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.


Shirley Stewart Burns, Ph.D. said...

Poor Ellen Smith, indeed!

Nance said...


Dave Tabler said...

Matthew, do you have any info on authors of the 2 versions?

Matthew Burns said...

Dave--From what I could find, there is no certain information on who wrote the song. Some indicate that Degraff wrote the song, but according to a descendant of his, even that is very "iffy".


Tipper said...

Matthew-I like both of them!

Granny Sue said...

Here is a link to a lengthy discussion of this ballad on Mudcat:

It sounds like there are many versions of this song. The Wilma Cooper video is a bluegrass rendition; there must be a more traditional melody for the song if it's pre-1900.

I have a book at home that's all murder ballads. I'll have to take a look and see if Poor Ellen Smith is included.

Gorbachenko said...

I've heard there was a version of the song that caused so much outrage, it wasn't allowed to be heard. I believe this may be that version, as sung by Frank Proffitt, which puts the blame on Ellen herself!

Poor Ellen Smith where was she found
Shot through the heart lying cold on the ground

Many hearts she has broken many lies she has told
It now all has ended in her bed in the snow

Poor Ellen, poor Ellen you've wasted your life
You could have made some man a very good wife

Many friends tried to warn you of your ending you were told
It all now has ended in your bed in the snow

So early this morning poor Ellen was found
Shot through the heart lying cold on the ground

The men they will mourn you, the wives will be glad
Such is the ending of a girl that is bad

Perhaps you're in heaven God only knows
The Bible plainly tells us you've gone down below