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Tom Dooley: Bound to Die
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Her grave is in a North Carolina meadow.
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Final resting place
Souvenir hunters have chipped pieces from Tom Dula’s grave.
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Sharyn McCrumb stops by the signpost pointing the way to Dula’s grave.
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Illustration by Edith Carter
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Illustration by Edith Carter
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Dooley’s Tavern, Wilkesboro
Ask the waitress who killed Laura Foster, and she won’t tell you Tom Dula.
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The author’s accomplice
David McPherson came along for the ride, and the discourse.
A love triangle, a murder, a young man on the gallows… it’s the stuff ballads are made of Novelist Sharyn McCrumb takes a trip along North Carolina roads, trying to unravel the truth about Tom Dooley – or rather, Tom Dula – hanged in 1868 for a crime that still raises questions.
Why do they still make such a big deal about Tom Dooley?" David asks me. "I mean, nobody ever sings 'Hang down your head, Ted Bundy.'"
When I told my writer friends that I was heading to Wilkes County, N.C. to research that old murder case, their response was a collective shrug, and the comment: "Ann did it."
But David McPherson, my old friend from grade school, had no preconceived notions at all beyond the suspicion that novelists lead more interesting lives than computer executives, so he agreed to meet me in Statesville one summer morning to visit the scenes of the crime.
Armed with a camera and a copy of "Lift Up Your Head, Tom Dooley," an account of the case by N.C. historian John Foster West, David and I head north on I-77, to the U.S. 421 exit west towards Wilkesboro – past the great stone mansion of NASCAR legend Junior Johnson, visible from the road; past the old Wilkesboro Speedway where he once raced against the likes of Ralph Earnhardt; we take exit 256 off 421 onto N.C. 268, down past the turn-off for W. Kerr Scott Reservoir, and straight into the other branch of Wilkes County legend – the inspiration for the folk song "Tom Dooley."
"It was the first love-triangle murder case to become national news," I tell David as we ride toward Ferguson, where it all happened.
"If your information comes from the folk song, then almost everything you know about the story is wrong – beginning with the culprit's name, which was spelled Dula, not Dooley."
"So he wasn't hanged from a white oak tree?"
"Nope. From a post near the train depot in Statesville in May 1868. From the back of a cart."
"Okay, but he did kill his sweetheart, right?"
"Well… I wouldn't bet on it."
In the spring of 1865, when 20-year-old Pvt. Tom Dula of the 42nd North Carolina Infantry, released from a Union prison camp, returned to his mother's house in the Reedy Branch section of Wilkes County, near the Yadkin River, he rekindled his affair with Ann Melton. The two had been lovers before the war – "Back when Tom was 15?" said David.
"Yes. Even then Ann was married to James Melton, a local farmer. According to court testimony Tom used to bed down with Ann while James slept alone a few feet away."
"How old was James Melton? Ninety?"
"Early 30s, I think. He remarried afterward."
Just before the Yadkin River bridge, we turn left on to Tom Dula Road in search of Tom Dula's grave. His modern-looking granite tombstone, half-chiseled away by souvenir-hunters, sits in a small, manicured meadow on private land, less than a mile from the crossroads, not visible from the road.
As we walked back to the car, I resume the tale.
"On March 1st, 1866, Ann's cousin Pauline Foster arrived in Reedy Branch, and began working as the Meltons' maid while she was being treated for syphilis. In court she testified that Ann had told her to have sex with Tom in the barn so that people would not suspect that Ann herself was involved with him."
David nodded. "Just another farm chore. "So Tom got syphilis from Pauline, and then I suppose he gave it to Ann?"
"Yes, and then to Laura Foster, another cousin of theirs, who was also sleeping with Tom."
"Jerry Springer, call your office," mutters David.
Farther along Tom Dula Road we come to a chicken farm, whose cylindrical metal buildings are decorated with cartoons warning of the necessity of good hygiene. One sign reads, "Disease Kills!"
David nods knowingly at the cartoon. "How apt. So who got murdered?"
"Not my first choice. Any idea why?"
"Well, people have always said that Tom blamed Laura for giving him syphilis."
"But – but –"
"I know. But maybe he really was that dumb. Or maybe the traditional story is wrong. What we know is that on May 25, 1866, Laura Foster stole her father's horse, and she told a passing neighbor that she was eloping to Tennessee. Except that she had ridden five miles east to Reedy Branch, and thus away from Tennessee. She was never seen again. Her father said he didn't care if he ever saw Laura again, but he wanted his horse back."
"Yes, a couple of days later, the horse returned with a broken rein, as if it had escaped being tethered."
"So they started to search for Laura's body?"
"Three months later, yes. Rumors flew around all summer, fueled by Pauline, who offered to find Mr. Foster's horse in exchange for a quart of whiskey, and who then accused Tom and Ann of having killed her. She was drunk at the time and said she had been joking. When the gossip forced Tom to leave the county, he and Ann clung together weeping at the thought of being separated. Wilkes County issued a warrant for his arrest, and he was captured near the state line by James Grayson."
"If it hadn't been for Grayson, I'd a been in Tennessee."
"He hardly merits a mention in the song, does he? Laura isn't mentioned. She figures in the Doc Watson version of the tune, though."
By now we are back on 268, heading west until we reach a historical marker commemorating the grave of Laura Foster, located in a white fenced enclosure a hundred yards back from the road, in a meadow bordered by woods and set against a backdrop of green hills.
"How did they find her body?" asks David.
"They arrested Pauline, who promptly turned state's evidence, and led them to a clearing where she claimed that Ann had told her the body was buried. When the searchers found the shallow grave under some bushes, they arrested Ann as Tom's accomplice. By the way, Tom Dula was about 5'10" and Laura Foster was tiny – about five feet tall, maybe ninety pounds."
"Was she strangled? Beaten to death?"
"Stabbed once through the heart."
"So they think a big strapping Confederate veteran stabbed a tiny frail girl? Was she pregnant?"
"The autopsy did not say so."
David thinks it over. "It doesn't make sense," he says.
"I know. Let me finish. Tom's trial dragged on for two years, while Ann waited in the Wilkes county jail for her turn. He was found guilty, and sentenced to hang. After his appeals were exhausted and an escape attempt foiled, he seemed to realize that his death was inevitable, so on that last night, he wrote out a confession, saying that he had acted alone in the killing of Laura Foster. Ann was set free, but she died in a fever two years later, raving about seeing demon cats around her bed."
"Maybe Pauline did it," says David hopefully.
"But why would she? She didn't care about Tom. And can you see Ann or Tom not denouncing her if she had done it? Nobody likes Pauline, including us."
David has to concede this point. "Okay, suppose Tom really loved Laura, and he was eloping with her, so Ann got jealous and killed her."
"But if Ann had killed the woman Tom loved, then why would he spend his last night on earth writing a confession that would free Ann?"
"What if James Melton killed Laura in order to frame Tom for the crime?"
I sigh. "Do you see anybody in this story capable of that amount of subtlety or complex planning
"Well, somebody killed her. She didn't commit suicide and bury herself in a shallow grave."
"Maybe Ann thought Laura was eloping with Tom, and overreacted out of jealousy, but Laura was really eloping with somebody else."
"They say she got around."
We spend the rest of the afternoon driving the Wilkes County back roads, finding the clearing where Laura's body was found, the cabin sites, and Ann's grave. We keep envisioning possible scenarios, but nothing seems to justify the murder of Laura Foster. A century of romanticism has transformed her into a beautiful, doomed maiden, but in reality she seems to have been little loved and scarcely missed. Why would anybody bother to kill her, we wonder.
At dusk in downtown Wilkesboro, after examining the old brick jail behind the courthouse on N. Bridge Street, where Tom and Ann had been imprisoned, we can't resist ending the day with dinner at Dooley's Tavern, opposite the courthouse at 102 E. Main Street.
The rest room hallway at Dooley's is decorated with three romanticized portraits of Tom Dula, Laura Foster and Ann Melton, but the door of the ladies room bears a reminder of Wilkes County's other obsession: a life-sized photo of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
When the waitress brings our sandwiches, David cannot resist asking her, "Do you know anything about the case of Tom Dula?"
The dark-haired young woman sets down our plates, and shrugs. "Ann did it."
Sharyn McCrumb, author of books including St. Dale and the Ballad Novels, is online at www.sharynmccrumb.com.