Tom Dooley’s tale goes on haunting, even in French
Image: Courtesy of Steve Hill

In June 1865 a Confederate soldier just shy of his 21st birthday was released from a Union prison camp and began traveling back home to Reedy Branch, in mountainous Wilkes County, North Carolina. He probably thought himself mighty lucky to have survived since his only two brothers lost their lives to the war. Had he known what would transpire in three short years after he arrived back in the mountains, he would likely have chosen his brothers’ fate. It would have spared his neighbors a tragedy and been a nobler death for him.

May 1st marks the 140th anniversary of the hanging of Tom Dula for the murder of Laura Foster. Because of a ballad about this young man’s death, a song kept alive in the North Carolina mountains, the nation carries the event in its collective memory almost a century and a half later. That song, as recorded 90 years after the hanging by a little known folk group named the Kingston Trio, had an impact on American popular culture far beyond what the story alone — or most any other story — could have produced.

I tell this story having grown up in Statesville, N.C., where Tom was tried and hanged because it’s the biggest thing ever to happen there. It’s difficult to separate fact from myth 140 years out, but through the research of Dula historian John Foster West, court records, and witness testimonies, we have a pretty good grasp of the basic facts. Keep in mind, however, that good storytellers never let facts interfere with a true story, so there are many versions and discrepancies in the telling. To my mind, it’s the stories that mix historical fact and imagination that are most compelling and best illuminate the human condition.

You will notice that Tom Dula’s name becomes “Dooley” in the song. It’s common in the southern mountains to shift a final unstressed “uh” sound to “ee,” so Dula was — and is — frequently pronounced as “Dooley.” (The song is published as “Tom Dooley,” so I use that spelling for the song.) The same practice gave us the Grand Old Opry (for opera), and if you watch The Andy Griffith Show reruns (and why wouldn’t you?) you’ve heard Andy say about Aunt Bea’s cooking, “That was extry good.” Although I’ve heard this manner of speech all my life, I’ve never found an explanation for the derivation.

The Story

Tom Dula was a piece of work. He acted as if he were the only apple in the orchard, and it’s easy to see why he might have thought that. He is described as being very handsome (stood about 5’10″ with wavy brown hair). By all accounts, he was an uncommonly good fiddle player—an important distinction in his neck of the woods. He loved women but none of them too much, and you wouldn’t want to trust him to count the church collection. His talents, attributes and disposition amounted to trouble waiting to happen; he’d get out of one ordeal and, as sure as grass will grow in a crack, here would come another.

Michael Landon played Tom in a 1959 movie
Image: Amazon

When Tom was 14 or 15 years old, he began an affair with a girl named Ann Foster. Throughout his short life, she was as irresistible to Tom as a can on a sidewalk. Even after Ann married James Melton, she and Tom continued their intimate ways. Ann Foster Melton was described by a New York Herald reporter covering Tom’s trial as a “most beautiful woman” but that wasn’t all. John Foster West describes her as “temperamental, demanding, and aggressive” and not inclined toward work. In her defense, she had a mother who refused a drink only when she didn’t understand the offer. And because that mother raised five daughters without the assistance of legal encumbrance, when the bottle called, there wasn’t another adult to take up the slack. Dula’s defenders generally point to Ann Foster Melton as the real murderer in this tale.

After Tom returned home from the war, he not only renewed his affair with Ann, he also began to visit her cousin Laura Foster regularly ““ at least once a week. Sometimes he stayed overnight, sleeping with Laura. It was no secret that Ann became intensely jealous of her cousin. And then Pauline Foster, a distant cousin of both Tom’s lovers, arrived, adding another wrinkle. She came to work for Ann and James Melton to earn money for her syphilis treatments, and Tom, of course, took up with her as well. By the end of the story, Tom, Laura, Ann, and Pauline all had syphilis. (If this had happened 125 years later, you know that Jerry Springer would have been on the phone to Reedy Branch.)

Shortly after he began his affair with Laura, Tom went to a local doctor and discovered he had syphilis in its early stage. He told the doctor he had contracted the disease from Laura, although perhaps it had been from Pauline, and he then gave it to Laura. Who knows? In mid-May, Tom told a friend about his affliction and indicated that he would get even with the one who had given him the disease. Around this same time, Ann Melton is supposed to have told Pauline that she was going to kill Laura Foster, adding that if Pauline ever said a word about it, she would kill her too.

One morning in May, 1866, Tom borrowed a mattock from Ann’s mother. He told someone who spotted him digging with the mattock along a path that he was widening the road so he could walk it at night. That path was about 200 yards from the grave where Laura’s body was later found. Both Tom and Ann were missing from their homes for that afternoon and night.

On the morning of Friday, May 25, before daybreak, Tom showed up at Laura’s cabin and they talked outside. As Tom left, Laura came back inside, packed some clothes in a bundle, untied her father’s mare and started off down the river road. About a mile away, she met a neighbor to whom she had confided several days earlier that Tom planned to marry her. Laura told her neighbor that she was off to meet Tom at the Bates place, a former blacksmith shop, abandoned and now overgrown with weeds and bushes. That is believed to be the last time Laura was seen alive.

Tom was also seen that morning by several people, including Pauline Foster who found him talking quietly with Ann Melton when Pauline unexpectedly returned to the house for a milk pail. That evening he was seen walking in the direction of the Bates place. He returned home late and went to bed, where his mother said she heard him moaning during the night. The mare that Laura had taken showed up at her father’s cabin the following morning, May 26, the lead rope broken and dangling from the halter.

The day after Wilson Foster’s mare returned home, men in the community formed search parties to begin looking for Laura’s body. By the third week of June, even though the body had not been found, rumors were starting to circulate that Dula was about to be arrested for murder. Dula decided to leave for Tennessee after an emotional night with Ann and Pauline; reportedly both Ann and Tom were crying and embracing. Tom told Pauline that he was leaving because people were telling lies about his having killed Laura but that he would return at Christmas for his mother and for Ann as well. On June 28, a couple of days after Dula set out walking for Tennessee, a warrant was issued for his arrest.

The ballad of Tom Dooley tells us that Dula was captured before he got to Tennessee by a sheriff named Grayson, and although there are stories still repeated about Sheriff Grayson ““ some of them indicating that he was sweet on Ann Melton as well and later married her—they aren’t true. Dula actually made it over the state line and worked for a week in Trade, Tennessee, at the farm of Col. James Grayson, a member of the Tennessee legislature, in order to make enough money to buy a new pair of boots and continue his journey.

Dula was captured in Tennessee around July 11 by two North Carolina deputies, with the help of Colonel Grayson, and brought back to the Wilkesboro, NC, jail. In August, when Pauline came under suspicion for having been involved in the murder, she told the sheriff everything she knew; she revealed that Ann Melton had taken her to the grave to see if it looked suspicious but that she (Pauline) had refused to go all the way to the site. When Pauline then led a search party to the area of the grave, the body was discovered. Ann Melton was arrested as well, and on October 1, 1866 a grand jury found a true bill against Tom Dula and Ann Melton in the death of Laura Foster.

For reasons unknown, North Carolina’s civil war governor, Zebulon Vance, agreed to represent the defendants without compensation. Vance obtained a severance so that Tom and Ann would be tried separately and also won a change of venue to Statesville. Vance ably defended Dula and took a guilty verdict in the first trial (October 21, 1866) all the way to the state Supreme Court, which granted a new trial. The second trial received two continuances because key witnesses for both the prosecution and defense failed to appear. That trial finally began on January 20, 1868. Dula was found guilty again and sentenced to hang — ironically, on Valentines Day — but an appeal delayed the hanging until May 1, 1868.

On the evening before his death Tom was laughing, exhibiting “a shocking indifference to the hereafter” according to the Herald. Tom’s only surviving sibling, his sister Eliza, arrived with her husband bringing a wagon to return Tom’s body to Reedy Branch. Later in the night, Tom asked for his attorney and handed him a note: Statement of Tom Dula ““ I declare that I am the only person that had any hand in the murder of Laura Foster. April 30, 1868. A confession? Perhaps, but equally as likely, the note was an attempt to save Ann Melton since Tom knew that his death was unavoidable.

An eyewitness to the hanging described the day as sunny and warm: “The birds are singing sweetly, everything looks bright and joyous and one could feel happy were it not for beings so continually reminded of the depravity of the world”¦ a great many people are coming into town to witness the dreadful scene of hanging a fellow creature.” She reported astonishment as a wagon passed with a family in it, including “little boys.”

In the early morning of May 1, it is reported that Tom called for a Methodist minister, was baptized and prayed ardently. By 11 a.m. a dense crowd had begun to gather, as many women as men, it is reported ““ unusual for a public execution at the time. The Herald estimated 3,000 people were there, quite a throng considering that the 1870 census shows Statesville with a population of 644. Next to the depot, a gallows had been built, a simple structure made of pine, two uprights about 10 feet apart with a cross beam.

Shortly before 1 p.m. Tom Dula was led from the jail by the local sheriff to the wagon that would carry him to his death. The wagon also carried Tom’s sister and the coffin that would receive his corpse. Famed folklorist Alan Lomax has Dula sitting atop the coffin, playing the fiddle and singing the ballad that became known as “Tom Dooley” on the ride to the gallows, but this seems highly unlikely as it wasn’t reported in any of the newspaper stories of the hanging. He told his sister repeatedly that he had found God and repented and that he didn’t want her to worry about him.

When they arrived at the gallows a noose was placed around Tom’s neck and he supposedly joked that “You have such a nice clean rope, I ought to have washed my neck.” He was allowed to speak to the crowd and spoke for almost an hour on a broad range of subjects, at one point admonishing the young men in the audience “Boys, stay clear of fiddlin’, women, and whisky.” In his only reference to the murder, he said that if no lies had been told under oath, he would be a free man. At the end of the speech, he gave an affectionate goodbye to his sister, and the other end of the noose was thrown over the gallows and tied. Tom stood calm and said nothing further.

The cart pulled away and Tom fell about two feet, hardly enough to break his neck. While this may seem like a miscalculation on the part of the hangman, the “short drop,” resulting in death by strangulation, was the primary form of hanging until the late 19th century. The young man who had lived surrounded by difficulty, died the same way. It took between 10-15 minutes for him to die but he did not struggle. His body hung for 20 minutes after his death. He was then cut down and taken by his family to be buried in Reedy Branch.

Because their cases had been severed, Ann Melton couldn’t be tried until Dula’s sentence was handed down. Ann was tried in the fall of 1868 and acquitted. Her trial was uneventful because of the note Tom had written exonerating her. She had already spent two years in the Statesville jail.

The Song

The Kingston Trio’s 1958 recording of “Tom Dooley” had an almost unprecedented impact on American musical tastes. Fifty years out, it is difficult to fathom how this mountain ballad could have created such fundamental change in popular music and culture, but that’s exactly what happened. Between 1958 and 1964’s British invasion, folk songs and original songs presented as folk songs experienced unprecedented popularity. The buttoned down college guys with their signature striped shirts quickly sold nearly six million copies of the song about the condemned mountain boy, found themselves on the cover of Life Magazine, and won the first Grammy ever awarded for Country and Western Performance. At one point in the 1960’s the trio had four of top 10 selling albums in the nation at the same time, a feat never duplicated even by the Beatles. Need a concrete measure to understand the impact of this folk boom? In 1963 guitars outsold pianos in the United States for the first time in the 20th century. It’s no wonder that National Public Radio chose “Tom Dooley” as one of the 20th century’s 100 most important songs.

The range of American performers recording “Tom Dooley” runs from Metropolitan Opera singer Norman Cordon (It sounds like what you’re thinking”¦) to the Grateful Dead. There was even a movie in 1959, The Legend of Tom Dooley, starring Michael Landon that featured the Trio hit, but the writers apparently hadn’t heard the story of Tom Dula; the movie focuses on three Confederate soldiers who rob a Union stagecoach and kill two solders not knowing that the Civil War is over.

Tom Dooley’s popularity was international. Steve Hill, a collector in Statesville, NC, has purchased Dooley record and movie memorabilia from Mexico, Belgium, France, Malaysia, Japan, Israel, Tunisia, Brazil, Singapore, South Africa, and Germany. The Germans, in particular, seem to have an obsession with poor Mr. Dula. Among Hill’s collections is a German movie called Tom Dooley: Hero of the Green Hell — the green hell being the jungles of Brazil. Hill says the film is reminiscent of an old Tarzan movie, except everyone speaks German and every ten minutes they play the Tom Dooley song. Go figure.

Tom Dooley: Hero of the Green Hell
A German movie based on the North Carolina saga but set in Brazil

Image: Courtesy of Steve Hill

The origins of the song are as murky as the facts surrounding the historical event itself. We don’t know who first wrote “Tom Dooley,” and there are many versions of the song as well as assorted poems about the murder of Laura Foster. The song fits squarely in the tradition of the Appalachian murder ballad: there is inevitably a young woman ““sometimes pregnant ““ who dies at the hand of her lover. The earliest known recording of the song was on the Victor label in 1929 by a blind fiddler named G.B. Grayson (a descendant of Col. James Grayson who was involved in Dula’s arrest) and Henry Whitter. The Grayson and Whitter rendition includes seven verses and gives more details about the murder than does the famous Kingston Trio song, with only three verses. The Trio version was ideal for “sing-a-longs” that were popular on campuses in the early 60’s, but it doesn’t tell much of a story.

Recorded in 1958, the Kingston Trio’s version of “Tom Dooley” is attributed to the late Frank Proffitt, a North Carolina farmer and musician (Proffitt also knew, and later recorded, a longer version, too). His version of the song became accessible beyond the local mountain communities when song collectors Frank and Anne Warner visited the North Carolina mountains in 1938 and Proffitt played the balled for them. Alan Lomax published that version, omitting one verse, in a 1947 collection entitled Folk Song U.S.A.

The Trio claims to have first heard the song performed by a long forgotten folk singer auditioning at the Purple Onion nightclub in San Francisco. They liked it, so they included it on their first album on Capitol Records and then a curious thing happened. Two disc jockeys at radio station KLUB in Salt Lake City thought the “Tom Dooley” cut was a great alternative sound to the other music they played and began to play it frequently. When they got a positive response from listeners, they called other DJ friends around the country and urged them to play it. Demand soon prompted a reluctant Capitol Records to release it as a single, and American popular music was in for a folk revolution.

When asked if local DJ’s could have that kind of impact in 2008, Robert K. Oermann, the dean of Nashville music journalists, gave a hearty laugh: “That could never happen today,” he said. Oermann explained that now DJ’s at commercial radio stations aren’t even involved in picking songs to play. Playlists are circulated to radio stations from corporate headquarters and chosen primarily by computers based on marketing data. The objective is to have everything sound as much alike as possible ““nothing alternative or out of the ordinary. “Radio stations aren’t about selling records,” says Oermann. “They’re about selling advertising. They want a seamless sound.”

But in 1958 a song with a distinctive sound and subject matter catapulted the Kingston Trio from relative obscurity to national prominence. How did Frank Proffitt react to this success back in Pick Britches Valley? The liner notes from an Appleseed Records release of field recordings entitled Nothing Seems Better to Me contains the text of a letter Proffitt wrote in 1959. “I got a television set for the kids,” he wrote. ” One night I was a-setting looking at some foolishness when three fellers stepped out with guitar and banjer (sic) and went to singing Tom Dooly (sic) and they clowned and hipswinged (sic). I began to feel sorty sick, like I’d lost a love one.”

After talking with Frank Warner, Proffitt decided that maybe it wasn’t the worst thing to have old Tom discovered by the rest of the world. “I began to see the world was bigger than our mountains of Wilkes and Watauga….Life was sharing different thinking, different ways.” I’m sure that thinking was reinforced when Frank Warner and Alan Lomax shared a royalty check with Proffitt that, according to his son, was as much as Proffitt earned from farming his annual tobacco allotment. Frank, Jr. described that event as “the biggest thing to happen in Pick Britches since the skunk got in the basement.”

Admittedly this began as a middle class, college campus phenomenon as students began spawning their own folk groups: The Chad Mitchell Trio (Gonzaga University), The Brothers Four (University of Washington) and The Highwaymen (Wesleyan College). Even ABC’s immensely popular and incalculably bland Hootenanny, the only network series dedicated entirely to folk music, recorded all of its episodes on college campuses.

Fortunately this postwar folk revival didn’t stay centered on campuses. As various forms of music ““ chiefly of southern rural origin ““ began to be considered “folk music,” there came a resurgent interest in the traditional performers of the music, too. The commercial success of folk music went hand in hand with increased field recordings and efforts to find the roots of popular music and to preserve the fire and edginess of the original performers, those who had played and sung with no thought of an urban folk music boom. Ralph Rinzler, a musician and later curator of folk culture at the Smithsonian, traveled to North Carolina in 1960 to record famed banjo player and singer Clarence Ashley, whom he’d met at the revered Union Grove Fiddler’s Convention. Ashley introduced Rinzler to now legendary guitar picker Doc Watson, who picked up his banjo and played his family’s version of “Tom Dooley” in a rollicking tempo, with verses that depict more vividly the sordid events leading up to the murder. Rinzler didn’t realize how near he was to Frank Proffitt, who lived just a few miles down the road, or to the land where Tom Dula played his final tune.

(If you’d like to learn more about the legend of Tom Dula, North Carolina musician David Holt hosted an hour-long program on the subject including interviews with Frank Proffitt, Jr. and Doc Watson. Click on the UNC-TV link and look below Dula’s tombstone for instructions on watching the show.)

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