by Brian Clarey
The year 1891 looked to be a good one for the town of Winston.
The railroad had come through a few decades earlier, and the first tobacco warehouse went up around the same time. By 1891, the ravages of war had been replaced by the fires of industry, and Winston housed the largest tobacco market in the country.
Pleasant Hanes and RJ Reynolds were actively grabbing as much of it as they could, buying up property and leaf to corner the market, a contest that would end 10 years later with Reynolds emerging as the winner while Hanes tried his hand at the second-largest industry in the region: textiles.
It worked out pretty well for both of them.
In 1890 the population had hit 14,000, double the 1880 Census number. And by 1891, the flow of tobacco money had lifted Winston to international renown. It would be years before it merged with the bordering Moravian town of Salem, but the two had already entered into an alliance of geographical convenience.
The lure of fortune attracted thousands to the city to work in the tobacco warehouses and manufacturing plants and the fields in the countryside surrounding the city — by 1920, the merged city of Winston-Salem was the largest in the state. More came to fill the needs of this boomtown: Saloons, rooming houses, livery stables and, eventually, a grand hotel, billed as the finest in the South.
Ellen Smith was a child when she came to Winston from Forbush, where she was born. She was as green as an early-spring shoot, with no family in town and the sort of social status generally bestowed on teenage women of color at the time.
She’s described in contemporary newspaper accounts as “mulatto,” a catchall term for anyone whose skin tone didn’t strictly ascribe to whiteness, but was not dark enough to merit the descriptor of “colored,” another term thrown around by the newspapers of the day.
Later, at the trial, a “colored” man named Mike Davis would testify that he had let Ellen Smith live at his house while she was pregnant, and that Peter DeGraff had admitted to killing her. After his testimony, two white men took the stand to confirm his “good character.”
But before all that, Ellen had taken a job as a domestic at the home of Kenny Rose, who worked as a clerk at DD Schouler’s Racket Store on Third Street, a sort of general store that was one of the most prominent businesses in town in 1891. Rose would later describe her as “not bright.”
Maybe Rose’s characterization was a product of the times, when women in general, and certainly those of color, got little respect from most men. Still, she showed a remarkable lack of judgment when she threw in with Degraff, who had already begun to earn a reputation as a shady character in Winston’s streets and saloons.
When Ellen turned up pregnant with DeGraff’s child in 1891, Rose sent her away. In her shame, she returned to Yadkin County, where the child was stillborn. Upon her return to Winston, Rose rehired her, and she again took up with DeGraff, who in the meantime had racked up some robbery and gun charges in Winston, such as they were in the 1890s, and may have been involved in a gunfight at Henry Goins’ saloon.
Perhaps sensing disapproval from Rose, or maybe just looking for some extra money, in the spring of 1892 Ellen took a job at the newly constructed Hotel Zinzendorf, the pride of the city.
Some of the best money in Winston came together to form the West End Hotel and Land Co. Even Reynolds and Hanes called an uneasy truce to contribute to the $300,000 fund, which endeavored to build the Hotel Zinzendorf at the top of West Fourth Street, named for the European count who designed Moravian communities like the one in nearby Salem.
Boston architects Wheelwright & Haven designed a grand structure centered on an 85-foot tower, one of 10, that afforded views of the woods surrounding the city. Wings of three and four stories grew from the central tower, holding 103 rooms. A large porch accommodated hundreds. Running hot and cold water, elevators, electric lights, steam heating and streetcar access made it the most modern structure in Winston.
The Western Sentinel of April 18, 1892 quips: “It is impossible in the space to which this article must be confined to go into a minute description but suffice it to say that appointments throughout are perfect in every detail, and a tour of inspection through the building is all that is required to convince one of this.”
That same edition clocked the arrival of the hotel manager ES Boswell by train from New York with a crew of “eight or ten white girls.”
“The management of the hotel proposes to employ white help principally in every department,” the item noted.
One more thing: From the cedar shingles to the North Carolina pine finishings to the furniture and hardwood frame itself, the Hotel Zinzendorf was constructed almost entirely of wood.
Ellen Smith was 19 in 1891 when she began her job at the Zinzendorf. DeGraff was about 21, and though he had worked in and around the city as a laborer, by then he spent most of his time drinking at Pitt’s Store a couple of miles outside of town.
He was a bantam rooster of a man, with striking blue eyes and a wispy mustache, who at 16 had escaped from jail with absolutely no consequences save for a paper trail, and had at least one former girlfriend who had died under mysterious circumstances. He was known to carry guns, with an eye towards using them. And though he was never fingered for the shootout at Goins’ saloon in May 1891, word on the street was that he was the first one to pull his piece.
In the weeks after the shootout, DeGraff was spotted around town with Ellen Smith. This was also the time, according to testimony at his trial, that he began to openly speak about killing her.
Maybe she was pregnant again, and was pressuring DeGraff to marry her. Maybe she had fallen for another man and wanted to leave him. Maybe DeGraff had just tired of the whole scene and figured murder would be the most expedient solution.
Either way, he sent a handwritten note to Ellen Smith instructing her to meet him at the creek after work by the beautiful western woods adjacent to the Hotel Zinzendorf.
And that’s where they found her.
“Found Dead in the Woods; Ellen Smith Was Discovered This Morning With a Bullet in Her Breast.”
The Twin-City Sentinel was first on the scene, with reporting going out in its July 21, 1892 edition. Hattie Pratt, who worked in the hotel laundry and is denoted as “colored” in the story, said she came upon the woods and saw a young man in a brown suit and black hat walking away from the stream. She noted a white apron hanging from a tree, later used to cover the body, and then spied the girl lying on the ground.
“She was lying in a patch of thick brushy undergrowth, about ten steps from the path which divided the woods where she lay from an open field on the left,” the story reads. “There was no evidence of any struggle.”
A single bullet had passed through her left breast and out her right, indicating she had been shot from the side, the story said, and there was one other detail buried at the end of the column.
“A young man in town yesterday wrote a letter at Ellen Smith’s dictation to another young man named Peter DeGraff who has been visiting her, and in which it said she stated that she never wanted to see him again….”
In that same issue, in an adjacent column, the Sentinel announced the sale of residential lots adjacent to the Zinzendorf, on Fourth and Fifth streets.
“Handsome cottages are going up on it now,” the story advises.
By the time they caught DeGraff, it was more than a year later, and the Hotel Zinzendorf had burned to the ground.
On Thanksgiving Day, 1892, staff at the Hotel Zinzendorf was preparing for a grand dinner. Though DeGraff had yet to be captured, the stain of Ellen Smith’s murder had not dimmed the reputation of the hotel. A Leap Year dance earlier in the year brought debutantes into the ballroom, and a quartet had taken to playing in one of the parlors in the evenings.
Hunters had been dispatched to the woods where Ellen’s body was found to bring back wild turkeys and quail for the feast. Cooks in the basement kitchens prepared elaborate sides and desserts for the guests.
At 11 a.m. on Nov. 24, the Farmer’s Warehouse bell began to toll, rousing everyone in the city to seek the source of the smoke.
The fire had begun in the laundry, the Daily Sentinel reported, and that both the Winston and Salem fire departments had responded to the call, “but for want of water they could do nothing to save the building.”
Within two hours the grand hotel had burned to the ground.
Meanwhile, DeGraff remained at large.
For two years, intermittent news of DeGraff showed up in Winston newspapers. Some had him drinking in barrooms in Winston and Salem. A formal challenge to a duel was issued in the Aug. 4, 1892 Western Sentinel, by JH Vaughn and LS Matlock.
“[I]n order to find out if Mr. DeGraff is in the corporate limits of Winston we do hereby challenge him to mortal combat at any time or place he may select. One of his friends may accompany him with shot guns.”
That same issue took strong shots against Sheriff Milton Teague for his inability to capture the killer. One third-hand report had DeGraff toasting the inept sheriff’s health in a Salem saloon.
In June 1893, two years after the murder of Ellen Smith, DeGraff was spotted at Pitt’s, his old hangout.
In the interim, a new sheriff, RM McArthur, had been elected to supplant Teague. He ran on a platform of law and order, promising that “no DeGraff could run loose in the county” on his watch.
Sheriff McArthur received a telegram informing him that DeGraff had been seen stepping off a train in Rural Hall. They found him at the home of Gideon Russell outside of town, hiding under a feather mattress. Before they took him in, DeGraff showed the officers three of his guns, each bigger than anything the cops carried.
He maintained his innocence during a jail-cell interview by a Western Sentinel reporter, and said he had stayed in town for a month after the killing, but then walked to Virginia, where after a couple months he hopped a freight train that took him to New Mexico. Before the end of the year, he rode the rails back to Mt. Airy, where he had been working almost a year at a sawmill.
The Western Sentinel reported: “DeGraff, it is said, does not tell the same story to everybody that goes to see him. He asks nearly every visitor what their opinion is as to his future destiny — whether he would be hung or come clear. When he questioned the chief-of-police the latter replied that he (DeGraff) was too little to be hung, that an electric chair would be brought here, by which means the prisoner would go to the other world so quick that he would never know it.”
In the end, he hanged.
Held without bail in the city jail, DeGraff was found guilty in August 1893, the Union Republican reported, with four front-page columns devoted to the trial under multiple headlines laden with exclamation points.
A JURY OF GOOD CITIZENS SAY HE FIRED THE FATAL SHOT THAT KILLED POOR ELLEN SMITH
MURDER WILL OUT!
THE FEARFUL PENALTY!
The coverage concluded: “The general opinion is while there will be the necessary delay, in appeal etc., that Peter DeGraff, the murderer of Ellen Smith, is a doomed man and that the best thing for him to do [sic] soften his hard, hard, heart and prepare for the inevitable fate awaiting him.”
A telling bit of evidence was testimony that DeGraff had revisited the site of the murder and swore an oath: “Ellen, if you are in heaven arise; if in hell stay there.”
He said that he had heard old people say that a murderer could rouse the spirit of the deceased in that way.
In the end, he confessed.
DeGraff took the gallows in a new black suit and hat, a Bible in his hands. After some words by Sheriff McArthur and a prayer from the Rev. Mr. Brown, the condemned man spoke.
“That thing you call corn liquor, cards, dice and other games of chance, pistols and bad women, are the things which have brought me to this place,” the Western Sentinel duly reported DeGraff as saying. “Yes I shot that woman. I was drunk at the time. I put the pistol to her breast and fired it. The only words she said after I shot were ‘Lord have mercy on me.’”
Some 6,000 people had gathered to watch the sheriff spring the trigger.
“The road from town to the scene was lined with wagons, buggies and carts,” the Western Sentinel reported. “Hundreds also traveled afoot. With many the event was no more than a circus. They were laughing and jesting all the time.”
DeGraff’s heart kept beating for seven minutes after the rope went taut.
After the fire, the West End Hotel & Land Co. never rebuilt. Investors, unable to recoup their losses in cash, moved onto the acreage, which by 1913 became known as the West End. As a result of the Thanksgiving Day fire, it became illegal to build hotels from wood in the city.
Ironically, DeGraff was buried just yards away from Ellen Smith, in a grave that now rests beneath the Forsyth County Ground Maintenance facility on Chestnut Street. It was the last public hanging in Winston-Salem.
A traditional folk song, “Poor Ellen Smith,” immortalized the tale.
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.