Feather Death Crowns: Appalachian Omens of Death

By on July 22, 2015

In Appalachian culture, a bizarre phenomenon of feather crowns found in the pillows of sick people became known as an omen of death.
Vintage feather death crown photo by Lori Kimball
Feather death crown dating somewhere between the 1800s and the 1930s. Photo by Lori Kimball / www.veraviola.com

Feather pillows are about as rare the Loch Ness Monster, but once upon a time they were as common as could be.

Long ago, the people of Appalachia began to notice a peculiar phenomenon: odd crownlike masses in the pillows of the seriously ill or recently deceased.

These objects became known as Death Crowns (or less-commonly, angel crowns). Death Crowns are usually elaborate, interlocking designs that resemble a disc or crown. The quills always point inward, and though rare, are only found in the feather pillows of the seriously ill or recently deceased.

Because of the isolated, rural nature of the area, the phenomenon appears to be unique to Appalachia, or locations where some of these mountain folk migrated, such as Missouri, Indiana, and Ohio. But it’s almost exclusively a lost-belief now that most people have switched out their feather pillows for comfort foam or synthetic fibers.

I was fortunate enough to overhear a death crown story in my youth, otherwise I’d likely be unaware such a concept ever existed. My family has lived in Hall County, Georgia for generations, just miles from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

My great aunt paid us a visit when I was maybe 5 years old. She started talking about the recent death of her elderly father. He’d been killed while walking around a bus he’d just exited. A car sped by without caution, striking the old man. She was elected the sorrowful chore of sorting through her father’s belongings. As she lifted her father’s ancient feather pillow she felt something solid inside. She started to throw the pillow away, but something compelled her to open it up. She reached inside and probed with her fingers in search of what she had felt. To her astonishment, she pulled out an intricately woven wreath of feathers, roughly the size of a bird’s nest. She took this has a sign her father had gone to heaven.

After several minutes of convincing, she persuaded me to go play. After a while, I forgot about the whole thing—until bed of course. I recall squeezing and kneading my pillow in search of anything that might remotely feel like a “death wreath.” I didn’t. Finally, I fell asleep.

A vintage death crown with post-mortem photo and funeral card
Vintage death crown in a bell jar with post-mortem photo and funeral card. Photo by Lori Kimball.

These odd formations are usually interpreted as a heavenly sign, but skeptics believe that the movements of a dying person—tossing and turning combined with fever sweats–could cause these objects to take form.

If you are one of the few that still sleeps on feather pillow, do not lose all hope if you find a Death Crown in your pillow tonight. One old wives’ tale claims that if you break these wreaths up you could prevent the death of the person the pillow belongs to.

A collection of these oddities can be found at the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tennessee.


J. Nathan Couch is the author of Goatman: Flesh or Folklore? Find more of his work on his website at www.jnathancouch.com

Death crown photos courtesy of Lori Kimball. Lori sells unique vintage oddities at www.veraviola.com. Follow her on Instagram @veraviola_vintage

40 Comments

  1. SUSAN WRIGHT

    December 22, 2017 at 9:55 am

    I remember my mother showing me one and telling me about them. It is the most amazing thing I have ever seen. The feathers are so tightly woven that they hold together on their own. It was never referred to as a death omen but rather as a sign the person went to heaven. It was always revered as a good thing. Side note: I was born and raised in the Appalachian Mountains.

    • Carol

      April 26, 2018 at 12:45 pm

      I am in possession of a crown from my paternal grandfather’s pillow. He died in 1923. The feathers could not be more tightly fused if they were glued.

  2. Eugene Charney

    October 28, 2017 at 7:05 am

    I’m 65. When I was a kid in WI, each year my mother would refeather blankets and pillows. Cut’em open fluff’em and air’em. I remember her saying if we didn’t they’d make nests

  3. Sarah Armistead

    October 20, 2017 at 8:57 pm

    My grandmother had four feather crowns. They were from four of her family members who all died between 1896 and 1908. She kept them in a Young’s Skin Soap box in the drawer of her peddle sewing machine. I remember looking at them when I was growing up but knew not to touch them. Three of them are owned by family members and one is in a museum.

    • Elaine Pollard Clickner

      November 5, 2017 at 1:07 pm

      I’m so glad to have confirmation of an old memory of my mother and step grandmother talking about the arrangement of the feathers in the pillow of a recently deceased relative. I thought perhaps I had only imagined the whole thing.

  4. Heather

    March 19, 2017 at 1:55 am

    As a skeptic I need to point out that all people who sleep on pillows (feather or not) die eventually. So you could logically assume these just develop naturally in all feather pillows from daily use. The tradition is neat though!

    • tjj300

      March 1, 2018 at 2:08 am

      Except if you felt one you would have either broken it up or removed it. I can’t imagine them being comfortable.

  5. Pup

    January 11, 2017 at 5:49 pm

    I have one. When my great grandmother died my grandmother reached into her pillow and pulled it out. My great aunt wanted it kept in the family and gave it to me when I was a little girl. It’s really fascinating.

  6. heather barr

    September 7, 2016 at 3:07 am

    There is a novel called Feather Crowns by Bobbie Ann Mason. It’s set I Kentucky in 1900. Beautiful book, describes this peculiar tradition in the context of a family that has the first quintuplets born in the USA. Thanks for helping me remember this, I think ill read it again.

  7. Ruby Rogers _Faiola

    July 5, 2016 at 8:17 pm

    I have a Death Crown From my Brother who passed away at the age 8 years in Estill County, Ky.in 1942

  8. The Real McCoy

    July 3, 2016 at 11:52 pm

    I found one in my grandmother’s pillow after we burned her bedding including the pillow. However the pillow did not burn through to the center where I found the crown at about age 17. Our family story was that finding the crown was a sign the person went to heaven. Never heard of it in our family as being a death crown.

    • Calvin Von Crush

      March 19, 2017 at 3:42 am

      If you’d like to sell it drop me a line at calvincadaver@aol.com

      • Charles Earley

        February 15, 2018 at 1:07 pm

        My Grandmother passed away in 1942 and I have her feather crown.and I enjoy sharing it with people with the story behind it.Ga

  9. Steve Hicks

    May 6, 2016 at 1:27 am

    Strange how some have to cross examin or examin what people say to see if they’re telling a story or not.
    We’ll she said this or this like she’s lying about it or something.

    My grandmother told me about these years ago as well.
    When she passed no one checked the pillow.
    In fact it was the last thing we were thinking of.
    It was the day after Christmas so everyone was on edge.

    But a lady i done some work for when I was younger showed me one she had of her grandmother death crown.
    Really neat looking,
    But how it was woven together I couldn’t explain how it could be put together by itself or if someone could even duplicate how it was woven together.
    All I can say is I’ve seen one and held it.
    I can’t explain it no more than what you see.
    I remember it all wrapped together like a percussion tape wound together and was as wide as my hand and bound together so neatly about and 1/8 thick.

  10. JasonG

    February 5, 2016 at 2:28 am

    I have slept on feather pillows all my life. They’re really not that hard to find if you book. Last October I was hospitalized with a double pulmonary embolism. When I came home I had found a very large crown in my pillow. It creeps me the hell out, and I broke it up and immediately.

  11. Renee Howard

    January 20, 2016 at 4:53 pm

    I have slept on a feather pillows my whole life…you can buy them many places…just Google feather not down feather pillows I’m 57 and I don’t know if I could sleep on anything different..

  12. Hollis

    January 17, 2016 at 4:49 pm

    I just inherited a death crown from my grandmother who lived in Tennessee… Still trying to track down exactly what my relation to the relative is, but most recent story is the death crown is my great, great, grandfathers. Hoping my grandmother has a lucid day soon and can tell me more, but she’d had it hidden away in an old matchbox for most of her life, and it now has a home in a glass box on my mantle. Such a cool story!

  13. tamtam

    November 24, 2015 at 8:04 pm

    Strange. I’ve never heard of this phenomenon prior to reading of it here. I would guess that the movement and fluids excreted by a bed-ridden individual would cause that particular thing to happen.

    My late grandmother slept on feather pillows in her home. I was away at school when she died, but if I had known about Death Crowns, I would have checked her pillows out

  14. Wobbler

    August 14, 2015 at 5:41 am

    Do they sell these at Walmart? I need a new pillow and it looks like these cold give you a good deep sleep.

    • Thomas

      August 25, 2015 at 11:49 pm

      Yes, but hard to find. I have them. That’s why you gotta fluff it every so often.

    • Michelle

      September 4, 2015 at 11:56 am

      I got some at Overstock.com about 3 yrs ago!

  15. Cherie

    August 9, 2015 at 1:04 pm

    I recently purchased a pillow from good will I got to sleep on it one night ! And my dogs made sure there were no death crowns in it while I was gone the next day ! I will be picking up feathers for the next year !!! 🙂

  16. Samantha Woodward

    August 9, 2015 at 12:57 pm

    The surname in the picture is mine! What a coincidence!

  17. Patricia Sutton McKeehan

    July 27, 2015 at 9:07 pm

    Morgellons fibers and feathers. Arm yourselves with microscopes!!!

  18. Kevin Measimer

    July 27, 2015 at 11:52 am

    I can see the movements of an ill person as well as sweat and other secretions influencing materials in a pillow even if just damage of some kind. Your aunt though said her father was hit by a bus but we don’t know from the article if he was indeed ill beforehand. Interesting intro to a bit of folk history.

  19. Allison

    July 25, 2015 at 7:30 pm

    I randomly stumbled across this article via a link from Reddit. I am also from Hall County!!

    • James Jenkins

      July 26, 2015 at 5:58 am

      Forsyth County, GA checking in via Reddit as well.

    • Errah

      July 26, 2015 at 10:05 am

      Augusta Georgia here, also from Reddit.

    • Rachel

      May 4, 2016 at 6:50 am

      Another Hall County here

      • Felicia

        October 9, 2017 at 4:33 pm

        Athens Clarke County

  20. Teresa

    July 25, 2015 at 7:45 am

    Thanks for the article, I have my great grandmother’s and her baby. My mom passed away in 2012 on a feather pillow, I knew to put it away for awhile but now I just can’t bring myself to check it, so it sits in my closet undisturbed

  21. chriswoodyard

    July 22, 2015 at 10:52 pm

    Thanks for writing this! Wonderful to hear your story of a Death Crown and see the example. The tradition of feather crowns was not just confined to Appalachia, but was also widespread among Germans as an omen of death or of witchery. Here are some examples: http://wp.me/p3gOGE-1PU

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