Archive for February 3rd, 2009

Murder Ballad

This whole story is like a Nick Cave song…

One hundred fifteen years ago this month, on open land now occupied by warehouses and office buildings, a bantam of a man mounted the gallows built in his dishonor. He raised his hat and bowed before the 6,000 people gathered to see the floor beneath him drop. He carried a small Bible.

A trial six months earlier had laid out how this ne’er-do-well of 22, Peter DeGraff, had charmed a poor, simple woman named Ellen Smith. How she followed him around town like a puppy after their child was lost at birth. How he avoided her, accused her of being with other men, muttered that he’d like to kill her. How he sent her a note fraught with misspellings one day, sweetly requesting she meet him by a spring close to where people now play tennis, down the hill from the Zinzendorf Hotel, long gone.

How he shot her through the heart, his gun so close that its powder singed the outfit she had chosen for what she thought would be a romantic reconciliation. How she was not yet 20.

DeGraff fled for a while, but eventually returned to town for reasons unknown and was captured. All the while he maintained his innocence, even though his sweet note had been found tucked in the bosom of poor Ellen Smith.

The solemn words of a few dignitaries on the scaffold did little to stem the giddy mood coursing through the large crowd, though some paused long enough to join in singing the hymn “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?” DeGraff sang along, a rope around his neck.

Then with his last words the condemned man finally confessed to murdering the uneducated maid, saying, “The only words she said after I shot were, ‘Lord have mercy on me.’ ”

DeGraff implored his listeners to stay away from whiskey, bad women and dice. He shook hands with everyone on the scaffold, including his two brothers. And just before his pale face disappeared behind a black hood, he handed his hat and his Bible to his brother Lee.

Moments later, he was dancing on air. Then he was hanging limp, a human exclamation point to the last public hanging in Forsyth County.


Finally, there is the murder ballad called “Poor Ellen Smith.” Often and perhaps wrongly attributed to Peter DeGraff, the song rang out from front porches and concert halls, its haunting words recorded over the years by everyone from the Kingston Trio to Neko Case.

Poor Ellen Smith, how was she found?

Shot through the heart lying dead on the ground.


For many years the connection meant nothing to [DeGraff’s great-great nephew Randy] Furches. But after hearing “Poor Ellen Smith” for the first time a year or so ago, he felt moved to write some verses clearly stating that Peter DeGraff was the killer, but also suggesting he was more in love with his victim than the record suggests.

The lyrics new and old echoed through The Garage, where young performers waited for their turn on stage and a massive silver fan stirred the smoky air.

Now I’m in jail, a prisoner am I,

But I know God is with me, hears every cry.

The morning after Mr. Furches’s performance, his mother received a phone call from one of her DeGraff cousins, Earsley Nifong Fulton, who had just read a story in The Winston-Salem Journal about his version of “Poor Ellen Smith.” By the way, she said in passing, she had this old Bible, and Peter DeGraff’s name is in the back of it.


The back flap bears the signature of Peter DeGraff, and the date 1893, the year he was imprisoned and convicted. Also appearing are the handwritten words, “This is for God that sav my sol.”

Once again, I have no particular point, it’s just a fascinating little slice of lore and American gothic.

February 3rd, 2009 at 11:32am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Music

What Are Republicans Thinking?

Maybe they’re just opposing reflexively, but this makes no sense to me:

An aide to Senator John McCain told the Globe today that the Arizona Republican will no longer hold up the nomination of William J. Lynn III, the Raytheon executive and former registered lobbyist who was granted a special White House waiver to get around the Obama administration’s strict new ethics regulations.

Lynn’s nomination to be deputy secretary of defense hit a snag late last month when lawmakers from both parties questioned whether his ties to Raytheon, which was awarded more than $10 billion in Defense Department contracts last year, should disqualify him from serving as the day-to-day manager of the Pentagon, with enormous influence over decisions that would affect the Waltham-based defense giant.

Indeed, Lynn’s lobbying ties are a clear violation of Obama’s own ethics rules. Implemented by executive order on Jan. 21, they bar lobbyists from positions in the new administration that oversee the industries they advocated for in the previous two years. Lynn, however, was a registered lobbyist for Raytheon until July 2008.


McCain’s willingness to move ahead with a vote on Lynn in the committee — which could come as early as this afternoon — still leaves one possible obstacle to his ultimate approval — Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican.

Grassley last week told White House budget director Peter Orszag that the selection of Lynn “gutted the ethical heart” of Obama’s pledge to close “the revolving door” that has allowed former lobbyists to oversee the very industries they once represented.

“He would be the final approval authority on most — if not all — contract, program and budget decisions,” Grassley wrote. “Surely, a number of Raytheon issues would come across his desk.”

So let me get this straight: this guy is an executive and former lobbyist for a defense contractor, and the Republicans aren’t just gleefully waving him through?  What are they thinking?  Do they care nothing for the interests of their defense industry constituents?

Also, how meaningful is Obama’s no-lobbyists policy if he can just grant a waiver from it whenever he feels like it?  It sounds like Bush’s no-torture policy.

February 3rd, 2009 at 07:24am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Corruption/Cronyism,Democrats,Obama,Politics,Republicans

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