In TAR HEEL GHOSTS (1954), John Harden tells a story from 1870s North Carolina in which a particularly brutal domestic murder came to light thanks to the dreams of a total stranger. This one gives me goosebumps. Just wait until the end to see why.
George Feller, his wife Kathy and their young son lived in the North Carolina section of the Blue Ridge Mountains. George was a farmer, and he worked the farm alone. It was backbreaking labor; his son was far too young to help, and his wife was a near-invalid, suffering so badly from chronic asthma that she was bedfast much of the time.
Early one morning in 1879, George Feller showed up at a neighbor’s house, weeping frantically and begging the neighbor to come to his home. Kathy, he said, was in the throes of the worst asthma attack she had ever had, and it would take too long to ride for the doctor–could the neighbors come see if they could help?
The neighbors accompanied him home at once, only to find Kathy dead in her bed, her baby son sound asleep beside her still warm body.
As was the custom of the day, the women of the community came to prepare the body for burial. Kathy was washed and dressed in her best clothes. The men made a rough coffin. Someone went to summon her family, who lived ten miles away.
A funeral procession, led by the community’s pastor, formed. He and George Feller followed the horse and wagon that would carry her body to the burying ground, some four miles away, while other mourners walked behind them.
Halfway to the cemetery, the sad procession was halted by a stranger on a horse, who blocked the road on them. He told them that he knew this woman had been murdered. He was from Yancey County, he said, but he had dreamed that, on his planned journey into McDowell County the next day, he would meet the funeral procession of a woman who had been murdered by her husband.
Hillbillies, especially in the olden times, believed strongly in the power of dreams. There might be something to his rantings about a dream. Over the protests of George Feller, Kathy’s funeral procession was diverted to the home of the nearest doctor, in the town of Marion.
The doctor examined the body, and announced flatly that no way had Kathy died of a violent asthma attack, for her neck bore the marks of strangulation. The object used, he said, had been wide enough and soft enough to apply pressure sufficient to kill a woman whose breathing was already impaired with little effort and minimal bruising.
George Feller was arrested, and his home searched. In a trunk, the searchers located a broad band of rawhide that looked as if it had been used as a garrote. Clinging to it were several strands of Kathy’s unmistakable long golden-blond hair.
Confronted with this evidence, George Feller confessed to his wife’s murder. On the night of her death they had argued, and in a fit of rage he had put the rawhide band around her neck and throttled the weak woman to death. Then he put on a convincing act of a bereaved husband, reasoning that the neighbors would think her well-known chronic complaint had killed her at last.
George Feller was convicted and sentenced to death. He was the last man to be executed in McDowell County.
Strangely, the drop from the gallows didn’t break his neck. George Feller strangled to death at the end of the rope.
Justice? Poetic and ironic, I’d say. And all for a crime he would have gotten away with had it not been for a stranger’s prophetic dream.