Poor Ellen Smith

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Poor Ellen Smith is a late 19th-century murder ballad recounting the shooting death of one Ellen Smith, and the trial and execution of her murderer.

The song is based on real events in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In 1894, a ne'er-do-well named Peter DeGraff had a love affair with Ellen Smith, who may have been mentally challenged and was unable to understand his rejection of her. Smith became pregnant by DeGraff, but their child died at birth. Afterwards she began following DeGraff around town, and eventually he sent her a note that asked her to meet him in a secluded area, worded in such a way that Smith would have believed DeGraff wanted to reconcile. Instead, when she arrived, DeGraff shot her through the chest. He later reported that Smith's only words after being shot were "Lord have mercy on me." DeGraff confessed to the crime on the gallows, shortly before he was hanged.[1]

The song and its variants have been performed and recorded by a range of artists including Tommy Jarrell, Neko Case, Laura Cantrell, Molly O'Day, Kristin Hersh, Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper, Jimmy Martin, the Stanley Brothers, Ralph Stanley & Larry Sparks, the Kossoy Sisters, Country Gentlemen, John Hartford, The Kingston Trio, Crooked Still, Robert Earl Keen and Wussy. The plot was also adapted by German Folk-Metal band Subway to Sally in their song "Arme Ellen Schmitt".



  1. ^ Across Generations, Traces of a Poor Maid’s Murder, February 1, 2009, The New York Times, retrieved September 4, 2013.