“Ellen Smith”


Peter Degraph claims that he has been falsely accused of murdering his sweetheart Ellen Smith. He describes his apprehension and sentence. He will be hanged, but says "My soul will be free when I stand at the bar"


The crime took place near Mount Airy, North Carolina. Folklore has it that DeGraph sang this song as he awaited execution. Richardson reports that "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."

Paul Stamler notes that various versions of this song end with Degraph sentenced to prison rather than execution. This may be derived from the other ballad, "Poor Ellen Smith," which often ends before sentence is passed. The two often exchange verses.

To distinguish this from the other Ellen Smith ballad (which begins "Poor Ellen Smith, How was she found, Shot through the heart, Lying cold on the ground"), refer to these stanzas:

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.


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. - RBW

Historical references

  • 1893 - Peter Degraph (sometimes spelled De Graff) is sentenced to die for the murder of Ellen Smith

Same tune

  • How Firm a Foundation (Bellevue) (Original Sacred Harp/Denson Revisions. 1971 edition, p. 72)

Cross references


  • Henry Whitter, "Ellen Smith" (OKeh 40237, 1924)


  1. Laws F11, "Ellen Smith"
  2. BrownII 305, (No title; in a section headed "Ellen Smith and Peter De Graff" (1 text plus mention of 3 more)
  3. Hudson 67, pp. 193-194, "The Ellen Smith Ballet" (1 text)
  4. Combs/Wilgus 65, pp. 188-189, "Ellen Smith" (1 text)
  5. Fuson, p. 132, "Poor Ellen Smyth" (1 defective text, too short to classify with certainty; Laws places it here though I would incline to classify it with "Poor Ellen Smith (I)")
  6. Darling-NAS, pp. 204-206, "Poor Ellen Smith" (2 text, of which the "B" text goes here and the "A" text with "Poor Ellen Smith (I)")
  7. DT, ELLNSMT2*
  8. Roud #448
  9. BI, LF11


Alternate titles: “Poor Ellen Smith”
Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1936 (Brown)
Keywords: homicide execution
Found in: US(Ap,MA,MW,SE)