Creepy Collections: Post One

Historic Arkansas Museum - Tuesday, October 27, 2020

By Carey Voss, Curator of Exhibits

George Pitts feather crown, Goose and duck feathers, Pulaski County, Arkansas, c. 1924, Approx. 3" diameter x 1.5” thick, Collection of Historic Arkansas Museum, Gift of Nell Adams, Accession no. 2004.024 

In 1988, sixteen years before her death, Nell (Pitts) Adams wrote a note to her son. It began, “Dearest Bobby, This is very precious to me, so don’t treat it lightly.” The precious object she referred to is a feather crown found in her father’s pillow shortly after his death in 1924. Feather crowns, also known as angel crowns, angel wreaths, death crowns, or crowns of glory, are relics of the past, from a time when customs surrounding death were personal and often steeped in superstition. Most feather crowns are about the size and shape of a compact dinner roll, tightly wound in a spiral with the barbs of the feathers pointing inward. Speculation abounds, but no one really knows how or why they formed. For the bereaved, finding a feather crown in the pillow or featherbed of a recently deceased family member could bring great comfort. While some historical accounts point to the appearance of feather crowns as evidence of evil or witchcraft, most folks considered the discovery of a crown to be an auspicious sign that their loved one had entered the kingdom of Heaven.

Sometime in the early 1900s, George Pitts caught his preacher in a lie, which he considered a grave sin, so he stopped attending church. This decision troubled his wife, Lucy. George repaired cars and worked for the railroad, and the 1920 Census records that his two oldest boys, aged 17 and 15, held jobs as a joiner at a factory and a delivery boy for a drug store, respectively. When George and Lucy welcomed Nellie Irene into the world in 1913, her birth certificate noted that (including Nellie), Lucy had borne 8 children, only five of whom survived. Maybe the kids weren’t walking to school uphill both ways, but life certainly wasn’t easy for the Pitts family.

George hunted ducks and geese to supplement their meals, and Lucy used the feathers of those animals to make pillows for the family. In October of 1924, George’s work took him to Battle Creek Michigan where he was severely injured in a streetcar accident and died shortly afterward. Lucy was understandably distraught; in addition to caring for several children (their youngest would’ve been around 7 years old), she worried about the fate of George's soul. In Nell’s 1988 letter to her son Bobby, she recounts how in December of 1924, as her mother Lucy made the beds, she felt a strange lump in her deceased husband’s pillow. She ripped open the seams and pulled out the feathers, shouting with delight when she saw this dense, perfect feather crown. In her excitement, Lucy ran down the cold, snow-covered street barefoot in her nightgown to share the discovery with her eldest son. According to Nell, finding the feather crown made her mother’s life bearable. Lucy Pitts treasured her husband’s feather crown, entrusting it to her youngest daughter, Nellie (Nell), when she died in 1951. When Nell Adams passed away in 2004, she donated her father's feather crown to Historic Arkansas Museum, where we endeavor to use objects like this one to breathe life into the customs, values, and beliefs of historical Arkansans like George and Lucy Pitts.

For more information on the burial customs of early Arkansans, pick up an autographed copy of Abby Burnett’s carefully-researched volume, Gone to the Grave, available in HAM’s Museum Store, online or in person.