Poor Ellen Smith

Texas Gladden

‘Poor Ellen Smith’ is a classic mountain murder ballad in which the accused killer protests his innocence. The song was recorded by Henry Whitter in 1924 and was sung by many traditional musicians such as Texas Gladden, Frank Proffitt, Hobart Smith, and Pete Steele. The Country Gentlemen made it a bluegrass standard.

The story is based on an actual event, the conviction of Peter DeGraph for the murder of Ellen Smith in Forsyth County, North Carolina, July 20, 1892.

According to Ethel Park Richardson in 'American Mountain Songs', "He [Degraph] was executed for the crime, and while he waited for them to take him to the chair he called for a guitar, and this song was composed and sung by him. So great was the feeling, for and against Degraph, that it had to be declared a misdemeanor for the song to be sung in a gathering of any size for the reason that it always fomented a riot."

Other versions of the legend claim he played the banjo before his execution in Winston Salem.

More credible research has it that DeGraph confessed before his execution to having murdered his spurned sweetheart at a remote spring. The note he used to lure her there was found on the body. The true story is strangely similar to that other famous North Carolina murder ballad Omie Wise.

The existing versions of ‘Poor Ellen Smith’ tell the story in different and often contradictory ways. Over time the verses have mixed together in such a tangle that the story makes no sense at all. I took the liberty of picking verses that I like from several traditional sources and ordering them in sensible way. I even borrowed a little snippet from ‘Long Black Veil.’

Even though the story is told from a male point of view, my favorite renditions have all been performed by women such as Molly O'Day, The Kossoy Sisters, Peggy Seeger and Neko Case. I'll give it a try anyway.


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 was she found.
Shot through the heart lying dead on the ground.

Who had the heart, O who had the brains
To shoot my poor darlin’ on this hard lonesome plain.
I choked back my tears, for the people all said
That Peter DeGraph had shot poor Ellen dead!

I did ask sweet Ellen to be my dear wife
I loved her too dearly to take her sweet life.
I saw her on Monday before that sad day
That they come and they taken her body away.

I hung out six weeks and prayed all the time
That they might find the one who committed that crime.
Now she's in her grave, hand on her breast
And the bloodhounds and sheriff don't give me no rest.

They took their Winchesters, hunted me down
They come and they got me in Mount Airy Town.
They brought me to Winston my trial to stand
To live or to die as the law might command.

My brother he wrote me, he wrote me to say
The flowers on her grave have all faded away.
The jury may hang me, and God knows they can
But God knows I die an innocent man.

The gallows are waiting, eternity is nigh
But I know God is with me, hears every cry.
It was poor Ellen Smith and how she was found
Shot through the heart lying cold on the ground