The Kossoy Sisters with Erik Darling, banjo
Thanks to my grandmother, Estelle Ward Walker, I have always been interested in the tale of Poor Ellen Smith. “Meemaw”, a farm woman, did not drive, so rode now and then with us to shop in downtown Winston-Salem. Whenever our route took us up the Glade Street hill past the YWCA, she would always point and say “That’s where they found Poor Ellen’s body…right there.”
Some versions of the folk tune “Poor Ellen Smith” begin: “Poor Ellen Smith, how was she found, shot through the heart lying dead on the ground, her body was mangled and all cast around, and X marks the spot where Poor Ellen was found.” Don’t know how that got started, but the part about her body being mangled and all cast around simply is not so, as we shall see. In fact, most versions of the song have little to do with the real story. It was not a rural event, but a very urban one. It took a year for the authorities to find the killer. The killer did not get off with a mere prison sentence. And my favorite “mistake” is the one about the lonesome grave…far from it…Ellen Smith and her killer were buried within a few yards of each other.
As in any criminal case, there is a lot of conflicting evidence. Some of that is deliberate lies…some is simply mistakes…but the worst is a series of incorrect dates in court documents, which led to witnesses being asked questions containing incorrect dates, and even a jury verdict that states the wrong date of death for the victim by more than a month. Ah well…in the end they got the right man, at least, despite the fact that he created a pastiche of lies that endure to today.
Mary Ellen Smith, as drawn by John Beard for the Western Sentinel from a photograph, published February 8, 1894
Mary Ellen Smith was born to Mary Smith, an unmarried woman about 22 years old, in Forbush, Yadkin County, NC around 1874. The head of the household was Katherine Smith, her grandmother, who was about 44. According to the 1880 US census, the other members of the household were five of Mary Ellen’s aunts and uncles, ranging in age from 26 to 14. Her two uncles were listed as farm laborers. The three aunts were simply listed as “at home”.
Since the 1890 US census got burned to a crisp, we lose track of the Smiths for a while, until Mary Ellen resurfaces in the 1891-92 Winston City directory. She is listed as working as a domestic in the household of Kenny Rose, who was a clerk at D.D. Schouler’s Racket Store, one of the largest retail businesses in the town of Winston.
From later statements, we know that she went to work in the Rose household in March, 1889. Because she was very petite, Rose thought that she was about 13 at the time. Her cooking was quite satisfactory, but Rose said that she was “not bright”. In December, 1891, she left and went to work in another household, then returned in May, 1892. At that point, she had only a few weeks to live.
Peter Degraf, as drawn by John Beard from life for the Western Sentinel, published February 8, 1894
Peter Degraf was born around 1870 near Elizabeth City, NC to Anthony, a native of Bordeaux, France, and Elen Degraf. When Peter was about six, the family moved to the South Fork township of Forsyth County. By 1880, he, his older brother Joseph and their father were working as laborers, while their older sister Mary helped out with the household chores. Their baby brother Lee was only 5 years old.
In the 1894 Winston city directory, the family is listed as living on Shallowford Street in Winston, where Anthony worked as a basket maker and Lee, by then in his teens, worked as a marble cutter. One might assume that they had moved into the city, but later evidence indicates that they were still in the same place. The evidence for this is the central role played in Peter’s life by a business known as Pitts Store, which was on Shallowford, “west of the city”. The question is, how far west? That distance is generally vague, but there are a couple of mentions of the nearby Russell households that place them about two miles from the city. One crucial witness later described Peter buying some liquor at Pitts Store, then walking across “Hanes’ field toward the hotel”, meaning the original Zinzendorf Hotel in the West End, which burned to the ground on Thanksgiving Day, 1892.
Just how close would one need to be to the hotel to justify saying that he was specifically walking toward the hotel rather than downtown in general? P.H. Hanes owned most of the land between the intersection of Stratford Road and Shallowford (First Street) and the old hotel location. And Peter was seen in the hotel area within 15 minutes of leaving Pitts Store, so he didn’t walk far. Then I found, on a 1907 map of Forsyth County, a store located almost exactly at the intersection of Stratford and West First. I checked the distance…almost exactly two miles from the courthouse. My guess is that it is Pitts store, so we’ll call it that for purposes of this story.
X marks the location of the notorious Pitts Store and the home of Gid Russell, where Peter Degraf was arrested.
Peter is never mentioned in the city directories, but via other sources we know for sure that he was there and that he sort of worked, and sometimes lived at “Pitts Store”, which might have been a store but seems to have been more of a saloon and locus of ribaldry. We shall see.
As later described by the weekly Union Republican, Peter was “…small in stature, sparely rather than thickly built, has light hair and eyes and…wore a mustache with his nose prominent…He has no particular trade or profession, and from boyhood has lead (sic) a reckless life, drinking, gambling, carousing, sporting deadly weapons and bad habits generally, with an especial fondness for the opposite sex…generally to their sorrow.” Others pointed out that his only redeeming virtues were his striking blue eyes and his devotion to his mother. He was also known as a sharp dresser, always wearing a snappy hat.
By the early 1890s, he was developing a very bad reputation. He had done time on the roads for theft and been arrested for carrying a pistol inside the town limits. On that occasion, in Febrauary, 1886, only 16 years old, he was fined $10 on two counts. In those days, if you could pay the fine, you walked. But Peter didn’t have $10, so he was remanded to the county jail for two months. After serving 3/4 of his sentence, he managed to dig a hole in the floor of his cell on the second level of the jail big enough for a small slender man to slip through, and using two sheets tied together, lowered himself to the ground and escaped. There is no record of his ever being recaptured or punished for the escape.
He had numerous bad encounters with women. One of those had been found dead under suspicious circumstances. Some said that Peter had killed her.
In May, 1891, on a Saturday night, Wilburn Walker and John Smith (no relation to Mary Ellen) were out for some fun in the area around Belo’s Pond. Their first stop, a few minutes after midnight, was Lee Wilson’s place at 322 West Tenth Street, where they found several “nymphs de pave”, as the Union Republican later styled it. But there were some other gentlemen already on the scene. There was a bit of harsh talk, so Walker and Smith moved on to another nearby establishment owned by a black man named Henry Goins and his wife Mary. For reasons unknown, some of the gentlemen from the Wilson establishment followed them, exchanging epithets along the way.
At the Goins place, there was a moment of confusion. Then a member of the following group, a small man wearing a light colored suit and a white straw hat pulled out a pistol and opened fire. The first shot struck Mary Goins in the face, killing her instantly. Walker then drew his own pistol and returned fire. Smith, caught in the middle, was hit and fell down dead. At that point, the small man in the straw hat and his companions took to their heels. Walker was arrested that night and jailed, but the police were not certain what charge to lodge against him.
In an attempt to identify the small man with the straw hat, a public hearing was organized and a number of witnesses summoned. Lee Wilson, described as a “…buxom, robust woman rather young and good looking…” and “…always attuned to the jingle of coin…” had seen nothing. Irene Robinson, apparently one of Lee’s “nymphs”, described as bearing “…a red head, smartly mixed with gray and is apparently 40 years old…” said that she did not know anything or any body.
A number of people came under suspicion, but in the end Walker was released for lack of evidence and the whole thing sort of petered out. Those in the know said that the description of the small man in the straw hat perfectly fit one Peter Degraf, but no one was ever charged with the murders.
Meanwhile, in January, 1890, Mary Ellen Smith met Peter Degraf. In 1891 she got pregnant. In December, she lied to her employer, telling him that she was leaving to work in another household, then went home to Yadkin County to have the baby, which was either stillborn or died shortly after birth. Ellen then returned to 115 West Fifth Street and went back to work for the Roses. But, apparently, she had not had enough of Peter Degraf. Certainly, something was going on between them, because they were seen together everywhere, on the streets downtown, at Pitts barroom, even at the notorious saloon operated by Ham Douthit in the “Ram Cat” neighborhood, the same locus where Degraf may have committed a double murder the year before. As often as not, they were arguing. A Trade Street merchant later testified that in 1890 or 91, Peter had brought Ellen to his store, introduced her as his girlfriend and told the merchant to provide her with whatever she wanted. He said that she purchased very little, some candy and a few other items, and that Peter always paid the bill each month. But in early 1892, Peter had come to his store and told him that he was no longer engaged with Ellen and that the merchant was no longer to give her anything. By July, 1892, she was pregnant again.
On Tuesday, July 19, 1892, after preparing lunch for the Rose household, Mary Ellen, wearing a white apron over a solid blue dress…or maybe it was blue calico, went to a nearby store where she bought a yellow silk scarf…or maybe it was blue. She was later seen by several other people, each time nearer a notorious spring below the new Zinzendorf Hotel. Finally, a man who originally claimed that he knew Ellen but not Peter, said that at about three PM, he saw her reclining in a glade near the spring with a young man. His head was in her lap and her arms were around him.
Conventional wisdom has always said that Mary Ellen’s body was found “about where the YWCA is”. Several newly available print sources say that the spring was about 200 yards behind the hotel, considerably farther than the old YWCA building. Looking at the terrain, it is more likely that the spring was located where the old West End greenhouse stood on Glade Street between West End Boulevard and Sunset. A greenhouse operation requires a lot of water, so the location may have been chosen to take advantage of the spring. All sources say that Mary Ellen’s body was found near the spring, meaning, apparently, within 60-70 feet.
On the morning of July 20, Hattie Pratt, who worked in the laundry at the Zinzendorf Hotel, encountered a young man, dressed in a light brown suit and a black derby hat. He told her that there was a body of a young woman in the woods nearby and that she should go and see who it was. After he agreed to accompany her, she did so, at which point he left and she came back out of the woods and sounded the alarm.
Coroner Augustus Fogle Forsyth County Public Library Photograph Collection
Forsyth County sheriff M.E. Teague and coroner Augustus Fogle were summoned. In the woods they found the dead body of Mary Ellen Smith, reclining on some boughs of greenery. She had been shot one time, the bullet entering her left side and exiting the right. Her blue dress was stained on the left side by gunpowder. Nearby, they found her white apron hanging from a branch. It too was stained with powder residue. In the pocket they found a scrap of paper. Scrawled on it was a request for a meeting in the woods near the spring. It was signed by Peter Degraf.
Coroner Fogle enlisted several passersby…Edward Rothrock, John H. Swaim, Frank Keehls, F.S. Chewning, C.G. Knott and John Wall…and convened a coroner’s inquest. The coroner’s jury wasted no time. Mary Ellen Smith had come to her end by a bullet fired into her side by a person known as Peter de Graff.
Dr. David N. Dalton Forsyth County Public Library Photograph Collection
Her body was then openly carried by several men to the police station in the Winston Town Hall, now the site of the Reynolds Building. The next morning, Thursday, July 21, 1892, the county medical examiner, Dr. D.N. Dalton, did a post mortem. It was carried out on a table in the Town Hall, in full view of a number of idlers. He reported that Mary Ellen’s body was already somewhat swollen and damaged by insects. He also said that the bullet had severed a large artery near her heart. His conclusion matched that of the coroner’s jury. A warrant was issued:
The coroner’s report and the arrest warrant were part of the same document, the coroner’s report signed on July 20, the warrant on July 21.
Unfortunately, this unofficial scribble somehow became a part of the record. Why justice of the peace Pegram misdated it is a mystery…he certainly knew the correct date. But this would be the source of many other misdatings, which extended through the 1893 arrest of Peter Degraf and even the jury’s final verdict. Sloppy work by court officials, lawyers and judges.
Meanwhile, Mary Ellen’s best clothes were retrieved from Kenny Rose’s house. Rose was at work, and apparently his wife had nothing to say, so it was assumed that Mary Ellen was an indigent and an orphan. Her body was placed in a coffin and taken to the county Poor House on North Liberty Street, near the present Smith Reynolds airport, and buried in Potter’s Field. Nobody bothered to report her death to her parents over in Yadkin County because no one bothered to find out who they were.
The sheriff and the local police began looking for Peter Degraf. But he was not to be found. There are a number of urban legends, some of them invented by Peter himself, about how the sheriff or the chief of police used rumor or superstition to lure Peter back to the crime scene and extract an unwitting confession. Those urban legends are false. There is also a long standing rumor that the county or the city passed a law making it illegal to sing the song, “Poor Ellen Smith”, for fear that it might trigger a riot or lynching. That also is false. No such law was ever passed. And the provenance of the song is unknown, but it was probably written some time after Peter had already been hanged. The first mention of it in any newspaper occurs in 1911, seventeen years after Peter’s demise.
Sheriff M.E. Teague Forsyth County Public Library Photograph Collection
But the case triggered a local newspaper war. The Union Republican, the most moderate paper, pretty much stayed out of it. But the Salem People’s Press, still a Whig paper thirty plus years after the death of the Whig party, did not like Sheriff Teague, so ran a series of articles claiming that Peter had been seen walking around free all over town and that the sheriff was either unwilling or afraid to arrest him, this despite the fact that the sheriff had offered a $25 reward out of his own pocket for the capture of Peter Degraf. One of their articles came dangerously close to advocating lynching. Even worse, the Western Sentinel in Winston, by far the most conservative paper, came out in defense of Peter, smearing Mary Ellen as a lowlife hooker and even accusing her unknown father of being the killer.
That tune soon changed when Mary Ellen’s family in Yadkin County found out what had happened. Mary Ellen’s aunt, Rosa Smith, came to Winston and began complaining loudly about how Mary Ellen’s body had been paraded through the town and then put on display, naked, during the post mortem. The Western Sentinel, and its brand new affiliate, the Twin City Daily Sentinel, sensing a publicity bonanza, switched to her side. Rosa settled in at the Terry House, on Main Street next door to the Hotel Jones and began castigating all officials, from Sheriff Teague to coroner Fogle to medical examiner Dalton to anyone else involved in the fiasco, with good reason.
What actually happened is that after Peter emerged from the woods on Wednesday, July 20, and a warrant was issued for his arrest on the 21st, he laid low for a few days. then went down to the railroad depot and took a train to Mt. Airy, which is about 35 miles to the north. The train passed within a few feet of Ellen’s fresh grave. Despite some far fetched story from Peter that he then took a series of trains to other places, including New Mexico, it is likely that he mostly stayed around for the next eleven months, working at “Mr. Yokely’s” sawmill, about two miles outside of town, living under the assumed name H.D. Hendricks. Had he remained there, he might well have escaped capture forever.
Union Republican, March 16, 1893
However, for reasons that he never explained, Peter took the train to Rural Hall the last week of June…or maybe it was July…1893. There, someone recognized him. The sheriff and the Winston police sent officers to the Degraf home on Shallowford Street and to other places where Degraf might show up. On the evening of the 23rd, Sheriff McArthur, Winston police chief Bradford and Winston officers J.J. Cofer and J.J. Adams, went to the home of John Russell, near the infamous Pitts Store where Peter had worked. Peter was not there. They then went to Gid Russell’s, next door.
Sheriff R.M. McArthur Forsyth County Public Library Photograph Collection
After some delay, they were admitted and found Peter hiding under a feather tick. “Old man, get up, we’ve got you!” cried Adams., drawing his pistol and throwing back the mattress. “All right, Mr. Adams,” Peter replied. “I’ll give up. I want you to treat me like a gentleman, though.” “We will not hurt a hair on your head if you act right,” Adams responded. Apparently, Peter “acted right” because he rode unshackled on horseback beside Adams down to the jail.
The first week of August, the Forsyth County Grand Jury indicted Peter for the murder of Mary Ellen Smith. By then, the press had long since eliminated her first given name and she had become simply Ellen Smith. During the time that he was held both before and after his trial, Peter vociferously denied his guilt. Over the next several months he wrote a number of florid letters to the editors of the Sentinel. In one he stated “…when I am gone, you will some day find the man who committed the crime.”
Peter’s trial began on August 11, 1893 before Superior Court judge Robert W. Winston. Solicitor W.W. Barber and Glenn & Manly (today Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge and Rice) appeared for the state. Apparently, Mary Ellen’s aunt Rosa had little confidence in soliciter Barber. She had gone out on her own and raised the money to hire Glenn & Manly (Robert Glenn and Clement Manly, both of whom at one time or another ran for governor of NC) to actually conduct the prosecution. Peter was represented by Col. Thomas Sutton and F.T. Baldwin. The courthouse was packed with male spectators. Such a spectacle was considered inappropriate for ladies, but Mary Ellen’s aunt Rosa was seated in the front row throughout.
The most damning piece of evidence against Peter was the note found in Mary Ellen’s apron. It went missing years ago. I have never found anyone who had seen it and there was no source that even quoted it. But now, thanks to newspapers.com, we know what it said, because during the trial Clement Manly, speaking for the prosecution, read it aloud in court and it was quoted verbatim in the Western Sentinel:
“July 18th, 1892: _ Dear Miss Ellen i write this to you to see if you are mad with me. If you are let me know. Pleas Don’t thin hard of me for I have love you all my life and can’t let nobody but you, so please let me prove your love, Peter DeGraff. So I want you to come tomorrow to the spring. if you will pleas come and don’t fail for I want you to come good by love. Want to kiss for you * * * * * * as you have done before. P. D. A. f. (The stars were in the note.)”
The trial would continue for three days, featuring the testimony of 42 witnesses, not counting recalls to the stand. It cost Forsyth County $178, the largest part being the $20 allotted to solicitor Barber. It took the jury about eight hours to reach a decision.
“The jurors for the state upon oath present that Peter de Graff, late of the county of Forsyth, with force and arms of and in said county on the 20th day of June (sic) AD 1892 of his malice aforethought, unlawfully, willfully and feloniously did kill and murder Ellen Smith contrary to the form of the statutes in such case made and provided and against the peace and dignity of the state.”
That same day, Judge Winston sentenced Peter to be hanged for the murder. He set the date as Saturday, October 21, but of course there was an appeal. The state Supreme Court having denied the appeal, a new date was set. February 8, 1894. Even after all that, Peter continued to deny that he had killed Ellen Smith.
By that time in history, most civilized jurisdictions had discontinued public executions. But after much debate, it was determined that Peter’s execution would be public, using the same old idea that it would provide an example for others. But a small change was made. Public hangings had traditionally been scheduled for Fridays. As a consequence, Fridays, forget Friday the 13th, had become widely considered to be unlucky days. Thus the date Febuary 8, a Thursday.
The death warrant was signed by Governor Elias Carr.
During the wait from arrest to trial to appeal to actual execution, Peter Degraf developed sleeping problems, so became addicted to “sleeping powders”. During that same time, he became well acquainted with many of the folks connected with the jail, including the sheriff, the chief of police, various deputies and police officers and especially the jailer, J. E. Ziglar and his family, who, because they actually lived next door to the jail, knew him better than anyone.
Having taken his sleeping powders on the night of the 7th of February, Peter arose on the day of his execution and ate a simple breakfast. He then donned the new black suit purchased for him by Forsyth County and prepared to leave for the execution site. There were tearful moments, the worst being when he shook the hands of jailer Ziglar’s children. He gave one of them an apple left over from his final meal.
Many others were present. Over time, virtually every minister in town had visited Peter in the jail. And a group of young local men had joined him for prayer on many occasions. The purpose of all this was to convince Peter to confess, for his soul in eternity. None had succeeded in extracting a confession, but Peter had chosen the Missionary Baptist faith and asked to be baptized. The Reverend H.A. Brown, minister of the First Baptist Church, however, demurred, stating that baptism was not necessary for salvation. He really did not want to get that involved.
Soon enough, a carriage arrived, and the final party boarded…Sheriff McArthur, jailer Ziglar, police chief Bradford, officer Adams and the Reverend Brown along with the condemned man. Their destination was the hanging ground, on the county poor house property on North Liberty Street, about where Fairchild Drive now intersects Liberty Street.
The legendary brick maker George Black, whose statue stands on the plaza at the Forsyth County Government Center, once described the scene for me.
He was a teenager at the time. He and his brother were among the first to arrive. There was a rope stretched across the field in front of the gallows. A deputy told them to stay behind the rope. “If we catch you on the wrong side,” the deputy said. “We’ll put you up there with him.” George called the gallows “the stage”, because this was a show, like Old John’s Circus or Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Not far from the stage, and not far from where Ellen Smith was buried was a freshly dug grave, and next to it, a coffin, covered by a quilt.
This picture is from a glass negative in the collection of Old Salem Museums and Gardens. It is not identified, but it seems likely that it is the gallows on which Peter Degraf was hanged. First, it fits the descriptions. Second, the dark line in the left background would appear to be the railroad cut that ran through the property. Third, it is likely that buildings seen in the distance at right are those of the Forsyth County poor house. The person standing on the scaffold is unknown. It is certainly not Peter Degraf.
Thousands of people gathered, many with picnic lunches and in a carnival mood. Eventually the carriage arrived. George Black named everyone who descended from it. He described the convicted man in detail. Peter shook hands with his brothers and handed them his hat and the Bible that he was carrying. Notable by his absence was Peter’s father, Anthony, who it is said could not bear to watch this spectacle. Legend has it that he spent the day gathering firewood in his yard on Shallowford Street. Peter’s mother Elen is not mentioned. Onstage, the sheriff read the death warrant, then asked if Peter had anything to say before the order was carried out.
The reverend Brown read the 51st Psalm, prayed and led the crowd in a rousing rendition of “Am I a Soldier of the Cross”, with Peter joining in. And Peter, finally, confessed. “My hands have been stained in blood,” he said. “I have kept it back for months. God told me to. Yes! I shot that woman.” He claimed that he was drunk…that he and Ellen argued…that she had been following him around and would not stop…that he shot her…that her last words were “Lord have mercy upon me.” He said that he took off her apron and laid her out on a bower of greenery. And that when her body had not been discovered by the next morning, he went back to be sure that it was quickly found. Then he walked to the front of the stage and looked down, where all the boys, white and black, were pressed up against the rope. “Young men,” he said, “Don’t drink liquor. Don’t gamble. Don’t go with fast women. Because if you do, they will do to you what they are about to do to me.”
Peter shook hands with everyone onstage.Then a black hood was placed over his head and the rope adjusted around his neck. At his request, the hood was raised momentarily so that he could again shake hands with the sheriff. And Peter looked up and said “I will see that bright sun there but a few moments longer.” His last words. Then the hood was readjusted, the sheriff tripped the trap and Peter shot down through the floor. His body twitched once, twice. Seven minutes later he was pronounced dead.
His body was taken down, placed in the coffin and buried, just yards away from Ellen Smith’s grave. Today, the graves themselves are buried under concrete, beneath the Forsyth County Ground Maintenance facility.
Normally, the local weekly newspapers came out on Thursday mornings. The editor of the Western Sentinel decided to delay publication that week until after the hanging, thus scoring a beat on his competitors. And he put the story on the front page, almost unheard of. Local news was usually relegated to page two or three. From a photo taken from the original page in the North Carolina Room of the Forsyth County Public Library in 1976. That page has since gone missing.
This story is carefully documented from many written sources, but much of it is from testimony and statements…all oral history…which can be tricky. I checked George Black’s quotations against written records and found them to be remarkably accurate. I once asked him how he could remember so clearly words that were spoken more than eighty years before. He said “Because, they then killed the man. I have lived my life by what he said. I never drank liquor. I never gambled. And I don’t even know no fast women.”
The 1894 hanging ground and the graves of Mary Ellen Smith and Peter Degraf are buried under these facilities on North Liberty Street, near the approach to runway 4 at Smith Reynolds Airport.
As it turns out, Peter was the greatest trial, but not the only one, for his father Anthony, who shortly after Peter’s hanging delivered one of his baskets to the Town Hall to show that there were no hard feelings. But his other sons were not exactly angels. Peter’s older brother, Joseph, was repeatedly involved in a variety of misdemeanors and felonies over the years, the last being a suspicious fire in Waughtown of an insured building in which he was “living”. The building burned to the ground, but when the firefighters arrived all of the furniture and other appurtenances were sitting safely out in the yard. And who actually owned the building? My infamous cousin, Ham Douthit, of “Ram Cat” fame. The times being the times, neither technology nor investigative practices could provide clear evidence of wrongdoing, so Degraff and Douthit walked. And baby brother Lee was not much better. He was was known as a brawler. On April 27, 1899, the Union Republican reported that Joe Hill and Lee Degraff had a “stirring frolic Saturday evening. Blood flowed freely but the injuries inflicted were not serious. In default of bond both parties were sent up to Hotel Masten (the jailer at the time was named Masten) until next term of court.” Lee got forty days in the county jail for that one.
Anthony DeGraff was 26 years older than his wife, who was so beloved of their children. When he finally died at age 96 in 1898 and was buried in Salem Cemetery, he was probably glad to go. Rosa Smith, who fought so stubbornly to bring the killer of her niece to justice, remained in Winston at Terry House after the hanging where she conducted her seamstress business. She died less than a year later, at age 36, of pneumonia. She was buried at Enon Baptist Church in Yadkin County.