor for the song to be sung in a gathering of any size for the reason that it always fomented a riot."
Paul Stamler notes that various versions of this song end with Degraph sentenced to prison rather than execution. This may be derived from the other ballad, "Poor Ellen Smith," which often ends before sentence is passed. The two often exchange verses.
A column by Dan Barry in the February 1, 2009 New York Times describes meetings with Peter DeGraff's grand-niece and other relatives, one of whom has a Bible DeGraff apparently took with him to the gallows. The story also gives a few details of the crime. Ellen Smith was a "poor, simple" woman, a teenager, who apparently was impregnated by Peter DeGraff (the spelling prefered by Barry and now used by the family). The child died at birth, but Smith continued to pester DeGraff even though he rejected her. At last, he sent her a note, full of orthographic errors, telling him to meet him. She came; he shot her. He fled, but later returned to town. He disclaimed responsibility for the murder, but the note in his hand was on Smith's body. He was sentenced to be hanged, and finally admitted shooting her. Her last words, according to DeGraff, were "Lord, have mercy on me." Supposedly it was the last public hanging in the county.
I wonder if there might be an element of racism in DeGraff's behavior. Frances H. Casstevens, Death in North Carolina's Piedmont: Tales of Murder, Suicide, and Causes Unknown, History Press, 2006, has a section on the Ellen Smith case, the longest account I have found. Records about Smith herself seem to be few, but an 1880 census record lists a six-year-old girl named Ellen Smith in Yadkin County; he father was while but her mother was listed as "mulatto" (Casstevens, p, 43), so Ellen was probably a quarter Black, and hence regarded as socially inferior. An 1894 newspaper drawing of Smith, reprinted on Casstevens, p. 44, does not reveal her skin color but seems to show very curly hair.
DeGraff, according to Casstevens, p. 45, was born in 1870. The newspaper drawing of him shows a man with an extremely long, narrow, bullet-shaped head that has a sort of a backward tilt at the top; Casstevens calls it a "cartoon" view, and it is clearly a caricature, but I wonder if it isn't an indication of something unusual about his face, perhaps very narrow eyes (a phenomenon linked by some rather complex and imperfect scientific evidence to antisocial personality).
DeGraff apparently was known as a ladies' man; he perhaps met Smith at a hotel where they both worked (Casstevens, p. 46). There was a rumor that she had already had a child by him, although the baby died.
The body was found near that hotel (Casstevens, p. 47). From there, things get hazy. Apparently there is conflicting testimony about who found the body. Smith was reportedly carrying a note from DeGraff, but no one knows what it said. She had been shot in the chest at close range -- one bullet, fired from a short enough distance that there was powder on her clothing. It is claimed that the murder took place at 3:00 p.m. on July 20, 1892, with the body being discovered the next morning.
Although a grand jury soon issued a warrant for DeGraff (who had not been seen since the murder), the sheriff was apparently slow to pursue him. Eventually, when a new sheriff took over, DeGraff was taken into custody (Casstevens, p. 47).
The charge against him, naturally, was first degree murder; the trial began August 11, 1893. According to Casstevens, p. 49, "DeGraff took the stand but did not help his case. He said that he returned to the scene of the crime because he had heard an old saying that if a person who committed a murder went back to the crime scene and spoke the right words, the victim would appear. That one statement sealed DeGraff's fate because he had been observed doing that very thing."
On August 15, 1893, after deliberating for twelve hours, the jury found DeGraff guilty. An appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court was rejected, as was an appeal for clemency. DeGraff was sentenced to die on February 8, 1894 (Casstevens, p. 50). He continued to maintain his innocence -- so much so that some questioned his sanity.
On his gallows, DeGraff reportedly finally admitted his guilt, and perhaps said he killed Ellen while drunk (Casstevens, p. 51). But the reports of his last words seem confused to me.
The usual tune for this song is very closely related to a common melody for the hymn "How Firm a Foundation, Ye Saints of the Lord." The hymn is older than this song; according to John Julian, editor, A Dictionary of Hymnology, 1892; second edition 1907 (I use the 1957 Dover edition in two volumes), p. 537, the text first appeared in John Rippon's Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors of 1787, signed only "K"; Julian's investigation leads him to believe this is short for "Keen," but who "Keen" is he does not know. But that's just the text. The date of the tune is not given. There are two widely-used melodies for the hymn; one, which is NOT this melody, is dated to 1751; the other, which IS this melody, is listed in several hymnals simply as "Early American Melody," with no date. So the origin of the tune remains unclear. These two tunes are sometimes known as "Kirkham" and "Bellevue." - RBW
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