January 1, 2009

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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.


January 1, 2009

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Comments (3)

Comment Feed

Locatin where Laura's body was found

Could you give me the location as to where Laura' Foster's was found. I know a clearing is mentioned but could you be more specific as to the location. This is intriqueing.

Paul Pittman more than 1 years ago

Tom Dula

Just finished your book. Loved it and have to agree (from what you wrote) that Ann must have done it.

Donna Clark more than 1 years ago

Tom Dooley: Bound to Die

I was so excited to read the article about Tom Dooley! I never knew the historical background about him. My mother use to sing a song about Tom when I was a little girl. I am 60 years old and I don't remember the words anymore except "poor boy, you're bound to die. It just made me sad when I heard it. Thank you so much for writing this!

Cathy Mock more than 1 years ago

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