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Vintage death crown in a bell jar with post-mortem photo and funeral card. From Cult of Weird. Photo by Lori Kimball.

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“Feather crowns” are a strange phenomenon that occurs when you sleep on a feather-filled pillow for years and years. The tossing and turning of the feathers form tightly packed “crowns” or balls of feathers that are often seen as omens of witchcraft or even death. Here are a few anecdotes about the feather crowns from Vance Randolph’s “Ozark Magic and Folklore”:

“There are men and women in the Ozarks who believe that the strange feather balls known as ‘crowns,’ which sometimes form in pillows, are the work of witches and if not destroyed will inevitably cause the death of the person whose head rests upon the pillow.”

“Another superstition which has to do with the welfare of the dead is the tale of the heavenly crowns, also known as feather crowns and angel wreaths. The idea is that when a very good and saintly person is dying, the feathers in the pillow form themselves into a crown, a kind of symbol of the golden crown which the dying person is soon to wear in Heaven. Variations of this tale are heard in many places, over the whole length and breadth of the Ozark country.

“I have seen about twenty of these heavenly crowns. Several of them were loosely made, like inferior birds’ nests. Crowns of this type may have been faked or have come together more or less accidentally. One of these loosely built crowns had a round hole in the center, something like a bird’s nest with the bottom punched out. Another was in the form of a ropelike ring, smooth and firm, about five inches in diameter, more like an undersized halo than a crown.

“The most finished type of feather crown, and the most impressive to my mind, is not shaped like a cap or doughnut at all, but rather like a large bun; these are very tightly woven, solid enough to be tossed about like a ball, and surprisingly heavy. They are usually about six inches in diameter and two inches thick, slightly convex on both sides. They seem to be made in a sort of spiral like a snail shell, with the feathers all pointed the same direction and no quill ends in sight. All of the crowns I have seen, whether of the rough or the finished type, seemed very clean, and I saw no grease or glue or anything of the sort to hold the feathers together. I have pulled several of the loosely built crowns to pieces but have never been allowed to dissect one of the really fine, compactly woven kind. I do not believe that crowns of this latter type were deliberately fabricated by the horny-handed folk who showed them to me.

“When the bereaved family finds one of these feather crowns in the pillow of a relative who has just died, they are quite set up about it, sure that the dear departed has gone straight to Heaven and is ‘doin’ well thar,’ as one old woman told me. The crown is taken out of the pillow with great care and displayed to all the neighbors; sometimes there is a mention of it in the village paper, as a sort of postscript appended to the obituary. Some families keep such a crown in a box for many years, and I have seen two crowns sealed up in a glass-topped case of polished walnut which had been made especially for them.

“May Stafford Hilburn describes the ‘angel wreath found in the goose-feather pillow of an old saint’ of her acquaintance. She makes it plain that the wreath was regarded as a good omen, ‘a positive proof that the sainted old man had gone straight to Heaven.’

“There is a farmer still living near Anderson, Missouri, who treasures the crown left by his son. The boy spent several years in prison but finally came home to die, and the old man exhibits the crown as proof that the convict’s sins were forgiven, since he not only went to Heaven but went rather ostentatiously at that. The implication is that the boy wasn’t as bad as he was painted and may have been altogether innocent of the crime for which he was imprisoned.

“An old friend near Aurora, Missouri, tells of a widow in that neighborhood who displayed a very fine feather crown from her husband’s pillow. The deceased was not at all the sort of man who would be expected to have a crown, and this particular specimen was so large and perfect that some of the neighbors suspected that the widow had woven it herself and stuck the feathers in place with molasses.”

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Courtesy of Cult of Weird.

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“There are stories of persons who have stolen crowns, and shifted pillows from one bed to another, and otherwise claimed crowns for persons who were by no means entitled to them. But it seems to me that such happenings are rare, since most hillfolk are too superstitious to meddle in these matters.

“It is difficult for an outsider to realize how seriously this heavenly-crown business is regarded by the old-time hillfolk. Here is a letter from Mrs. W. H. Haney, Dixon, Missouri, which was published in the Springfield (Missouri) News, Nov. 16, 1940:

“I want to tell you that I know about these feather crowns that are found in pillows of the dying. I have three now that I found in the pillow of my darling daughter’s bed when she passed away over ten years ago. No human hand could place those feathers like they are. So many of the old time things are true. The Bible teaches that there are ‘signs’ for us to go by, and I believe everything the Bible teaches.

“I knew an old lady in Little Rock, Arkansas, who left instructions that she was to be buried with her husband’s feather crown in her bosom; the husband had died some thirty years before, but she had kept his crown in a box at her bedside.

“I once took a city feller, a dealer in antique furniture and the like, to a backwoods cabin where he saw a fine feather crown in a box. When the thing was explained to him he became much interested and insulted everybody by offering to buy it for ten dollars. The old folks became very reserved, and one of the young men advised me to ‘take that feller back to town. He’ll be tryin’ to buy the stone off’n Sally’s grave next, an’ Paw’s a-gittin’ pretty damn’ mad already!’

“Various theories have been advanced to explain the formation of feather crowns. Mrs. J. H. Mayes, Mountain Grove, Missouri, published a letter in the Springfield (Missouri) News (Jan. 15, 1942) contending that the larvae of moths live inside the quills, and ‘fasten the feathers together with an almost invisible thread, something like the web of a spider.’ She says that she has seen these larvae ’emerging from the quills and dragging the feathers,’ and that she has found feather crowns fastened together with ‘almost invisible web.’ She adds ‘my pioneer mother told me that moths would get in feathers and form balls unless the feathers were periodically exposed to the sunlight.’ Mrs. Mayes thinks that these crowns are not found in feathers which have been scalded before storing them away.

“Commenting on two feather crowns which May Kennedy McCord presented to the Missouri Historical Society, later placed on exhibition at the Jefferson Memorial, an anonymous writer in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Apr. 3, 1942) offers the following theory of their origin:

“A possible explanation lies in the physiological character of feathers. From the shaft above the quill are numerous vanes composed of barbs, and on the barbs are barbules with minute booklets on the side toward the tip of the feather. These booklets normally are caught in indentations on the side of the barbules toward the quill. In a pillow they are likely to become loose, ready to hook any other minute thing. When two feathers come into contact, they are held together by the booklets. Other feathers join them, and a nucleus is formed. Just as feathers can be pushed through a small hole quill first with comparative ease, but tip first with difficulty, so feathers in a clump would tend to ‘climb’ or move along each other toward the quill point. Such movement would continue until all the quill points attained a common center and could go no farther. Since downy feathers are all curved, the tendency would be for the outward curve to fit into an inward curve, and the feather clump would assume a spherical shape.

“A man in St. Louis, who used to buy and sell feathers in very large quantities, tells me that goose feathers sometimes ‘lump up’ into firm rounded bunches, varying from the size of a biscuit to that of a washtub. These lumps have to be picked apart and broken up in order to handle the feathers. He doesn’t know what causes this lumping but says that it can’t be moth larvae, because feather dealers treat all their stuff with chemicals or live steam, which is certain to kill any insects that might be present.

“Mrs. Eliza Polete, of Fredericktown, Missouri, reported a feather crown ‘in which the feathers were intertwined with a light blue silk thread.’ And Mrs. May Kennedy McCord, of Springfield, Missouri, mentions a crown that ‘appears as if it had been started around a pink thread, the like of which we do not have about the house, and never have had that I know of.’ Several persons have told me of crowns which contained pieces of thread from bed ticking, bits of dried chicken skin, unidentified animal matter, and long black hairs. A young widow in Greene county, Missouri, a month after her husband’s death, found a crown in his pillow which contained several hairs from his head; this man’s hair was dyed a peculiar color, so there was no trouble in identifying them. But how did these hairs get inside the pillow? The crowns which I have examined contained, so far as I could see with a pocket lens, nothing but feathers.

“Most hillfolk seem to think that the presence of a feather crown in one’s pillow means good fortune here or hereafter, but there are some who believe they are death signs, the work of the Devil. Mrs. Nelle Burger, of Springfield, Missouri, president of the Missouri State W.C.T.U., has expressed herself about this. She says that in her childhood the people regarded feather crowns as evil omens, produced by the machinations of witches, which should be instantly destroyed wherever they are found. Mr. Rudolph Summers, of Crane, Missouri, recalls certain old settlers in his neighborhood who believe that feather wreaths are bad for everybody concerned and must be thrown into the fire immediately.

“Mrs. Ruth Tyler, of Neosho, Missouri, is another who regards the heavenly crown as a sinister thing. Writing in Rayburn’s ‘Ozark Guide’ she tells her readers: ‘The feather-crown is a swirl of feathers that cling to a tiny thread or raveling. The feathers all turn in one direction, “clockwise” to the right. It is very BAD luck to keep or give away one of these strange formations. Burn or destroy them at once.’

“A lady whom I knew in Little Rock, Arkansas, never lets a month go by without examining every feather pillow in her house, to see if any suspicious lumps have appeared. Her husband is a politician, with many enemies, and she fears that some of them might employ witchcraft against the family. The idea is that these crowns grow slowly, over a period of several months, and that one can stop the whole business by searching the things out and burning them. But she thinks that if a feather crown ever comes to completion, the person who sleeps on that pillow will die immediately. That’s why, according to her view, one never finds a perfect, finished crown excepting in the pillow of someone who has died.

“Mrs. May Kennedy McCord, of Springfield, Missouri, published a letter from a woman living at Fordland, Missouri, on this subject:

“According to what my husband tells me, as I have no knowledge myself, these crowns are definitely of evil. In fact very evil. As you say they are never found in a finished state only after the death of the user of the pillow and if you’ll take a fool’s advice you’ll get rid of the specimens you have at once. I was taught not to believe in superstitions, and this one I never heard of until I came to Missouri. My husband’s people have lived in St. Louis since the days of Laclede and Choteau, and they firmly believe in this sort of thing. But they believe that if the pillow is burned if a sick person is using it, the hex will be removed and the sick one recover. One of his nephews’ wives won’t have a feather pillow in the home on this account. I do not like my name in the paper but I do think people should know that these feathers are not works of art but of the Evil One, in plain English, just a way of escaping punishment for murder.”