Poor Ellen Smith…

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On February 8, 1894, Peter DeGraff was hanged for the murder of his 19-year-old sometime girlfriend, Ellen Smith. Six thousand people watched him die, and the occasion was by turns solemn and raucous. DeGraff himself joined in the festivities from the scaffold, singing hymns, and, with his last words, confessing to the crime that only he could have committed.

Ellen’s life was little remarked, but her death is still sung: “Poor Ellen Smith/How was she found/Shot through the heart/Lying cold on the ground.” The ballad is often attributed to DeGraff himself, who is said to have composed it on the scaffold, but no contemporaneous account supports this idea. Whoever first sang Ellen’s song is long forgotten, I’m sure, as are those who first immortalized Omie Wise, Laura Foster, Pretty Polly, and the rest of Ellen’s unfortunate companions in death.

Dan Barry’s New York Times column this past Monday tells how some of DeGraff’s descendants have dealt with their family history over the years, with particular attention to Randy Furches, whose mother is Peter DeGraff’s great-niece. Mr. Furches has written new verses to the old ballad, verses which not only add depth to the relationship between Peter and Ellen, but give Peter a backstory that gives his confession a poignant context. You’ll find a recording of Mr. Furches’s performance right next to Barry’s column.

We’ve all heard the old murder ballads, but when Mr. Furches sings his version of Poor Ellen Smith, he brings to it an immediacy, an urgency, that has all but disappeared from more traditional performances. Peter DeGraff probably never sang about his crime, but more than 100 years after the fact, his voice is being heard. Thanks to Dan Barry for writing the story.

Here is a 1949 recording of Poor Ellen Smith, featuring the voice and banjo of Molly O’Day. O’Day’s text finds the remorseful killer awaiting his release from prison, ready to return home and visit Ellen’s grave. Please enjoy.

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One Response to “Poor Ellen Smith…”

  1. Randy Furches Says:

    Harry,

    Thanks for your kind words about my music, and my Great-Great Uncle, Peter Degraff. I have numerous proofs that my Uncle was indeed the author of Poor Ellen Smith. I recently received this passage from an Historian named Jennifer Bower:

    In the book, Strings of Life – Conversations with Old-Time Musicians from Virginia and North Carolina, which was written in 2004 by Kevin Donleavy, there is a chapter on Tommay Jarrell, who I am sure you are familiar with. Anyhow, it talks about his father Ben Jarrell, who also played music, and says, “…at one point, about 1894, Ben at about age 14 traveled down to Winston-Salem to visit Peter de Graaf [sic] in jail. Ben learned, straight from the horse’s mouth, the words to “Poor Ellen Smith” that de Graaf [sic] had written about the sweetheart he killed – the murder for which de Graaf [sic] was hanged before some 4,000 onlookers.”

    On my version, Hank Johnson plays an original 1890 banjo, just as the one that my Uncle used to write the song in 1894, in the Forsyth County jail. Hank also adds a mandolin and a screamin slide using an ancient Kay electric guitar. You can hear this and other music on http://www.myspace.com/randyfurches

    Peace and music,
    Randy

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