Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Poor Ellen Smith

The 19th century popular murder ballad, Poor Ellen Smith, recounts the tale of a woman named Ellen Smith, who was shot through the heart by a former lover. When Ellen was found, her ragged clothes were scattered all about the ground around her body. A group of townspeople got together and began a murder hunt which led to the apprehension of the murderer, Peter DeGraff, who was captured while he was loafing around the area.

As is the case with many Appalachian Mountain Ballads, "Poor Ellen Smith" is based on real events. In this case, the locale was Mount Airy, North Carolina. In 1894, a town drunk and ne'er-do-well named Peter DeGraff had an ill-fated love affair with Ellen Smith, who reportedly may have been mentally challenged. After a few months of the affair, Ellen Smith became pregnant by DeGraff, who then wanted nothing to do with her. It was said that Ellen could not understand his rejection of her. Their baby died at birth, and Ellen soon after took to following DeGraff around town.

After a few months of this, DeGraff sent Ellen Smith a letter that asked her to meet him in a secluded area where they could talk. The letter was worded in such a way that Smith reportedly believed that DeGraff wanted to reconcile with her, and she was elated at the prospect. However, when Ellen arrived at the designated location, DeGraff pulled out a gun, shot her through the chest and left her alone where she bled to death.

It was later reported that Degraff confessed to the crime while awaiting the gallows shortly before he was hanged for the murder of Ellen Smith. During the confession, when asked if Ellen Smith had any reaction to being shot, Degraff said that she looked stunned and that she looked at him and said, "Lord have mercy on me" and then fell to the ground where she later died.

As with most Appalachian folk ballads, there is more than one version of the song. I'll include the words to two different versions of the story.

Here are the lyrics to the first version.

Poor Ellen Smith

Poor Ellen Smith how she was found
Shot through the heart lying cold on the ground
Her clothes were all scattered and thrown on the ground
And blood marks the spot where poor Ellen was found

They picked up their rifles and hunted me down
And found me a-loafin' in Mount Airy town
They picked up the body and carried it away
And now she is sleeping in some lonesome old grave

I got a letter yesterday and I read it today
The flowers on her grave have all faded away
Some day I'll go home and say when I go
On poor Ellen's grave pretty flowers I'll sow

I've been in this prison for twenty long years
Each night I see Ellen through my bitter tears
The warden just told me that soon I'll be free
To go to her grave near that old willow tree

My days in this prison are ending at last
I'll never be free from the sins of my past
Poor Ellen Smith how she was found
Shot through the heart lying cold on the ground

And here is the second version of the ballad. As you will see, this version is more sympathetic to Degraff than the first version.

Poor Ellen Smith

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.

It's true I'm in jail, a prisoner now,
But God is here with me and hears every vow.
Before Him I promise the truth to relate
And tell all I know of poor Ellen's sad fate.

The world of my story's no longer a part,
But knows I was Ellen's own lovin' sweetheart.
They knew my intention to make her my wife,
I loved her too dearly to take her sweet life.

I saw her on Monday, before that sad day
They found her poor body and took her away;
That she had been killed never entered my mind
Till a ball through her heart they happened to find.

Oh who was so cruel, so heartless, so base
As to murder poor Ellen in such a lonesome place?
I saw her that morning so still and so cold
And heerd the wild stories the witnesses told.

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.

They got their Winchesters and hunted me down,
But I was away in ole Mount Airy town.
I stayed off a year and I prayed all the time
That the man might be found whut committed the crime.

So I could come back in my character save
Ere the flowers had faded on poor Ellen's grave.
So I come back to Winston my trial for to stand
To live or to die as the law might command.

Ellen sleeps calm in the lonely church yard
While I look trough the bars --- God knows it is hard!
I know they will hang me --- at least, if they can,
But I know I will die as an innocent man.

My soul will be free when I stand at the bar
Where God tries his cross, then, there, like a star,
That shines in the night, will an innocent shine
Oh, I do appeal to the Justice of Time!

So which version do you like best? Do you have another version that you like better?

Here is a Youtube video of "Poor Ellen Smith" being performed by a distant cousin of mine, Wilma Lee Cooper, star of the Grand Ole Opry.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Old Time Ways

I thought I'd share a little bit from the book "Our Roots Are In The Mountains" by a distant cousin of mine, Jocie (Thompson) Armentrout. The book details the local heritage and early customs of Pendleton & Randolph Counties in West Virginia. This little book has so much information in it, you won't be sorry if you can find a copy of it.

Page 21 "Note on Customs of the Period"

"In the pre-Civil War period and long afterward doctors were not required to register births. Folks sometimes neglected to name their babies for a long time, even as much as four or five years. They just called them "Sonny" or "Sissy"."

This was the case in my family as well, only it was long after the Civil War period. My grandfather, Richard Henry Burns, was one of these babies who wasn't given a name until he was the age of 5. My granddad just went by "Baby" Burns, or sometimes "B. Burns" on records of the time. His parents were waiting until he grew into a name, and since they lived way up on the mountain, there really wasn't any pressing need to name him. When my granddad was five years old, the county forced my great-grandparents to name their son, but only because my great-grandmaw was pregnant again and they could only have one unnamed child at a time. So, they studied on it, and named my granddad Richard (nobody knew where the name came from) and they gave him the middle name "Henry" after his great-uncle Henry J. "Uncle Sonny" Burns. I got my middle name from my granddad, so by diffusion I got my middle name from Uncle Sonny as well. I often wonder though if anyone ever called Uncle Sonny "Sun Burns"?

Also, why did my great-grandparents, after having 5 years to come up with a name, hang the name Richard on my granddad? With the last name of Burns, you have to be careful what name you give a child (we all know Dick is short for Richard). But it didn't stop there, oh no, my Dad was also named Richard (Richard Junior Burns) but he goes by Jake! Then, my mom and dad named my brother Richard Jason who goes by Jason. So none of the three generation of Richard Burns' were ever known as Dick Burns though; they went by Rich, Jake and Jason, respectively. I suppose I am fortunate to have been the 2nd born and got the middle name of of my grandfather rather than his first name. To think, all of these names are simply the result of the county forcing my great-grandparents to name their 5 year old son!

"Our Roots Are In The Mountains" continues on page 20 with:

" was so scarce and all kinds of merchandise was so difficult to obtain that "trades" were often made that would amaze us today. One small farm in Pendleton County was traded for a jacket pattern, and a larger farm was once paid for with a rifle gun."

Again, I can relate this to my family. Family stories maintain that my great-great-great granddaddy George Burns was land rich but money poor and would "sell" land for whatever he needed or wanted. Land was seen as an inexhaustible resource. It is told that you could stand up on top of North Mountain and as far as you could see down in the valley was the land belonging to George Burns. Stories tell how he sold the back side of North Mountain (about 500 acres) for a horse and buggy, and how he traded the North Mountain flats, known as Buffalo Bottom (about 200 acres), for a bottle of whiskey! All of this land now sells for at least $1,000 acre, and a great deal of it is now part of the Monongahela National Forest.

Times sure were different then. I'd like to find some land deals like that now.

I hope you all enjoy hearing about some of the information found in "Our Roots Are In The Mountains" by Jocie (Thompson) Armentrout as much as I did. You can expect more posts based on this wonderful book in the future.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Jack and Jenny

I remember when I was growing up on the farm that we had two old donkey’s, a jack and a jenny, which we gave the ever-original donkey names of Jack and Jenny. We only used them to plow up the garden in the springtime so most of the time they pretty much just wandered about the farm whenever and wherever they pleased. I remember they were inseparable, and they would stand for hours along the fence line out by the house and just nuzzle one another. Being meaner than a striped-eyed snake, I’d sometimes get so annoyed by them that I'd sneak away from everyone and throw rocks at Jack and Jenny just to get them to move. They’d just look at me with those big ol' sad donkey eyes and walk off to a more secluded location where they’d again nuzzle each other.

Cows on the farm.

Nobody ever knew where Jack and Jenny came from, they were on the farm when we moved there several years before. Mom and Dad asked the man who owned the farm about to how old Jack and Jenny were, and he said he didn’t know. He said he was 45 years old and from the time he was a kid, he always remembered Jack and Jenny being there. I also remember in the building out from the house, near where we had a doghouse for our Saint Bernard named Tuffy, there was hanging on the wall two old leather harnesses. The leather was cracked and the metal tarnished but I recall that someone, probably my granddad, decided to oil up the leather and clean up the tarnished metal so we could use the harnesses on Jack and Jenny. Well, when they were cleaned up, the metal turned out to be brass and boy did those harnesses ever shine. Even I realized just how pretty Jack and Jenny were in those harnesses, to me they seemed to step a little higher and seem a bit more regal whenever they wore them.

The building where the harnesses were found was near here.

But like I said, Jack and Jenny led a pretty good life on the farm, but Lord could they ever get on your nerves with the incessant nuzzling of each other. It was day in and day out, every time you'd see them, they’d just be standing around nuzzling each other. I remember complaining about them to my Granddad, and he would just tell me, “They’re old. It’s hard to tell how long they’ve been here. Just let 'em be.” They weren’t any fun to aggravate anyway so aside from the occasional thrown rock, I typically ignored them. That is until the one day when we found Jenny laying dead in the road. Jack was standing beside of her and was nuzzling her.

Well as you might imagine, moving a dead donkey is a chore. Whenever a large animal would die on the farm, we’d get the tractor and using a chain, we’d drag the carcass back into the woods to an out of the way location where the foxes and possums and buzzards would clean it up. We never buried the large animals, probably because have you ever tried to bury a cow or a donkey? But it just so happened that the part of the road that Jenny died in was in part of the road that we couldn’t get around with the tractor. And to get to the place back in the woods where we dragged the dead carcasses to, we had to go down this road. But it was blocked. The road was narrow there, and one side dropped into the holler and the other side was a steep hillside so there was no way to get around it. My granddad thought he could drive the tractor over Jenny but us kids wouldn’t hear of that, so he had to drive the tractor all the way to the other end of the farm, then down the main road to the gate at the end of the farm road that led up into our farm…and back to the spot the road where Jenny lay dead. It was about a 4 mile trip to go around the farm just to return back to nearly the exact same spot that you had just left.

The old farm road.

But that done, a chain was quickly hooked to Jenny’s carcass and it was dragged back into the far corner of the farm woods. Jack closely followed along behind, head hanging low the whole time. Of course, we felt sorry for the old feller, but to us kids, this was prime entertainment so we followed along behind Jack and the tractor and thus became a makeshift funeral procession for a dead donkey.

After reaching a secluded spot back in the wood to leave the carcass, it was quickly unchained and left there. A few of the kids jumped on the tractor for the return trip, and the rest of us walked back. But everyone noticed that Jack was not accompanying us back home, he just remained there beside of Jenny’s carcass, nuzzling her.

The far corner of the farm woods.

The next morning, Jack didn’t show up for his morning bucket of oats, so we all figured he was still back in the woods with Jenny’s carcass. Mom told us to take the bucket of oats back to him and let him eat, and she told us to get a halter and lead him up to the pond for a drink of water. She reminded us to be gentle with Jack because as she put it "ol’ Jack is probably going to worry hisself to death." Well, us kids took off up through the meadow by the house, which was a shortcut to the far corner of the farm woods, and we made our way back to the spot where we figured Jack would be. Sure enough, we found him standing there beside of Jenny’s now bloating carcass, still nuzzling her to get up. We hollered for Jack to come and eat, and we waved the bucket of oats in the air for him to see. Jack turned to look at us, and even took a couple of steps toward us, but then he turned back to Jenny’s carcass, nuzzled her, and then just collapsed. We then took off running to him, hollering like a pack of banshee’s, but as we found out when we reached him, Jack was dead.

The old farmhouse.

We ran home and told Mom what had happened, and she didn’t really believe us, I reckon she figured that Jack probably just fell over from exhaustion or something. But she and Granddad got in the truck and drove back to the far corner of the farm woods, where she discovered that Jack was indeed dead, and he had fell right beside of Jenny. Mom was quick to point out to everyone how Jack and Jenny’s muzzles were touching. Mom stated matter-of-factly that Jack had grieved himself to death, and she commented that old people are like that too. She told us that when an old man or an old woman dies after they have been married for a long time, the other one would soon follow them to the grave. She continued with how it just seemed like old people can’t get along without each other, and that they seem to lose their will to live. Then she looked back at Jack and Jenny and sadly said, “Jack just didn't want to live without Jenny. Well anyway, they are better off now.”

Monday, August 10, 2009

Thunder in the Eleventh Hour

The Eleventh Hour Thunder
by Matthew H. Burns

I was awakened by thunder in the Eleventh hour.
I opened my eyes to a wondrous new world.
The air was crisp, and a bird was singing
A song I had never before heard.

The scent of Calla Lilies permeated my bedchamber
Carried by a gentle breeze through my open window.
The eiderdown pillow beneath my head
Was fluffed to perfection and beckoned me to rest.

Though the taste of regret lingered upon my tongue,
It was overshadowed by the perfection of the moment.
The sweet solitude of calm and relaxation
Came upon me and granted a long-sought gift.

Had it not been for the thunder of the Eleventh hour,
I would have been asleep when the lightning struck.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Logan's Lament

Today I am reminded of Logan, the Mingo Indian leader who once called these hills of West Virginia home. His certainly was a tale of woe. I've always thought of Logan as a decent man, and one who was but a victim of his times.

Many locations throughout West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio bear his name, but I wonder how many remember the man?

Legend has it that Logan was a friend to the white settlers, he gave them food and shelter when they needed it, and even went out of his way to maintain peace among the tribes and the white settlements. It was only when a party of white men led by Daniel Greathouse brutally murdered Logan's brother, wife, daughter and other kin did Logan seek vengeance. It is recorded that Logan's daughter was pregnant at the time, and her baby was cut out of her and beat against some nearby rocks, and the men proceeded to torture her to death. They say when Logan found the bodies of his fallen kinsman, he fell to the ground in a dead faint.

Logan proved to be as capable in war as he was a bulwark for peace, and his actions are believed to have been one of the leading causes of Dunmore's War.
However, Logan erroneously thought that Michael Cresap was the man responsible for murdering his family, but it was later discovered that the brutal act was the handiwork of the Daniel Greathouse party.

When the white settlements, seeking protection and revenge against Logan and all the tribes in the region, sought military protection, Logan once again tried to maintain peace. He seemed to be trying to make everyone understand that his actions were his alone and not the concerted efforts of neighboring tribes. I don't know about you but I can hear the pain in Logan's words in this letter directed at Michael Cresap:

"To Captain Cressap - What did you kill my people on Yellow Creek for? The white People killed my kin at Conestoga a great while ago, & I thought nothing of that. But you killed my kin again on Yellow Creek, and took my cousin prisoner. Then I thought I must kill too; and I have been three times to war since but the Indians is not Angry, only myself."

To me, it takes a decent man to stand up in such tumultuous times and claim responsibility for his actions. Especially considering the great hurt and injustice that had been visited upon Logan.

After the blood lust was wiped from Logan and when he believed the deaths of his kin had been properly avenged, Logan once again became a peaceful man and worked diligently to achieve peace in the Ohio Valley. Logan's desire for peace in the Ohio Valley was not achieved in his lifetime, or even within the generation that followed him. Logan was found murdered in his cabin in 1780. He was believed to have been murdered by a Native American who thought him to be too friendly with the white settlers.

Perhaps Logan is best remembered for the following speech, which he gave after avenging the deaths of his kinfolk.

"I appeal to any white man to say, if ever he entered Logan's cabin hungry, and he gave him not meat; if ever he came cold and naked, and he clothed him not? During the course of the last long and bloody war, Logan remained idle in his cabin, an advocate for peace. Such was my love for the whites, that my countrymen pointed as they passed, and said, 'Logan is the friend of the white men.' I had even thought to have lived with you but for the injuries of one man. Colonel Cresap, the last spring, in cold blood and unprovoked; murdered all the relations of Logan, not even sparing my women and children. There runs not a drop of my blood in the veins of any living creature. This called on me for revenge. I have sought it; I have killed many; I have fully glutted my vengeance. For my country, I rejoice at the beams of peace. But do not harbor a thought that mine is the joy of fear. Logan never felt fear. He will not turn on his heel to save his life. Who is there to mourn for Logan? Not one."

I don't know about you, but I still mourn for Logan. I pray that he found peace.

For more information on the events of the times in which Logan lived, along with specific information on Logan himself, I highly recommend the book, "That Dark & Bloody River" by Allan Eckert.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Gardening Folk Customs

Since harvesting, gardening and preserving the bounty of fruits and vegetables seems to be the topic of the day, I thought I'd post some rather obscure (at least to me) gardening folklore. These beliefs were collected from throughout Appalachia, and while I have heard of some of them, believe a few of them, and even swear by a couple of them--by and large, I had not heard of most of these before.

I have previously posted similar folklore items and the readers of this blog seem to enjoy them, so I thought I'd give it another try.

Here's the list. Do you know of any other folk beliefs pertaining to gardening?

Eat sugar before planting fruit trees to make the fruit sweeter.

Apples with red spots inside means that the tree's root grew into the body of a murdered person.

Drive a rusty nail on the north side of the tree for better yields.

The number of seeds in an apple will be your lucky number.

Whip a poor yielding tree and it will bear better the next year.

Plowing on Good Friday will cause the ground to bleed.

Seeds planted on St. Patrick's Day grow better.

Gardens do better if seeds are planted on even-numbered days of the month.

Don't thank a person who gives you seeds or roots, or the plants will never grow.

Plant potatoes at night so the eyes don't see light.

If you laugh while planting corn, the kernels will have big gaps in them.

Planting peppers when you are mad makes the peppers grow hotter.

If a red-headed person plants peppers, they will be hotter than normal.

For a good crop of watermelons, crawl to the patch backwards on the first day of May.

Put a four-leaf clover in your shoe and make a wish. When you lose the clover, your wish will come true.

A five-leaf clover brings bad luck.

Grass won't grow where human blood has been spilled.

Catch a thistle seed, then blow it into the air. If it doesn't hit the ground before it gets out of sight, your wish will come true, but only if you don't tell anyone the wish.

Crushing rosemary into a glass of wine will boost mental powers.

Make a wish on a load of hay, but don't look until the load is out of sight, and the wish will come true.

Flowers which bloom out of season are evil.

Dreaming of thorns is bad luck.

Bury a hickory stick in a moist place, and it will turn to stone in seven years.

Weeping willows will bring the planter bad luck.

Conduct most of your garden chores during the waxing of the moon. Light nights make light crops: never plant when the moon is full.

All above-ground crops should be planted with the new moon.

Root crops should be planted during the last two days of a full moon.

If you burn potato peelings, your crop won't grow the next year.

Root crops should be planted under the sign of Taurus for quicker growth.

Seeds planted under Virgo will result in many leaves but not much fruit.

Sweet potatoes dug on a dark night will be sweeter and keep better.

It's bad luck to burn wood from a tree struck by lightning.

Planting on Friday is bad luck, unless the zodiac sign is right.

Tomatoes should be planted on Memorial Day.

Friday is a good day to plant crops which dangle from branches because Friday is hangman's day.

Don't plant seeds until after the apple trees bloom.

It's good luck to steal herbs.

Tobacco grows well if planted under the sign of Cancer.

Never plant under a north wind. Trees blossoming twice in a year brings bad luck.

When cutting wood, spit in your palms for good luck.

A snowy winter portends a good year for crops.

A saying for planting tobacco: "Some for you, some for I, some for the devil, some for the fly."

Hang a horseshoe in a fruit tree for a heavy crop.

After planting a hill of beans, press the soil with your foot for better luck.

If you point your finger at a cucumber bloom, the bloom will fall off.

Beans planted on dark nights will grow the best crops.

Plant beans early in the morning if you want to have the crop come in earlier in the season.

For a better cabbage crop, sew the seeds in your bedclothes on March 17th.

Corn should be planted under the new moon so that most of the growing will be done at the tip.

Wood cut on light nights will burn hotter.

Grass seed won't freeze if planted when the moon points down.

Corn planted under the waning moon grows slower but produces larger ears.

If onion bulbs are planted upside down, they will come out in China.

To keep away crows, kill one and hang it from a garden pole.

Onions should be planted in the old of the moon.

Trees are best trimmed in the full moon of February or November.

Peas should be planted as near to twelve noon as possible.

Tie a piece of white string across the garden to keep birds away.

Cut briars and weeds when the moon is waning to kill them.

Plant flowers under Virgo for the best blooms.

Corn should be planted when the dogwoods are in bloom and the poplar leaves
are as big as squirrel ears.

Wheat always ripens in the light of the moon, not the dark.

To make hydrangeas blue, put rusty nails at the roots. Plant watermelons before breakfast for best results.

Cobs from seed corn should be placed in running water and not burned.

If two people's hoes hit together, they will work in the same field next year.