Artwork by Frank Frazetta (© Capp Enterprises, Inc.)

The Tale of Tom Dooley

or  The Murder of Laura Foster

The Kingston Trio recorded the song Tom Dooley in 1958. Founding member Bob Shane said it was "very easy to do." Their arrangement only consisted of two chords, and they'd been perfecting it in nightclubs in the San Francisco Bay area for months. Included on the Trio's debut record, they cut the song in one take; the entire album was recorded in three days. And they had a surprise hit on their hands. Within six months, the song had sold over a million copies.

The ballad "tells the story of a Mr. Grayson, a beautiful woman and a condemned man named Tom Dooley." Ever since its release, many people have been curious about the story that inspired the song; the lyrics of its three short verses are disjointed and ambiguous. And, in general— wrong. Unfortunately for the curious, at the time there were only a few obscure reference works that contained brief, mythical versions of the story, or the new Columbia Pictures' 1959 movie The Legend of Tom Dooley starring Michael Landon. True to form, the plot of that movie bears absolutely no resemblance to the true story save for two (and a half) character names.

Folklorists, historians, and bluegrass artists knew the real story. Except— most of this "knowledge" came from family legends passed down the generations, either by word of mouth or through earlier, more seminal versions of the famous song. Given a hundred years, these accounts were of course subject to change, easily "spun" depending on the storyteller's intent or bias, often based on rumor and gossip; tales that "grow taller on down the line."

Or tales that grow taller online. As I attempted to discover the true events of the case simply for my own amusement, I found a variety of Internet accountings. They all tell the same basic tale of a love triangle gone bad. But where they went into any detail, the stories began to diverge, each blithely claiming to be true, even where they contradicted each other. Often I would find a "fact" that could have never been verified, repeated time and time again. Many things that could easily be proven wrong were also repeated as "facts". Thus is the nature of an oral history.

Dr. John Foster West, Professor Emeritus of English at Appalachian State University, performed painstaking research into the Tom Dooley story. He avoided folklore and storytelling, and instead relied upon contemporary newspaper accounts, actual trial testimony, and other archived papers to write two books recognized as the authoritative Dooley texts. The Ballad of Tom Dula was written in a technically-detailed scholarly style. and Lift Up Your Head, Tom Dooley contains revisions due to further research, and is more "readable," telling the story in more or less chronological order. In those books, John Foster (as he preferred to be called) explains many of the things that must be inferred or deduced; how, for instance, a certain "Friday in corn-planting season" can be pinpointed to May 25th, even though court transcripts and historical texts yield five other dates.

But even that authority can be called into question on one or two issues. Most of what we know comes from sworn trial testimony, especially that of Pauline Foster, who we'll find is a dubious source. Personal letters and other writings made at the time could be "embellished" or at least subject to interpretation. I'm certain James Isbell's map, made for the trial, represented his best effort. His veracity is unimpeachable but there is no precision in the drawing, and distances are approximated.

In this light, one can occasionally be uncertain of even "documented facts". This is not to denigrate John Foster West's work; his books contain far more background and information on the history, the landscape, the people involved, and the research he did than I've set down here. He explains the evidence that led him to certain conclusions, how he deduced the things he did, and where things can be verified, these books are the most accurate accounts that exist. I highly recommend either one of them to anyone interested in the matter; some of the things he refutes are fascinating. (Although, in turn, I refute some of his findings as well.)

As I attempted to obtain the true story behind the case, it was sadly necessary to omit some highly interesting "facts" when there was no substantial corroboration. For my purpose, adding a juicy rumor and then disclaiming it was basically pointless. On the other hand, at times I was forced to "overlay" all the accounts I could find, see where they matched, and use the most, best sources to obtain "reasonable speculations." However, combining John Foster West's efforts with my own personal study (and dozens of Google searches) of associated relevant subjects, I found these conclusions to be the same logical deductions that convinced two juries. Even without conjecture, I also found the more facts were uncovered, the more intriguing and sordid (and lengthy) the story became.

Eschewing sensationalism, my attempt to compile, copy/paste, paraphrase, edit, rewrite, and synopsize pieces of the fascinating "Ballad of Tom Dooley" have resulted in a novella-length version of what I believe is the closest anyone may ever get to "the true story."

* * *

In North Carolina's Happy Valley, settlements were being built and plantations laid out along the Yadkin River as early as the 1760's. Benjamin Howard settled on the river east of Elk Creek around 1765. Four miles downstream, Daniel Boone was living on land near Beaver Creek.

At the close of the Revolutionary War an ex-soldier from Virginia, Captain William Dula, came into the valley. He became the outstanding land owner for many miles along the river, and his six children were located on prosperous farms there. At the time of the Civil War and immediately afterward, the plantation owners in the immediate area (Dulas, Hortons, Isbells, and Joneses) were all mostly direct descendants of the original settlers. These were the aristocrats of Happy Valley.

The "hill people" lived on patches of upland or along river branches, on land owned by themselves, or on the outer fringes of some of the plantations. Their dwellings were typically small pole cabins measuring 15 or 20 feet squared, made of logs hewn flat to ensure a snug fit. Most cabins had a rough stone fireplace at one end, and mud or clay chinking between the logs to serve as insulation against weather and insects. While it was not uncommon to have a dirt floor, more permanent structures were built with wooden floors supported by simple stone piers. Stone piers and foundations provided a means of leveling a building as well as helping to prevent termite infestation.

Reconstruction after the Civil War changed the economy of the South. With the end of slavery, many plantation owners had a hard time finding field workers. In some cases, wealthy land-owners broke up their large farms into smaller pieces, and let a poor family work a section. In exchange, the planter received a large portion of the family's crops at the end of the year. This system, called share-cropping, lasted for almost a hundred years. Other poor families worked for rich planters, but rather than sharing their crops, they would simply pay a fixed rent. These were known as tenant farmers. Many of the poor mountain folk and their descendants became sharecroppers and tenant farmers, but these systems created vicious cycles of debt. As a result, the majority of these families remained in poverty.

An article appearing in the New York Herald on May 1, 1868 stated that Wilkes County "could be divided into two entirely separate and distinct classes. The one occupying the fertile lands adjacent the Yadkin, is educated and intelligent; the other, living on the spurs and ridges of the mountains is ignorant, poor, and desperate. A state of immorality unexampled 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.'"

The article further describes these people as "a certain class indicated by a bronzed complexion, rustic attire, a quid of tobacco in their mouths and a certain mountaineer look... so general among the igorant classes of society."

Of the poorer class, Robert Isbell wrote in a 1955 article that there were good people among them, "it was an unheard of thing to invite the tenant class to take part in the socials of the land owners; however pretty the girls might be or handsome the men, custom barred their mingling together in social life."

However, a look into contemporary census records reveals that the people living in the hills were often closely related to the people in the valley, and although people from each group would normally marry someone from their own group, relations between the two groups were not uncommon.

The Fosters, the Dulas, and the Meltons involved in this story were from the poorer class living in the hills.

* * *

Thomas C. Dula (Tom) was born on June 20, 1844, the youngest of three sons of Thomas P. and Mary Keaton Dula. The family lived near Elkville, in the Reedy Branch area of Wilkes County, North Carolina. Thomas P. Dula had inherited a 2,000-acre farm from his father, but most of the land was forested and rocky, not suitable for farming. When Thomas P. died in 1854 he left this farm to his wife and children.

By all accounts, Tom was an uncommonly good fiddle player. He played for the local square dances and was well-known throughout the community as a bit of a troublemaker. He was described as "not handsome, but might be called good-looking," about 5'10" with wavy brown hair. And as for Tom Dula's character, there can be little doubt but that he was a lecherous young man. Even as a teenager before the Civil War, Tom Dula was "very popular" with the young ladies.

About half a mile up the Reedy Branch creek lived Carlotta "Lotty" Triplett, which causes some confusion. The Triplett family is established in the 1840 census, but court documents from the 1860s and the 1870 census show Lotty (and her children) going by the surname Foster, while by 1880 the family name has become Triplett again. Whatever the story, Lotty's daughter Ann was born Angeline Pauline Triplett in 1843. By 1859, when she married a local man named James Melton, she was calling herself Ann Foster.

Evidence indicates Ann's mother, Lotty Foster, "was a hard drinking woman, belligerent and bitter, with a bad reputation" who paid little heed to her five illegitimate children. This was the "midst of depravity" into which Ann was born and lived for the first fourteen or fifteen years of her life.

Ann was described by a New York Herald reporter covering Tom Dula's trial as a "most beautiful woman." She was illiterate, but had the confident "manner and bearing of an accomplished lady, and all the natural poise that would grace a born beauty." However, in addition to being vain and promiscuous, she was "demanding and aggressive, and had no interest in household tasks." Testimony indicates that Ann Melton was a vindictive and temperamental woman, vengeful and capable of violent action. Ann boasted that she always kept everybody about her under her control. And she had great influence over Tom Dula.

In 1859, Ann married James Melton. Melton was poor but industrious, farming the land adjacent to his one-room cabin while also serving the community as a shoemaker. But even after Ann married James Melton, she and Tom continued their intimate ways. Ann's mother, Lotty Foster, once caught Tom in bed with Ann after Ann's marriage to James Melton. Tom jumped out of bed and got under it. Tom had his clothes off, and she ordered him out. She stated that this was two years before the war, which means that Tom was either 14 or 15 years old, and Ann, James Melton's wife, was sixteen.

Col. James Isbell, one of the landed gentry and a magistrate in Caldwell County, said in his trial testimony, "It was generally reported Ann Melton indulged in illicit intercourse with others besides [Tom Dula]"— or her husband. Louise Gilbert, who later married James Melton after Ann died, said that Ann would sell herself for cloth, tobacco, or whatever goods were available to haulers who camped with teams and wagons near her home.

What kind of man was James Melton, to live with a girl like Ann and put up with her behavior? He was either dense or indifferent, having yielded to Ann's will early in their marriage. He moved into his own bed, where he remained. Too, there is some evidence he was weak-willed where Ann was concerned. He was "afraid to ask Ann anything," although he married her when she was no more than fourteen or fifteen. As a farmer, he could not afford regular draft animals, either horse, mule, or even ox, and had to yoke his regular milk cows for such jobs as plowing. Yet James Melton was also the local cobbler, industrious enough to hire outside help, while apparently making no effort to persuade Ann to do any work in the fields or in the house.

Ann and James Melton had a daughter, Jane Martha, in 1861, but who actually fathered the girl is questionable, especially in light of what we now know about their marital habits.

Their baby was only an infant, perhaps even a newborn, when, on June 12, James enlisted in the Twenty-sixth North Carolina Regiment of the Confederate army. James Melton went on to serve for the entire length of the war.

Almost a year later, Tom Dula also left to fight in the "War of Northern Aggression," enlisting on March 15th, three months before his eighteenth birthday. It's doubtful he signed up to "defend States' rights," or to help maintain the economic system of slavery. He was more likely motivated by the fifty-dollar bounty being awarded to area conscripts for joining the Confederate Army. On April 24, he was mustered in as Private, Company K, 42nd Regiment North Carolina Troops.

Much has been made of the fact that Tom Dula was a musician in the service, the writers usually referring to him playing the banjo or fiddle while in camp. There is nothing recorded to indicate Tom played a banjo, and while the January-February, 1864, muster roll of Company K does give Tom's rank as "musician," it indicates that he was a drummer. Generally, the company drummer beat out such commands as charge or retreat in battle. Dr. Manarin (head of the Civil War Roster Project under the direction of what is now the North Carolina Office of Archives and History) states in a letter that the Confederate soldiers did a great deal of drilling when not in battle and that the duty of the drummer was also to beat cadence for marching during drill.

in 1864, the 42nd received its greatest compliment resulting from its dedication to proficient drilling. General Robert E. Lee requested of General Longstreet the best drilled regiment in his corps to perform the last military honors at the funeral of General Gracie (killed at Petersburg), who was to be buried in Richmond. The 42nd Regiment received the detail.

Both of Tom's brothers were killed in the war, while Private Dula himself suffered through illness, prison guard duty, battles at Petersburg and Cold Harbor, and the fall of Fort Fisher. Captured at or near Wise's Forks on March 10, 1865, he was confined at Point Lookout, Maryland.

James Melton had been hospitalized in Richmond, but when that city fell to Union forces, he was imprisoned at Point Lookout as well. He ended up being released two weeks after Tom Dula.

With the end of the war, Tom Dula was released on June 11, 1865, after taking the Oath of Allegiance; what Confederate soldiers called "swallowing the dog." Tom was asked his name, and based upon his answer, prison officials rendered it as "Thomas C. Dooley." Of course, the first question people ask when they learn the legend of Tom Dooley is based on the story of Tom Dula is, why the discrepancy? Simply put, the Appalachian people talked that way. Pronunciation of a final unstressed (schwa) "a" like "y" is an old feature in Appalachian speech, the most common examples being the name "Grand Ole Opry," or the word "extry," meaning an additonal amount. Likewise, Laura Foster is often referred to as "Laurie." (Oddly, in a similar but opposite fashion, natives of a certain midwestern state often claim to be from "Missoura.")

Tom Dula had only gone to school for three months in his life, so with his name misspelled, Tom signed the Pledge with "his mark," an X with the signature of a witness next to it. Following that, he hiked from the Chesapeake Bay prison back to his home in western North Carolina, to live with his widowed mother and younger sister in the Reedy Branch section of Wilkes County, near the Yadkin River, as his mother's "sole remaining boy."

One must keep in mind that this was the time of Congress' reconstruction efforts, and North Carolina was not yet readmitted into the United States. The Carolinas were the second of five military districts, commanded by U.S. Army Major General Dan Sickles. General Sickles was to supervise the reconstruction of these states until their new state constitutions could be approved by Congress. Essentially, North Carolina was under martial law. Many people living in the western North Carolina mountains were either ambivalent about the South, or were outright Unionists, political leanings that divided families and caused conflicts between neighbors for the rest of the century.

Tom Dula returned from federal prison to this restless region, where not only was society in ferment, but where economic conditions threatened starvation in many areas. Food was scarce, and what was available was raised locally. Salt and sugar were prohibitively expensive. There was no such luxury as flour. Bread was made from coarsely hand-ground corn. Sweet potatoes and cowpeas (black-eyed peas) were the staples. Instead of coffee or tea, the hillfolk were obliged to substitute sassafras tea, made from the ground dried bark of the sassafras shrub's roots, or "coffee" from crushed roasted acorns. Some pork was available to the few who could afford it. Honey and molasses were the only sweeteners to be had.

Food may have been scarce, but drink was not. In the economically-depressed uplands, liquor-making was an essential frontier enterprise. To a farmer, a still was the ideal instrument for concentrating profits: a horse could carry only four bushels of corn at a time, but it could carry twenty-four bushels in liquid form. And for household use, alcohol was far more than a means of getting drunk. It was a disinfectant, a tranquilizer, and a medicine for countless ills. It was an anesthetic, a solvent, and an admirably stable unit of currency. When state and federal excise taxes were permanently introduced during the Civil War, most of the production of corn whiskey went underground to become moonshine, where it has remained ever since.

These were the Appalachian mountain lifestyle conditions, which did not improve markedly until over a decade after Tom Dula's return to Happy Valley.

* * *

On Tom Dula's arrival home he rekindled his affair with Ann Melton. He lived in a convenient location for such a liaison. It was only a half mile from his mother's home to Lotty Foster's cabin, on a ridge up the branch and beyond the Stony Fork road. James and Ann Melton lived only a short distance beyond Lotty. [See Isbell's map (p. 4) and my 3-D map (p. 5).] If necessary, Tom and Ann could have had trysts in the woods which surrounded the narrow valley, but they rarely yielded to such inconvenience, using instead one of the three beds in James Melton's house while he slept a few feet away.

The fact that Tom was a gallant soldier for over three years, and was living in the uncertain times of Reconstruction doesn't mitigate the fact that he was, quite simply, depraved. The Herald reporter wrote that "since the war closed (he) has become reckless, demoralized and a desperado, of whom the people in his vicinity had a terror."

Over in Caldwell County, five rugged miles to the west, Ann's slightly younger fourth-cousin Laura Foster lived with her brother James and thier widower father, Wilson Foster, in a cabin on German's Hill. Laura was tiny, about five feet tall, maybe ninety pounds. Although Wilson Foster did possess a mare, a rare treasure for those times and his class, there is every indication that he was a very poor man and perhaps a tenant on the farm of Welborne German or Lloyd Jones, who lived near German's Hill.

Laura Foster also had a specific reputation for being "frail", which in those days did not necessarily refer to physical stamina, but a moral frailty. Less polite folks simply described her as having "round heels", meaning she spent more time on her back than she did standing. Wilson Foster, Laura's father, stated that Tom began to cohabit with Laura early in 1866.

How Tom came to know Laura is not known. She lived five miles away, a hike of about an hour and a half, but in a rural area with a scattered population, that was no distance at all to prevent "neighbors" from forming relationships. They may have encountered each other in Elkville, where (Calvin) Cowles' Store was the community center. It was the only General Store in the area, and also served as the Elkville Post Office and occasional pro tem courthouse. Militia musters were held on the grounds, and crowds would gather there to hear politicians speak or to watch travelling shows. It was the meeting place for all Elkville and Stony Creek communities.

Tom Dula and Laura Foster may have run into each other in Elkville, but the easy guess would be that Tom had simply found out about Laura through her "reputation," the sort of reputation that would have attracted him. And there can be little doubt from the evidence but that Laura Foster was a woman of easy virtue.

Both Laura and Ann were infatuated with Tom Dula, and he managed his time to be with both.

Tom began to visit Laura regularly— at least once a week, sometimes staying overnight. Her father saw them in bed together "once or twice," but apparently did not criticize her for being in bed with Tom Dula in his house. He later said he would not have been surprised if she had run off with almost any man who came along.

On March 1st, 1866, twenty-one year old Pauline Foster arrived in Reedy Branch. (Due to the local dialect, she is often referred to as Perline.) She was Ann's second-cousin, and came from Watauga County to begin working for James Melton. Melton had promised to pay her twenty-one dollars for the summer, a large amount for that time and his means. Pauline, as a hireling, was expected to milk the cows and work in the fields with James Melton, but a bone of contention was that Ann wanted her to do the household chores as well.

Pauline Foster appears to have been more promiscuous than either Ann Melton or Laura Foster. At least there are records of more men involved with her than the other two. Pauline's character was so questionable that the New York Herald reporter wrote that she was "remarkable for nothing but debasement, and may be dismissed with the statement that she has since married a white man and given birth to a Negro." Washington Anderson, a neighbor who had served in Tom Dula's regiment during the war, later testified that Pauline spent the night once with him and Tom in the woods. Thomas Foster, Ann's younger brother, stated that he slept with Pauline at James Melton's house on "that Friday night."

Tom Dula, of course, took up with Pauline as well. In court, Pauline testified that Ann had used her as a willing "blind"; pretending to have a relationship with Tom and even going so far as to sleep with Tom in the barn so that people would not suspect that Ann herself was involved with him.

How many women of the Happy Valley area Tom Dula had intercourse with other than Ann Melton, Laura Foster, and Pauline Foster can only be surmised. There was a Caroline Barnes that he and Ann quarrelled over. Some of his former army companions from the mountain region believed that Tom had murdered a man at Wilmington during the war, the husband of another woman with whom he had "criminal intercourse."

Shortly after he began his affair with Pauline, Tom went to the region's doctor, George N. Carter. Dr. Carter had moved to the valley in the early 1850's and married Juliette Jones, a granddaughter of Captain William Dula. He owned a fairly large tract of land and was the only physician for miles around, serving the valley for thirty-five years.

Tom was informed that he had syphilis in its early stage. He told the doctor he had contracted the disease from Laura Foster. (If Laura did give him the disease, then she would have had to contract it from some other man. Apparently Tom was sufficiently convinced that Laura Foster was this sort of "woman of loose morals.")

On Sunday, May 13, Tom was coming home "after preaching" and encountered his friend, R. D. Hall. He told Hall that he "was diseased," and that he was going to "put through"— or kill— the one who had given it to him. But to anybody who noticed, it seemed to be business as usual when Tom paid a typical visit to Laura Foster the next Sunday, and again three days later, on Wednesday the 23rd.

* * *

That Thursday morning, May 24, Tom visited Ann Melton's mother, Lotty Foster, and asked to borrow her mattock, a device somewhat like a pickaxe, but with an adze and chisel point at each end of the head. Martha Gilbert saw Tom on the path between Lotty's house and his mother's, "skelping along side the path." He said he was fixing the path, making it wider so it would be easier to walk along at night. The spot was above the old field by Lotty's house, about a hundred yards away from Tom's mother's house.

About that same time, Ann was telling Pauline that Tom had given her the "pock" (syphilis) and that he had contracted it from Laura Foster. Ann told Pauline she intended to have her revenge by killing Laura Foster and if Pauline "should leave that place that day or talk about it with anybody she would kill her."

Shortly afterward, Carson Dula stopped by, delivering a canteen of liquor that Ann had asked him to fill the day before. Ann left the house to take the canteen to her mother's, where she asked "a little girl" (maybe one of her younger sisters) to go down to Mary Dula's house and tell Tom about the liquor. The little girl went, but didn't find Tom. Ann was still waiting at her mother's house when Tom Dula showed back up just after noon— without Lotty's mattock.

Tom and Ann had dinner (the noon meal), followed by some private conversation. About 3:00, Tom took the canteen of liquor and he and Ann both left Lotty's, heading in opposite directions. However, neither Tom nor Ann went home; they both disappeared until the next morning.

Thursday turned into Friday, and Ann returned to her home about an hour before dawn. When she came in, her shoes and the bottom of her dress were wet, so she took them off and left them at the foot of the bed. She got in bed with Pauline, and claimed that she, Tom and some others had been at Lotty's house for an evening of hard drinking. After sunrise Pauline left to help James Melton and Jonathan Gilbert "drop corn." Ann remained in bed most of the day.

At about the same time Ann came home wearing her wet clothes, in the pre-dawn darkness of Friday, May 25, Tom arrived at Laura's cabin in Caldwell County. They talked outside for a while, and Tom left. Laura went back inside and packed two dresses (one store-bought, one homemade) in a bundle. She put on another checked cotton dress and a dark-colored cloak, fastened with a special pin. As the sun came up, she untied her father's mare and started off down the river road, riding bareback.

A mile or so down the road, she met a neighbor, Betsy Scott, to whom she had confided several days earlier that Tom planned to marry her. Laura told Betsy that she was off to meet Tom at the Bates place, a former blacksmith shop, abandoned and now overgrown with weeds and bushes. That was the last time Laura was seen alive.