Nance Dude: Legend, murderer, victim

By Christi Marsico • Staff Writer

Stoned by children, considered a witch by some and a complete outcast by others, the story of Nance Dude has left a legacy in Haywood County.

Local playwright and storyteller Gary Carden has written the play “Nance Dude,” which will be performed by Elizabeth Westall Dec. 12 and 13 at Haywood Arts Regional Theatre in Waynesville.

In the winter of 1913, the 65-year-old woman, Nance Dude, was found guilty of causing the death of her 2-year-old granddaughter by burying her in a cave in Haywood County.

She was almost lynched and ended up serving 15 years of hard labor of her 30-year sentence as a convict at the women’s prison in Raleigh.

Paroled at the age of 80, she lived out the rest of her life on Conley’s Creek near Bryson City and died at the age of 104 in 1952.

“She dropped dead chopping wood to sell to tourists,” Carden said. “She made enough money to keep body and soul together.”

Carden remembers seeing Dude when he was a child riding in his grandfather’s oil truck as they passed her on the road.

“She was an incredibly old woman with all this wood tied on her back with a mob of dogs around her,” Carden said.

Carden based his play on the book “The Legend of Nance Dude,” by Maurice Stanley.

The playwright noted Stanley married a woman from Waynesville and while visiting Haywood County, Stanley spent time at the library and stumbled onto the history of Dude which prompted him to write his book.

Carden has asked Stanley to be involved with his play, sharing his perspective as a humanist scholar.

Carden has turned Dude’s story into a provocative piece believing she paid for being an unwed mother who was forced to make bargains and tradeoffs all her life.

“I dealt with the role of women in the mountain culture, and Dude is an indication of that,” Carden said.

Writing the piece over a decade ago, the playwright had thought of writing about Dude for years since he had known her story since childhood.

“Most local people know her story front-wards and backwards, and my goal is to give a voice to the people who were denied a voice,” said Carden

Carden’s play predicts what she might have said given the chance to speak. The most intriguing fact about Nance Dude is her silence. She never confessed to her crime, nor provided any information about the circumstances surrounding it, according to Carden.

“She was a victim of total circumstance,” Carden said.

During his research of Haywood County and Western North Carolina, certain aspects of that time period made an impression on Carden, and he wove them into the framework of what her life was like.

“She was alive during the Civil War and saw soldiers come home,” Carden said.

The playwright touches on other local folklore in hints and indications throughout Dude’s monologue, such as the fiddler, farmer and handicapped man who were shot in Jonathan’s Creek, as well as the man who laid down in his ashes and died laughing.

Carden wants the audience to take away an awareness that this woman “is an awful lot like you and me.”

“She’s a survivor and did what she had to do to stay alive,” Carden said.

Westall’s “Nance Dude”

Westall, 77, has performed “Nance Dude” hundreds of times for numerous events including museums, schools and libraries around the region, and Carden feels her portrayal of Dude is “exactly right.”

The actress has appeared in numerous productions in the Burnsville area since she retired from teaching drama and English at Mountain Heritage High School.

The story of Dude touches Westall’s heart now just as much as it did the first time she performed it.

“This is the best thing I’ll ever do,” Westall said. “There’s something about one heart, one soul, one miserable lost person who reaches out to others.”

Westall is legally blind, and the first thing she does when preparing to perform is locate the boundaries where she can move.

“Maybe the fact that I don’t see has made me more aware of the frailties of other people,” Westall said.

With a black book, chair, stump and hatchet, the actress portrays the Dude as a suffering person during the 55-minute performance, and she believes that on a whole the piece touches men more than women.

“Gary Carden does a miraculous job of seeing inside a woman’s mind and heart,” Westall said. “He has a way with words.”

The actress believes that since Carden didn’t condemn her, she shouldn’t either.

Though many people think Dude is guilty of abandoning her grandchild, Westall doesn’t rule out the possibility that the son-in-law had a hand in the actual crime and Dude took the blame.

“I think circumstances can drive people to do unthinkable things and put people in situations they never dreamed they‘d be in,” Westall said.

She hopes the audience will feel compassion toward her portrayal of Dude, acknowledging she is a somebody who loved and was loved and had a raw deal all her life, according to Westall.

The actress believes Dude lived to be 104 because of her tenacity and strength, and when she started rehearsing the play over 10 years ago, she wept.

Sensing the character reached out to her, Westall confessed she does feel selfish about the part — like it’s hers.

“I love doing this play, and this might be the last time I do it. I am getting old, and I have done this a long time. I’ll be 78 on Christmas Day, which is not quite as old as Nance Dude, but getting there,” Westall said.

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