Love to die for
By: Jennifer Bean Bower
The sun rose over the Moravian community of Bethania and shone light on a dead man floating in a millpond. When dragged to shore, the body gave evidence of murder. The date was March 29, 1858, and the victim was Eli—a slave who belonged to a Bethania resident.
Suspicion at once fell on Eli’s wife, Lucinda “Lucy” Hine, a “free woman of color,” and a slave named Frank. It was no secret that Eli and Frank had “ill-feelings” for one another and neither was the reason. As told in the Western Sentinel, both men claimed Hine “as a wife.”
Authorities searched Hine’s house and observed a considerable amount of blood on the floor. They also discovered a trail of blood and footprints that tracked from her house to the pond. Her shoes were then examined, and blood was found on the soles. It was the most damning of evidence. But Hine did not bear the burden of guilt alone. When Frank’s shoes were inspected, they too were bloodstained. Hine and Frank were forthwith arrested and imprisoned in the Forsyth County jail.
The town of Bethania mourned Eli’s death, and he was laid to rest in the shadow of a large audience. During the funeral, the presiding pastor delivered a powerful sermon on the sixth commandment—“Thou shalt not kill.” Of course, the guilty parties were not there to hear it.
On his appointed day in court, Frank pleaded “not guilty” to the charge of murder. The state prosecutor proved otherwise and in the State v. Frank a Slave, the jury found Frank “guilty of the felony and murder in the manner and form as charged.” He was then sentenced to death and returned to jail.
Hine, for unknown reasons, was transferred to the Rockingham County jail and awaited trial in Wentworth. There, according to the People’s Press report of May 7, she testified that “Frank came to her house…committed the deed, and carried Eli’s body to the pond, after which they burnt the bloody clothes…” Like Frank, Hine was found guilty and sentenced “to be hanged by the neck until…dead.”
Frank and Hine appealed their judgments to the Supreme Court and were given a reprieve until their cases could be reviewed. In both instances, the Supreme Court reported that no errors could be found and instructed the Superior courts to proceed with the executions. Frank, however, was not ready to give up and petitioned Governor Thomas Bragg for a pardon.
On receipt of the petition, Bragg halted the execution to review the court’s proceedings. Three weeks later, the governor upheld the Superior Court’s decision, and on Dec. 17, 1858, Frank was transported to Winston’s public place of execution.
Whether or not Hine received word of Frank’s death is unknown, but on Jan. 7, 1859, she shared his fate. An account of the grisly spectacle was printed in the People’s Press and said:
“Arriving at the gallows, she ascended the scaffold with a firm and resolute step. On being asked, if she had any confessions to make, she replied, none more than she had already made to the jailer, which in substance is, that she was innocent of the murder, and that there was no plot whatever between Frank and herself to kill her husband, and that she lent no aid either for or against him, and that she helped to conceal the body after the murder was committed.
She then exhorted all persons present, mostly negroes [sic], to beware of their acts and conduct and not to do as she had done. Said that she had been a great sinner, but felt she was forgiven, and was willing to die. After which Rev. B. Fields of the Methodist Church, delivered a short and appropriate address; and at 1 o’clock, the rope being adjusted, the drop fell, and her spirit took its flight to that last resting place ‘whence no traveler returns.’”
Although the events that led to Eli’s murder can never be known, one has to wonder if Hine and Frank plotted the murder in advance, or if the death came in a heated battle of words. Whatever the reason, love was at the heart of it.
Of course, Eli, Frank and Hine, were not the only people in Forsyth County to fall prey to love. Thirty years later, love would take another life, and the steps of the scaffold would be ascended once more.
On July 21, 1892, the “bloody…swollen…and disfigured” body of Mary Ellen Smith was found by a spring near the Zinzendorf Hotel in Winston. A “neatly dressed” girl of 16 or 17, her body had become a “prey to flies” in the oppressive summer heat.
The sheriff, coroner and many curious citizens, were quick on the scene. A hasty examination and subsequent autopsy revealed that the young girl had been shot through the heart. A letter from a young man named Peter DeGraff was found tucked within her bosom. The note, which was endearing—and incriminating—implored Smith to “come…to the spring.” The sheriff had a suspect and he, along with the citizens of Winston and Salem, wanted justice. Some wanted it swift and called for DeGraff to be hanged.
In fear for his life, the young man boarded a train and headed to Mount Airy. There, he changed his name, found work in a lumber mill and lived for nearly a year. But, why did he have to run? What else besides the letter incriminated DeGraff? And, more importantly, what was his relationship with the victim?
In 1890, DeGraff, who was 21 or 22, met and courted Smith. He was a handsome ladies’ man who liked to drink and gamble; she was a poor, uneducated and intellectually disabled young girl. During their courtship, DeGraff showered Smith with trinkets; and in return, she gave him her heart. Although the two could not have been more unsuited for one another, they became lovers nonetheless.
A year later, Smith discovered she was pregnant and returned to her mother’s house in Yadkin County. The birth of her child, however, was a sorrowful event. As reported in Winston newspapers, the infant was stillborn or died shortly after delivery. Heartbroken, Smith returned to Winston. She was anxious to see DeGraff, but he was not eager to see her. To quell rumors that he was the father of her deceased child, DeGraff cut ties with Smith and accused her of being unfaithful. Even so, she would not let him go; she loved him too much. DeGraff, on the other hand, wanted out of the relationship and threatened to kill Smith if she did not leave him alone. It was a turbulent situation.
Then, in an unexpected turn of events, DeGraff had a change of heart and sent a letter to Smith. In the note, DeGraff told Smith he loved her and that he wanted to meet her by the spring near the Zinzendorf Hotel. Smith was ecstatic, and on July 20, she put on her prettiest dress, purchased a new silk handkerchief and boarded a streetcar to the hotel. Of course, it was the last time anyone saw her alive.
Smith was buried in a pauper’s grave, and DeGraff fled to Mount Airy. Eleven months later, however, he returned to Winston and was soon after arrested for murder. During his four-day trial, the courthouse was “packed like sardines” as everyone in town had come to “hear the evidence and see Peter DeGraff”—the man whom so much had been said and written.
Witness after witness testified against DeGraff. Some said he threatened to shoot Smith’s heart out; some said he beat her; others placed him at the scene of the crime. But when DeGraff took the stand, he proclaimed his innocence. He testified that he loved Smith and had planned to marry her. He said the murderer was another man—the man who had fathered her child.
The jurors were not swayed by DeGraff’s assertions and found him guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to death and ordered that on Feb. 8, 1894, DeGraff “be hanged by the neck until he be dead—dead—dead.”
DeGraff continued to profess his innocence and wrote a letter to the citizens of Winston and Salem. In it, he said “My hands are clean from human blood…God knows I will die an innocent man…but my blood will be on your hands.” His message, however, fell on deaf ears.
On the day of his execution, DeGraff ascended the scaffold and addressed nearly 6,000 spectators. In the middle of his discourse, DeGraff declared “Yes! I shot that woman. I was drunk with corn whiskey. I put the pistol to her side and fired. She said but one word, as I was too much in the power of the devil to even care to listen. She said: “Lord have mercy upon me!” I am now receiving my just reward.” Afterward, DeGraff’s conscious—and his soul—were set free.
Today, the story of DeGraff and Smith lives on through song. In 1893, Charlie Pepper composed “The Song of DeGraff” for his friend and fellow inmate. First published in the Western Sentinel, the lyrics were later reworded, set to music and renamed “Poor Ellen Smith.”
The major difference between the ballad and the crime, however, is that in the song; the murderer always dies “as an innocent man.”
Jennifer Bean Bower is an award-winning writer, native Tar Heel and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. While working as the associate curator of photographic collections at Old Salem Museums & Gardens, Bower researched local tragedies and composed the book Winston & Salem: Tales of Murder, Mystery and Mayhem.