Saturday, January 23, 2010

Hang Down Your Head Tom Dula

The stories behind murder ballads are never as pretty as the songs. The story behind “Tom Dooley” – the 1866 murder of Laura Foster by Tom Dula in Elkville, North Carolina – is particularly ugly. Tom Dula was having an affair with Mrs. Ann Foster Melton and when her cousin Pauline Foster came to work at the Melton home, Tom Dula took her to bed as well. Another cousin, Laura Foster, came to town and Tom had her too. One member of this group contracted syphilis and soon they were all infected. Tom Dula blamed Laura Foster and threatened revenge. Laura's body was found in a shallow grave and Tom Dula had left for Tennessee. Might have gotten away, “Hadn’t been for Grayson.”
Confederate Soldier

Date: June 18, 1866

Location:  Elkville, NC

Victim:  Laura Foster

Cause of Death: Stabbing

Accused:  Tom Dula

"Tom Dooley" -
The Kingston Trio


A good storyteller never lets the facts get in the way. When an event is preserved in song and story, the tale will change at the whim of the teller. The sordid tale of Laura Foster’s murder in 1866 has changed through more than 140 years of telling to the point where those involved would hardly recognize it. Mythical villains have emerged, love triangles have sprung from thin air, vengeance and cowardice have been recast as honor.

In the traditional story, Laura Foster was a beautiful young girl with blue eyes and chestnut hair who was being courted by Bob Cummings (some say Bob Grayson) a Yankee schoolteacher. When Laura met Tom Dula, a tall handsome Confederate soldier returning from the war she instantly fell in love. Ann Melton also fell in love with Tom Dula. She was a wealthy, married woman who was even more beautiful than Laura. Ann Melton stabbed Laura Foster to death out of jealousy and Tom Dula was blamed. Dula was hunted relentlessly with Cummings in the lead. He was captured and brought to trial. A witness who could have provided an alibi for Dula was paid by Cummings not to testify. Tom Dula was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Before his execution he confessed to the murder and exonerated Ann Melton. Years later when Ann Melton died people heard the sizzling of cooking meat and saw a black cat climb the wall as the devil came to take her to hell.

That's the storyteller's version, but newspapers and the transcripts of Tom Dula’s trials tell a different tale.

The section of North Carolina known as Happy Valley was marked by sharp class distinctions in the 1860’s. The town of Elkville and the fertile lands along the Yadkin River were home to merchants and gentleman farmers. But in the ridges of the mountains a lower class of people lived in squalid cabins on subsistence farms. In an 1868 article, the New York Herald described conditions there:
“A state of immorality unexemplified in the history of any country exists among these people, and such a general system of freeloveism prevails that it is ‘a wise child that knows its father.’”
Tom Dula was born and raised in these mountains and became sexually active at a tender age. Ann Foster married James Melton, a successful cobbler, when she was 14 or 15. Almost immediately she began an affair with Tom Dula who was about the same age as she was. At age 17 Tom joined the 42nd Regiment North Carolina Infantry (not 26th Regiment as is sometimes reported) and fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. When he returned from the war he picked up his relationship with Ann Melton where it had left off. James Melton, who no longer slept with his wife, didn’t seem to mind when Tom shared his wife’s bed in their one-room cabin.

There were three beds in the Melton cabin. The third was occupied by Pauline Foster, a distant cousin of Ann’s who was hired to do house and farm work. Tom would sometimes share her bed as well, and sometimes Ann, Pauline, Tom would all sleep together. Unbeknownst to Tom and the Meltons, Pauline Foster had come to Elkville seeking treatment for syphilis.

In March of 1866, when Tom Dula was 21, he began to visit Laura Foster, another cousin of Ann Melton, about the same age, who lived with her father Wilson Foster. Laura was described by the newspaper as “frail but beautiful.” She had large front teeth with a large gap between them. Laura had been with many men, but there is no record of a Bob Cummings or a schoolteacher of any name courting her.

Tom Dula frequently spent the night with Laura in her father’s house and, though Wilson Foster was well aware of this, it didn’t seem to bother him. Not long after he started seeing Laura, Tom went to Dr. George N. Carter in Elkville and was diagnosed with syphilis. Tom blamed the disease on Laura Foster and told a friend that he intended to “put through” the woman who gave it to him.

The date of Laura Foster’s disappearance is uncertain – three separate trials recorded three different dates – but from trial testimony, it can be deduced that the date was Friday, May 25, 1866. When Wilson Foster woke up that morning his daughter was gone and so was the mare he kept tied to a tree. The following day the mare returned to Foster’s cabin alone. It was assumed that Laura had died and men in the community spent weeks looking for her body. On June 24, in a spot in the woods near Tom Dula’s place, they found the rope used to tie the mare to a tree and a spot on the ground presumed to be blood.

As Rumors began to spread that Tom Dula had killed Laura Foster, Tom left for Tennessee. Around the same time Pauline Foster also went to Tennessee for some undisclosed reason. When she returned, a friend said she must have gone because she killed Laura Foster. Jokingly Pauline replied “Yes, I and Dula killed her, and I ran away to Tennessee.” Two or three weeks after the remark, Pauline was arrested as an accessory to murder and taken to Wilkesboro Jail. Pauline decided to tell all she knew. She said that Tom Dula and Ann Melton had killed Laura Foster and on September 1 she led a search party to a spot Ann Melton had pointed out as the place they buried Laura. At the spot, one of the horses snorted at a foul order coming out of the ground. The men dug there and found a woman’s body, badly decomposed but identified as Laura Foster by the dress she wore and the gap in her teeth. She had been stabbed through the ribs under the left breast.

In Tennessee, Tom Dula had already been captured. He had changed his name to Hall and was working as a farm hand for Col. James Grayson when deputies from Wilkes County, NC came to arrest him. Dula had left Grayson’s farm by the time deputies arrived. After hearing the story, Col. Grayson joined the deputies in the search for Tom Dula. They caught up with him in Pandora, Tennessee and Col. Grayson persuaded him to surrender. He spent the night under guard at Grayson’s farm before being taken back to Elkville.

Trial: 1. October 1, 1866
          2. January 20, 1868

In a move that surprised everyone involved, Tom Dula’s defense was handled, pro bono, by Zebulon B. Vance, former Governor of North Carolina and Colonel of the 26th North Carolina Regiment who fought valiantly for the Confederacy. Tom Dula is often incorrectly identified as a member of the 26th Regimentan – attempt to explain why Governor Vance took the case.

The trial opened in Wilkesboro, NC on October 1, 1866. The defense requested a severance – that Tom Dula and Ann Melton be tried separately- and a change of venue. Both were granted and the trial was moved to Statesville, NC.

The case against Tom Dula was circumstantial but compelling. All of the dirty laundry was aired, the promiscuity, the syphilis, and the threats made by Tom against Laura Foster. While there were many witnesses who testified on each of these aspects, the most damaging testimony came from Pauline Foster who held nothing back.

Tom Dula was found guilty of murder but the verdict was thrown out on appeal due to some irregularities in the admission of testimony.

The second trial was delayed twice as each side was granted a continuance when witnesses did not appear. To end the delay, a special court of Oyer and Terminer was convened in Statesville on January 20, 1868. Once again Tom Dula was found guilty of murder. This verdict was appealed as well, but the appeal was declined. Dula was sentenced to death.

Verdict:  1. Guilty of murder - overturned on appeal
                2. Guilty of murder

The legend says that Tom Dula rode to his execution in a wagon, sitting atop his coffin, playing the banjo and writing the song that 90 years later would be recorded by the Kingston Trio. Over the years, a number of people have claimed authorship but after so long it is impossible to give anyone credit. Tom Dula's  banjo playing during the civil war is legendary, but in fact, there is no evidence that he ever played banjo. He did play the fiddle, though. Several people testified to that, and he made one trip to the Melton cabin specifically to retrieve his fiddle.

On May 1, 1868 Tom Dula was taken to the old depot in Statesville to a makeshift gallows with a cart as scaffold. According to the New York Herald he spoke for nearly an hour about his childhood, about politics, and about all the people who had perjured themselves at his trials. He did not confess to the crime or exonerate Ann Melton. Allegedly his last words were, “You have such a nice clean rope, I ought to have washed my neck.”

In on November 22, 1958, the Kingston Trio’s recording of “Tom Dooley” reached #1 on the Billboard charts.

On January 9, 2009, his last day in office, Gov. Mike Easley of North Carolina received a request from the Wilkes County newspaper, The Record, and the Wilkes Playmakers, to pardon Tom Dula. The request was denied. The group claimed that Laura Foster was pregnant when she died and Tom Dula was planning to marry her. A good storyteller never lets the facts get in the way.

This is one of 50 stories featured in the new book
The Bloody Century
West, John Foster. The Ballad of Tom Dula: The Documented Story Behind the Murder of Laura Foster and the Trials and Execution of Tom Dula. New York: Parkway, 2002.

Wellman, Manly Wade. Dead and Gone. New York: University of North Carolina, 1980.

Gravesite (from Findagrave)
Ballad Lyrics (from Mudcat Cafe)


Anonymous says:
February 20, 2011 at 12:54 PM

In the first paragraph of your "synopsis" you need to change the date of Laura's murder from 1868 to 1866. Just a typo, I image.
Ann Melton's mother testified that she'd caught Tom and Ann in bed "soon after Ann's marriage to James Melton." They were married in 1959, so they didn't meet "when he came back from the war."
And Tom did not tell Rufus Dula Hall that Laura gave him the pox. He just said he "was diseased and would put through those who diseased him." He could have been talking about Pauline.
According to Census records, Ann was 2 years older than Tom and Laura.
The rest of it is pretty accurate. But there were many more people involved and the motive went far beyond "the pox".

Robert Wilhelm says:
February 21, 2011 at 10:50 AM

Thanks for pointing out the typo. For the rest, I will need to know your sources.

Anonymous says:
June 16, 2011 at 6:52 AM

Anonymous, you need to change the date of Ann and James Melton's wedding . I really don't think they were married in 1959 considering they lived during the 1860's. Doctor Carter was the one treating Tom for the disease.
Tom dilly dallied around with many women. It's more probably that Perline {pauline } was the one that infected Tom and Laura got the blame for it. I live not far from where all this took place.

Anonymous says:
September 27, 2011 at 2:27 PM

Do people know that there is a book out, now, by Sharyn McCrumb, about this event? The title of the book is The Ballad Of Tom Dooley. Sharyn McCrumb is an excellent story-teller. I have read many of her books, & have just started this novel. It is quite intriguing, already, & I am only in the second chapter.

LissainLenoir says:
November 11, 2011 at 4:03 PM

I live near Wilkes County in NC and have been to the Tom Dula museum at the old Whipporwill Academy in Ferguson and also to the Wilkes Cty. Historical Society in Wilkesboro. I have never seen a photo of Tom Dula. Even though the website states that Gaslight is skeptical of its authenticity, I would still be interested in knowing where this image came from.

Robert Wilhelm says:
November 12, 2011 at 5:51 PM

Hi LissainLenoir,
Thanks for the information. I didn't know there was a Tom Dula museum, I will have to pay it a visit.

I don't remember exactly where I found the picture, but these two websites identify it as Tom Dula:

However, this site uses the same picture as an unnamed Confedreate soldier:

And this one calls him a "galvanized yankee" - a former Confederate who fought in the US Army in the west after the war:

Personally, I'm not even convinced that the picture is old. I would love to see a picture of Tom Dula, but I don't think this is is.


Anonymous says:
November 29, 2011 at 9:44 AM

This story is generally correct. As a descendant of the principals in this story, I have extensively researched the details, not the Ballad Myths, most of which are false. The evidence is that Laura gave Tom and subsequently Ann Melton the "pox" and that and the jealousy of Ann Melton for her 1st cousin Laura were the motives for Laura's murder. Pauline was Tom's cousin, and was being treated for the "pox" so she could marry her engaged fiance. She never admitted to sex with Tom and likely would not, if she hoped to be cured. Ann Melton had an iron-clad alibi for the time of Laura's murder, which is why she was never charged with the murder and was later released when Tom confessed. The book by Sharyn McCrumb is mostly fiction despite her claims to the contrary.

Anonymous says:
January 16, 2012 at 2:57 PM

looging for a modern day map of the original map used in the trial of tom dula for Laura fosters murder - showing where the original sites are...

Robert Wilhelm says:
January 17, 2012 at 12:07 PM

I'm not positive, but I think there is a copy of the map in the book _The Ballad of Tom Dula_ by John Foster West.

Anonymous says:
February 17, 2012 at 6:47 PM

Is "The Balled of Tom Dula" fiction, or non-fiction?

Robert Wilhelm says:
June 22, 2012 at 6:45 PM

_The Ballad of Tom Dula_ by John Foster West purports to be non-fiction.

Anonymous says:
September 2, 2012 at 4:23 AM

The story of Tom "Dooley" has been told for years, in my husbands family, to every generation and it was always said that Tom was related to my husbands family who has the last name Dula. We did alot of research and found that Tom and my husband would be about sixth cousins now. I know most people dont concider a sixth cousin anything important but we thought it was pretty cool to find that out. :)

jlawrencesmith says:
September 1, 2013 at 3:19 PM

Site provides the map drawn for use in the last of there trials Tom Dula in Statesville, NC.

Site provides actual transcripts of last trial in Statesville, NC

Robert Wilhelm says:
September 2, 2013 at 4:53 PM

Nice! Thank you for sharing these.

Chilibreath says:
December 9, 2013 at 7:34 PM

God I love this stuff! Song or no song this story really happened, and although everyone involved is long gone their descendents and other locals' descendents are still around to keep the story and the conversation going. I will also say that although it seems like all this happened a long time ago, but in truth it was only a few life spans ago, and everyone involved was a living breathing human who lived and played and sang and, yes, they even dallied around a bit. That's just life; we do the same things now and we will continue to do them because that’s our nature.

- K says:
February 26, 2014 at 12:57 PM

Actually, having done a little more reading, I have to amend my earlier statement: Thomas C. Land did write the first poem to be published about Tom Dula's case, but it does not bear enough resemblance to the song Proffitt sang to be considered the source.

DJ says:
March 16, 2016 at 8:40 PM

I listened to an audio book and Tom also played a fiddle. He also wrote the song Jerusalem's Ridge.

Siva Gopal Valluri says:
February 18, 2017 at 11:45 AM

In 1960 I first heard the song sung by the Kingston Trio and that was the beginning of my love for the western music. What ever the story it is sad some one got killed and some one hanged. Siva Gopal. India

R. L. says:
April 3, 2017 at 1:00 AM

The image is a generic image of a confederate soldier. I have seen it used 1000s of times to identify it as a generic image. There does exist a possible tintype of his brother Lenny/William. It is possible that it could be Tom, however, as a descendant of the Dula's (Tom is my 1st cousin 6x removed) I have to say that this is a generic picture of a solider and not Tom.

Sadder but Wiser says:
May 7, 2017 at 8:44 PM

I remember hearing the song by the Kingston Trio as an eight year old. It was profoundly melancholy then

kate says:
August 4, 2017 at 8:51 PM

As a sign of gratitude of how i was saved from syphilis, i decided to reach out to those still suffering from this.i suffered syphilis in the year 2013 and it was really tough and heartbreaking for me because the symptoms were terrible, i always have vaginal discharge, and body itching . we tried various therapies prescribed by our neurologist but none could cure me. I searched for a cure and i saw a testimony by someone who was cured and so many other with similar body problem, and he left the contact of the doctor who had the cure to syphilis . I never imagined syphilis . has a natural cure not until i contacted him and he assured me that i will be fine. I got the herbal medication he recommended and i used it and in one months time i was fully okay even up till this moment am so full of life.syphilis . has a cure and it is a herbal cure contact the doctor for more info on on how to get the medication. Thanks for reading my testimony

Unknown says:
July 12, 2021 at 8:36 PM

I am a Dooley changed to Dula after scandal. I recall so.many writers n tellers coming to see my dad to get his thoughts. I am youngest of 9. It was jealousy of women w 1 killed the other. So many stories..sad.

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