at last, a happier ending for Nance Dude

I was speaking with a friend a few hours ago about my blog, and she wanted to know why I wasn’t posting much anymore. Hubby was quick to offer, “she’s just being lazy.” Yes, I had to admit that is part of the problem.  But the bigger thing holding me back has been that I feel that I have very few interesting things to say, and have been choosing instead to focus on other interests. That is, until a few days ago. Out of the blue, as these things happen, I got a new comment on one of my two most popular blog posts–Nance Dude Legend–the one post with more comments than any other I’ve published. This comment caught my attention in a way no other has because of the interest readers have shown in the story. So I thought about it for a few days and decided I had no other choice but to pass it along to others. If true, and I have no reason to believe it’s not, it deserves to be known.

Legends tend to linger on forever, and over time they can become distorted as people add layers of hearsay to stories passed down by generations preceding them, and soon become distorted versions of truth. Maurice Stanley,  a native of Western North Carolina, wrote a historical novel in 1991 based on the legend he learned from his grandmother, who had seen Nance and Roberta Putnam out walking (in 1913) not long before Roberta’s death at the tender young age of 2 years. Stanley’s book presents all the known facts surrounding little Roberta Putnam’s grizzly murder and the arrest, trial, and subsequent conviction of her grandmother, Nancy Ann Kerley, also known as Nance Dude. It was impossible for most people to imagine how a grandmother could murder a child she had purportedly loved so dearly. It’s a fascinating story, and reading it I wished I could somehow turn back time sci fy style and make the ending a happier one.

Now we learn that apparently, there really was a happier ending, albeit bittersweet, for Roberta Putnam, and in way for Nance as well.

Here’s the comment that has had me pondering for days:

I wanted to share a different version of the Nance Dude story–it’s a bit at odds with the one you have heard and told before. My version is dedicated to all of those folks who said Nance Dude never committed that horrendous crime against her granddaughter and was unjustly accused.

You can find it at:

Thank you.

Cliff Davids [a contributor to the Asheville (N.C.) oral history project.]

According to Mr. Davids, a fine writer by the way, Nance did–as she said repeatedly during her trial–give the child to a traveling preacher, the same preacher apparently that she had worked for, in Roberta’s words that rich preacher that ran the orphanage. He had brought her a child bitten by a rattlesnake from the orphanage, as he’d heard she was a witch who was familiar with mountain remedies that he hoped would save her, but the child died anyway. At about the same time, Roberta’s father or mother had told Nance to take Roberta to the state home because they couldn’t afford to feed her. Nance talked the preacher into switching the dead child with little Roberta, and it was the dead child who was placed in the cave where two weeks later Roberta was found. Going back to Stanley’s original book, the pieces of the puzzle take on a dazzling fit now that the new ending has come along.

If you’re one of those interested in the heartbreaking story of Nance Dude and her little granddaughter Roberta, your should click on the link Mr. Davids provided in his comment above to learn a fuller accounting of the story. It changes the legend from one of desperate people forced to do desperate things in desperate times, to one of unspoken heroes and heroines. Nance Dude died at age 104, quite a long time for a woman to live with the consequences of murdering an innocent 2 year old. Now, viewing history from a different angle as we’re allowed to do in Mr. Davids account, we can think of Nance at last as the tragic heroine she became rather than the cold blooded murderer of the legend. Roberta Putnam, if the new legend is not contested, lived until the winter of 2012. She lived to be 99.

(For the record, the other post with the most “hits” is one about choosing an eggplant. You can read it by clicking here,)

33 thoughts on “at last, a happier ending for Nance Dude

    • That’s so true, Ruthe. In fact, this post has inspired me to do a little investigating on some of the really really old legends that became part of written history. I can’t remember my source now (I read a little too many books to remember the titles but some of the facts remain embedded in my foggy brain!) but I’m thinking specifically of the Paul Revere legend. Paul Revere wasn’t even the real name. Another concerns the folklore around the legend of Sleepy Hollow. I think there aren’t enough hours left to me to learn everything I’d like to know, but it sure is fun to try.

      On Wed, Feb 20, 2013 at 6:20 PM, My Wintersong

    • I am also, especially when they concern one of my pet peeves–the misalignment (read that general disrespect!) of women in our society. There’s another story from that same area of the Appalachians that I believe the song about Frankie and Johnnie folksong came from. Maurice Stanley wrote another book about her murder trial (MIDWINTER) about Frankie Silver who said that her husband Charlie was loading his gun to shoot her when she grabbed the axe by the fireplace and hacked him to death with it in December 1831. She was the second woman executed in N.C.hanged on July 12, 1833. Apparently there were quite a few women who murdered their husbands in the day. What makes Frankie’s memorable I guess is that she tried to make a final statement as she was being led to the gallows, but her father drowned her out shouting “Die with it in you, Frankie!” And now we’ll never know, but I’d wager the legend will be around forever!

      On Wed, Feb 20, 2013 at 6:33 PM, My Wintersong

      • We have to remember in those days women were property. In most cases their opinions didn’t matter. what the man said was the LAW. Women had to deal with it or else.. ARRGGH!

        • You’re right, of course. Unfortunately, for women in some areas of the country the same can be said even in this 21st century. Great hearing from you.

  1. That is such a wonderful story. I didn’t read the first account but this must make all those who did feel sort of like “the rest of the story”. I’m thinking there has to be a song in this legend somehow. Thanks for sharing it.

    • Don’t we all love a good story! I think you’re onto something concerning the song in there somewhere. Do you know any songwriters? Maybe one of your children (who are all creative grownups now!) or yourself? This story did attract some attention a few years back as a potential movie. I’m not sure that production ever got started–financing was probably an obstacle–but I seem to remember Willie Nelson’s name coming up. I wrote about it some of my Nance Dude updates and they’re still there somewhere in the archives I think. As far as I know, nothing ever came of it though. Now, however, I think it would make an ever better movie–more in the vein of Winter Bones a couple of years back. Did you see that one?

      • The title Winter Bones sounds familiar but I’ll have to look it up. I did think it would make a great movie as I was reading it. And, yes, it reminds me of other stories that were made into songs–which I always wonder where they started–such as the stories of women who were hanged too quickly only to find out that they had saved the child from harm. I know several like that as well as a song about a dog that was killed because it was thought to have harmed a child and then the child turned up and the dog had saved the child from the wolf. All in the same vein and some probably had a grain of truth in them–some were just poetic. But I do know a few songwriters and will be trying to find someone who’s able to work this into a song. I’ll let you know if I have any luck. I’ve already spoken to one musician friend but he says he doesn’t know of anyone and his mind doesn’t work that way. I told him mine didn’t either–I’m too much of a June, moon, spoon, tune mind.

    • Thank you G’mar! I’ve been reading blogs, yours included, just not commenting that often. I’m glad you like positive endings too. You must have a plethora of old legends in Ireland…have you ever written about any? It might be worthy of a Friday loose consortium writing asignment. ❓

      On Thu, Feb 21, 2013 at 7:10 AM, My Wintersong

  2. Shades of that little woman in Virginia who, for decades, insisted she was the lost Princess Anastasia of Russia. Until DNA and the remains of the czar’s family were recovered anyway.

    Nance Dude’s whole tale seems to be mostly lore, to me anyway. Writers embellish.
    What we mostly know, (I think?):
    Missing child is the object of a search. Child’s body found in cave. Nance charged, pleads guilty
    to 2nd degree murder, and goes to prison. Nance gets out, lives to be a very old lady, and at some point gets her picture taken with some other folks, and a dog.

    What we don’t know (at least I don’t):
    Who said Nance’s daughter and her husband ordered Nance to take Roberta away? Did they confess to such, or is that lore, too?
    And, if they just wanted her gone, what’s wrong with a preacher? Unless Nance told them it was a preacher with an orphanage attached, how could they plan later to retrieve her for a servant?
    If everyone was so happy to be rid of Roberta, who reported her missing? How DID the authorities
    get involved? Not common for them to be checking on toddlers in 1913 appalachia.
    Surely Nance was very bewildered by the court system, so it was her plan or she just didn’t think to say “I know exactly where Roberta is, and do not send her back, they don’t want her”.?
    Since not enough facts are known, there is a fertile field for lore to spring up and grow. It’s a bit
    convenient that the snake-bitten child/preacher show up at exactly the right moment, too.
    Almost unbelieveable.

    • All those questions occurred to me as well, Anne. I think that’s why at first I hesitated to write about it again. There are too many “conspiracy” stories out there to know what to believe these days. If it makes Elvis’s and Michael Jackson’s fans happier to think of them still alive somewhere, then that’s their business I guess. Whoever the prolific “They” is, they say everybody lives on until the day no one remembers them anyhow. As for myself, I thought and thought about it and didn’t want to be the perpetrator of still more “stories” but eventually I began to realize I felt much better, and it helped put the story to rest in my own mind, thinking of Nance as a heroine. If true–and I have as little evidence to its truth one way as the other–I prefer it to the original story. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      On Thu, Feb 21, 2013 at 7:21 AM, My Wintersong

      • Greetings Alice!! Agreed! Actually, I never think of Nance as a “murderess” no matter what happened; she is too a sad an old soul for any such labels. But I really hope Mr. Davids will jump on here, if he knows the answers to any of my questions, and give them. ( I know Gary won’t because he’s run out of patience on the whole Nance Dude thing.)

        • It’s hard to know if anyone is even aware of your questions, Anne, coming as they did after about a 100 previous comments. One reason I unofficially closed off comments on that post was for this reason. I doubt anyone has the time or forbearance to read through so many comments to get to the end. I suggest you just keep your eyes and ears open around the web. But maybe I’m wrong. You never know when something might pop up somewhere. You know I was thinking about this whole thing recently, wondering what old Nance would think of all this, especially the fact that she’s still remembered nearly 100 years later. By the way, the N.C. oral history link on the post is very interesting, and lots of other stories are there waiting for discovery. I know I will go back frequently to learn what’s new. Maybe you’ll enjoy that too. Good luck finding the answers you’re looking for.

          On Thu, Feb 21, 2013 at 3:25 PM, My Wintersong

  3. Look at this, dear Alice. Not only are you posting, you are leaving notes for us all. I’ve really missed you. Even a post about washing the dishes is better than total silence. You are welcome. lol

    • 😆 Watch out, Mage, I’m just liable to do my next post on washing the dishes–just for you! Or maybe I could spend a post writing about the lost art of ironing! Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

      On Thu, Feb 21, 2013 at 1:26 PM, My Wintersong

  4. Alice: I have enjoyed reading every one of the comments posted above–and as much as I would like to respond to the various questions posed, I am bound by my agreement to remain silent for the time being. Thank you for your understanding.

    However, I would like to share another story that may prove to be be of interest to you and your loyal readers about Lucius Bunyan Compton, the founder of Eliada Orphanage, and his father Miles Calvin Compton. It is entitled “The Art of Comptonology and the American Civil War.” It may help to answer some of your questions.

    You can find it at:

    Thank you.

    Cliff Davids

    • Yes, thanks for your feedback. I did read the piece you recommend. I guess I don’t really understand why silence is necessary in regard to who reported the child missing. But I hope the wall comes down sometime.
      PS…See, Alice, people WILL read any number of replies on a subject which whets their interest!
      I read every one of these! And Mr. Davids is reading, too!!

      • You’re a real scout, Anne. I want you on my side if I ever have to be tried for a crime! 🙂 Mr. Davids is a scholar and a gentleman; I’m happy he’s writing these old stories.

        On Mon, Feb 25, 2013 at 8:00 AM, My Wintersong

    • Mr. David,
      As a member of Nancy Conard Kerley’s family, I really wish that people would let her and Roberta rest in peace. When, while doing family geneology of this side of my family, I was mortified to learn of this most unfortunate incedent. After making trips to the area, reading newspaper accounts of the incident and trial, after reading information of her incarceration, and talking with family members who are still living in the area, that has knowledge of what actually happened. I think and feel secure that I have found out the truth, in my heart I know that Nancy did not do this terrible crime that she was accused of. It ended up being an incident where local law enforcement officials covered up for “the person” who did the crime. Please stop posting, writing, talking about this story, please stop making money from Nancy Kerley.

      • Liz, you’ve addressed this reply to the wrong person I’m afraid. Mr. David is the author of an update on the “murdered” child Roberta, in which he outlined the apparent truth behind the whole story of Nance Kerley. It appears to me that you did not read his update in which the story has a decidedly happier ending. The original post about Nance Dude was one I wrote in, I believe, 2009, in which I discussed the book–a novel BASED on the Nance Dude legend–originally written by Maurice Stanley. As for making money from Nancy Kerley, I assure you neither I nor Mr. Clifford David have made one penny from this story.

  5. Hi Alice, I hope you’re back blogging for a while. I missed you. When I saw your current post, Andy and I were visiting the new house that we bought last month, and making some arrangements for landscaping, etc. We plan to move into it sometime later this year and become residents of ASHEVILLE NC !! Isn’t life strange?

    • Grace, how nice to hear from you! I’ve often wondered if you were still there in that luxurious dig on Lake Michigan (?) I think. Yes, life is strange indeed. I often consider the irony of my starting out in the countryside of one of Florida’s oldest cities, Lake City, and now living in what could turn out to be my last move (who knows?) in SALT Lake City. I’ve always said one of the southern states I might have feel good about moving to is NC, Asheville in general, and Chapel Hill in particular, ‘though Hubby might not agree with me. Weather’s pretty decent, the peaches next door (SC and Georgia) are out of this world, and I’ll bet NC’s don’t taste too shabby either! Good luck in that new house. You’ll be in a storytelling haven!

      On Mon, Feb 25, 2013 at 9:12 AM, My Wintersong

  6. I am the great-grandaughter of Nancy Conard/Kerley/Dude. Getting back into genealogy I found the website you mentioned by Clifford Davids. When I now to try accessing the site, I can no longer access it; maybe because I posted a reply after the comment from a person that gave a bad account at the orphanage. I would love to believe the story, but the dates did not add up. Roberta was born in Nov 1910 according to my records. Her body was found in Feb 1913.(She was 2 years old at the time). If she really died in 2012 as Clifford Davids claims, she would have been 101 or 102 years old,(depending on the month), not the 99 years he claims. I loved his story, but someone was not telling the truth somewhere. I think it is sad too that the legend doesn’t die. My mother never believed everything she had been told. Our family had moved far away but she always wanted to talk with her grandmother to get the whole story. Her mother lied and told her that her grandmother had died in prison and she didn’t find out the truth till it was too late. Whatever the truth is, my mother is finally reunited in heaven with her now. If there is anybody with info on this family tree I would love to hear from you as I haven’t gotten far.

      • Sorry, I cannot fill in any of the blanks about what actually happened; but when I reminded Mr. Davids that his dates are incorrect; he immediately closed down further commenting. My conclusion is there was never any Interviewed Roberta (of any age) and he’s simply confabulating for whatever glory that may bring.

    • Nancy kerley would be my great great grandmother. My grandfather (Joe Putnam) was Lizzy’s son. My grandfather always shut down on this subject, sad we don’t know the truth of what really happened.

It's always nice to know what you're thinking...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.