Update: Today Gary Carden posted this picture of Nance Dude as she appeared in her later years in his Holler Notes. He recently acquired this picture from a distant relative of Nance’s. Nance is easily recognized as the old lady on the front row. The man on the right (or her left) was identified as her son. Gary wrote a play about Nance which has been presented on stage and is now available in a DVD recording. Interested parties may go specifically to this link for more information about how to obtain one of the limited number of copies.
This book containing this legend rightly belongs under the fiction heading, but it’s so richly imagined and put together from newspaper articles and prison records, it begs to be in non-fiction as well. No one can possibly know what really happened in the mind of a poor mountain woman resulting in the plot line in the book, but after reading it I’m pretty sure you’ll never forget Nance Dude. It’s based on a murder that came to light in April 1913 when the body of a child about 2 1/2 years old was found in the crevice of a rock on Adtate knob in the lower Jonathan Creek section of the Smoky Mountains on the western side of North Carolina .
Earlier, on a cold February morning, a 64-year-old woman known as Nance Dude took her granddaughter and led her up the mountain side near their home. She returned later that day without the child. She was incarcerated at age 65 and served 15 years of hard labor. But did she really murder her grandchild? You see, the particulars of Nance’s upbringing complicate the plot.
The author artfully reconstructs the sad, dark story of Nance Dude from newspaper articles, court, and prison records, and talks with mountain people who either remember the crime or learned of it from their elders, showing how a lifetime of povery and degradation can sometimes leave a person facing decisions that offer few alternatives, all of them bad.
Update: If you are interested in a movie version of Nance Dude’s story, be sure to read an August 2009 update here: