The murder, the fire and the hanging

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This gallows from 1890s Winston is likely the one where Peter DeGraff was hanged for the murder of Ellen Smith. It was the last public hanging in the city.

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 By 1891, the ravages of war had been replaced by the fires of industry, and Winston housed the largest tobacco market in the country.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.

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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.

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The Hotel Zinzendorf was made almost entirely of wood.
The Hotel Zinzendorf was made almost entirely of wood.

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.

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  • Great story! I’ve enjoyed the song for years and years, ever since I heard it performed on Henry Whitter & George Grayson’s Victor 78 record. Interesting, isn’t it, that such a song can keep the story alive long past the time when the original participants have faded from memory.

    • Brian Clarey

      They got a few things wrong, too — in the song DeGraff serves 20 years. But the tale is totally timeless.