Murder Ballad

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

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.

Entry Filed under: Music

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