In 1958, The Kingston Trio recorded an old ballad: a traditional tale of a love triangle that ends in death. The snappy arrangement and three-part harmony gave the piece an instant audience, and soon this old folk song was getting recognition on pop radio stations all over the country. It became a cross-genre hit, making it to the R & B Billboard and the Country Music top 20, as well as finding itself in the number one position on the AM stations. It also received awards from the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others. What sort of story could spark such national acceptance of a traditional song from the late 1800s or early 1900s? One of betrayal, revenge, a murder, a trial, and, ultimately, a hanging: a sure-fire formula for audiences of all cultures (Wikipedia, "Tom Dooley").
In the 1860s, the Southern states were ravaged by the Civil War. But more than the territory was affected by this lengthy occurrence of battle after battle: the men who fought in it were profoundly altered by the event. However, it is said that some of those who fought for the South, in particular, came into their own with the War. Many realized an importance in what they were doing, making the War a defining event in the lives of many men, and Confederate soldier (42nd North Carolina Infantry) Tom Dula was one such man. Like so many others, young Tom (born in 1845) was in love before he marched off to war. The object of his affection: Ann Foster. One version of the story states that in 1862, after saying "farewell" to Tom, his beloved Ann, believing she would never again see her betrothed, married an older man: a farmer, named James Melton (Sanders).
As an aside, here, let us look at this from the perspective of genealogists. Other research tells us that Ann and James Melton married in 1859, long before the War was declared (Moran). It is likely that Ann, while married to Mr. Melton, continued a relationship with young Tom (who would have been a scant fourteen years old at the time of Ann's marriage). Vital statistics notwithstanding, the back story of the song is not altered by these discrepancies.
Tom did come back, profoundly changed in many ways. Some say he was one of the Rebels who wished the War would never end. He was a reckless sort of man (just barely out of his teens) and angry that the love of his life was otherwise encumbered. He compensated for this by keeping company with young ladies all across the countryside (Lomax, p. 262). Tom lived in Reedy Branch, Wilkes County, North Carolina and it was to that location that he returned, having been released from a Yankee prison camp. Tom was one of three Dula brothers who left home to fight against the North, but Tom was the only one to return (his two brothers died in the conflagration). Unlike many legends of the mountains, Tom's post-War experiences were well-documented in court transcripts and newspaper accounts, making the story you read here to be as close to the truth as one is likely to find (Shuford).
So now we find Tom, still pining for Ann (who, by all accounts, was pining for him, regretting her marriage to Melton, for reasons not divulged), courting Ann's cousin, Laura, daughter of Wilson Foster, while maintaining contact (of the most intimate sort) with Ann. Ann, by all accounts, was not short-changed in the "looks" department, and her beauty was remarked on throughout the years of the scandal and tragedy to come, presumed to be the reason that she was not held accountable for her role the events described in the song (Lomax, p. 263).
Exactly what caused Tom to take Laura into the wilderness and to her death is a matter of some controversy (probably the censors of the day did not want every intimate detail to be documented). Some say that Tom impregnated Laura, causing him to feign marital intentions, pretending to plan to elope with her (Sanders). Add to the mix one Pauline Foster (another cousin of the young ladies) who came to live with and work for Ann and James Melton to earn money for medical treatment for syphilis, from which she suffered. As already mentioned, Tom's morals were not exactly in line with what the local churches taught and soon he was enjoying the company of all three cousins. As you can imagine, the end result was a mutual sharing of the disease (Shuford). Others say that it was Laura who gave Tom the disease, which he then passed along to Ann, causing both Tom and Ann to be furious and to plot against the younger Laura (Lomax, p. 262), but there is a greater likelihood that the first rendition of this shared contagion is the truth as there is no evidence that Laura was keeping company with anyone but Tom.
When Tom discovered his condition, he vowed to seek revenge on the one who infected him. His belief that Laura was the culprit is what led him, along with fellow sufferer Ann, to hatch the plot that would be the downfall of everyone (except, perhaps, Pauline, who had been told of the plan by Ann, and warned not to breathe a word lest she suffer a similar fate). Ann, born illegitimate, was an aggressive sort whose mother was essentially absent (or at least present only in a drunken stupor), so her own morals left much to be desired (Shuford). It is possible that the entire reason for Ann's early marriage to Mr. Melton was an effort to escape her life at home with her mother.
And so it came to pass that Tom, with garden tool in hand, commenced to "prepare the soil" for his alleged bride. When spotted digging alongside the road on Thursday, May 24, 1866, he said he was widening the pathway for ease in walking there at night. It was about six weeks later that Laura's body was found in a shallow grave not 200 yards from that same path. Early the next morning, before dawn on Friday, May 25, 1866, Tom showed up at Laura's home. After a short visit, she went inside and packed up a few of her belongings, returning to where Tom waited outside. Taking her father's horse, Ann accompanied Tom down the road. One of her neighbors saw the pair heading away from Laura's home (earlier in the week she had told this same neighbor that she and Tom were planning to get married): this was perhaps the last un-involved person to have seen Laura alive (Shuford).
Once they arrived at the area near which the grave had been prepared, Tom took a drink, used his bandana to wipe his mouth, and then approached Laura to similarly wipe her mouth. Instead, he shoved the cloth into Laura's mouth and down her throat while Ann emerged from her nearby hiding place, knife in hand. Laura was stabbed repeatedly, presumably by Ann, in the stomach (Lomax, p. 262) and chest (Sanders). After burying the body in the prepared grave, Ann and Tom returned to their respective homes. Wilson Foster's horse returned to his cabin the next day, the tether obviously broken away and hanging from the halter, implying to the distraught father that something had happened to his daughter. A search party was formed and the hunt for Laura began (Shuford).
It took six weeks for the searchers to locate Laura's remains (Lomax, p. 263). But the community, well aware of the relationship entanglement of Tom Dula with the cousins, had begun suspecting Tom and Ann were involved in the disappearance. Even before the body was discovered, there was talk of arrest and Tom elected to leave North Carolina for the safety of Tennessee. His farewell to Ann and Pauline was an emotional one and he promised to return at the end of the year to take Ann to wherever he had begun a new life. Just after he left North Carolina, on foot, an arrest warrant was issued (Shuford). Ann Melton, for reasons that are not completely clear (perhaps she was angry Tom was deserting her?) told authorities where they could find Laura's body (Wikipedia, "Dula").
Tom's attempt to escape the area was severely hampered by the fact that he had no horse and his shoes were virtually worn away. With no means of support, Tom needed to find both sanctuary and money. He arrived at Trade, Tennessee in search of those items and found both at the farm of Col. James Grayson, a politician and farmer, who aided and abetted the fugitive (West, p. 85). He had no idea who Tom (calling himself "Tom Hall") was, but he had work for the young man and soon Tom was able to purchase a pair of boots and continue on his way (Mountain City Elementary). Meanwhile, the posse from Wilkes County took their pursuit to Tennessee, eventually coming to Grayson's farm. Grayson gave an account of his role in helping the young man and the pursuit continued (West, p. 85), with Grayson in the company. They caught up with Tom in July and Grayson did assist in talking to Tom and getting him back to North Carolina (Wikipedia, "Dooley"), as well as allegedly preventing the posse from "stringing him up" right where they found him (Mountain City Elementary), explaining the verse in the song where the singer says, "If it hadn't a-been for Grayson, I'd been in Tennessee."
Tom was returned to Wilkes County, where emotions were running high. Those who sympathized with the charismatic Dula, a beloved fiddle (and, some say, banjo) player, thought that he was only a ploy in Ann Foster Melton's plot to murder her cousin. Others felt that Ann was Tom's tool, but, if such was the case, Tom defended Ann to his death. He refused to implicate her in the crime. Trying Tom in Wilkes County was sure to be problematic, so the trial was moved to Statesville, Iredell County, North Carolina (Wikipedia, "Dooley"). This change was orchestrated by Tom's lawyer, Zebulon Vance, former North Carolina Governor, Civil War hero, and sympathizer of the young veteran who wanted him to get as fair a trial as possible. He also arranged for Tom and Ann to be tried separately (West, p. 99). Tom was found guilty, both in the initial trial and on his appeal (the former verdict being pronounced on Valentine's Day – how ironic). He was hung May 1, 1868, nearly two years after the murder. While Ann served a couple of years in jail, her trial actually did not take place until after Tom's execution (this because the two cases had been separated) (Shuford). She was acquitted (some say because her looks and personality caused the jurors, all men, to simply look the other way) (Lomax, p. 263). Most likely the greatest piece of "evidence" in her defense was a statement written by Tom just prior to his hanging that exonerated his former lover (Shuford). Nevertheless, it is rumored that, on her death bed, Ann made a full confession of her role in the murder of her cousin (Sanders).
Tom's execution was attended by people from all over Wilkes County (and likely beyond). He took that opportunity to speak to the crowd and his "final words" took nearly an hour. His admonition to the young men in the crowd – "Boys, stay clear of fiddlin', women, and whisky" – probably summed up his life. And like his life, his death was not an easy one: it took him nearly fifteen minutes to die by strangulation at the end of the rope (Shuford). One can still view the tombstone, placed over his final resting place, along with a plaque that tells a little of this Appalachian tragedy.
So, now that you know the "back story," let's address the song, just briefly. Why does the popular version of the song use the name "Dooley" instead of "Dula"? It comes from the slurring of the final vowel sound ("a" in "Dula" to "ee" as we find it written: "Dooley"). This is not unusual as the pronunciation tendencies of the mountain people often changed an "a" sound to "ee" for emphasis. Another example, to illustrate this point, would be the end syllable of "Opera" when used to describe that location in Nashville: "The Grand Ole Op'ry" (Shuford). So, though the original song spells Tom's surname "Dula," the singer often changes it to "Dooley," the pronunciation adopted by The Kingston Trio when they shortened the song, changed the chorus, and sped up the tempo.
Who wrote the song? Good question. There are those who say Tom composed it himself, in jail, while awaiting execution (Lomax, p. 263). He was known to be both literate and a musician, and the song is written in the first person, so that sounds feasible, except for the fact that there are no known copies of the song that surfaced before the early 1900s. The first known recording of it was in 1929 by G. B. Grayson (a blind fiddler and relative of Col. Grayson) and Henry Whittier. In 1947, Frank Profitt took out a copyright on the song (Shuford). Some attribute the lyrics to poet Thomas Land (Sanders). I think it can be said that we know more about the events that precipitated the song than we do about the song itself. To hear it, in a more traditional format with all the verses, check the MP3 file connected to this article.
Was Tom Dula guilty of murder? In 2001, a petition drawn up and signed by residents of Wilkes County resulted in the exoneration of Tom. Of course, that doesn't help Tom now, 140-plus years after his execution. And, had that been the verdict at the trial back in the 1860s, Tom might have gone on to have a nice life, however disease-ridden. But we would have been deprived of a song that has stood the test of time (and will probably continue to do so). While probably no mother or father reading this would want Tom for a son-in-law, his character was unique and one that contributed to the legends of the mountains.
Lomax, Alan. "Tom Dula." Folk Songs of North America (pp. 262-263, 269). Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1960.
Moran, Faye Jarvis. "Who was Anny Foster?" Going Home for History, Wilkes County, North Carolina, 15 March 2005. Accessed 30 March 2010, from http://www.fmoran.com/wilkes/anny.html.
Mountain City Elementary School. "Tom Dula," Legends, Folklore, and Ghost Stories. Accessed 30 March 2010, from http://www.mce.k12tn.net/johnson/legends/tom_dula.htm.
Sanders, Craig. "The True Story of Tom Dooley: The Life, Death, and Legend behind the Famous Folk Song," 1 November 2008. Traditional Folk Music: Suite 101. Accessed 28 March 2010, from http://traditional-folk-music.suite101.com/article.cfm/the_true_story_of_tom_dooley.
Shuford, Chuck. "Tom Dula: The Murder that Sold 10,000 Guitars," 24 April 2008. Daily Yonder. Accessed 28 March 2010, from http://www.dailyyonder.com/tom-dula-murder-sold-10-000-guitars.
West, John Foster. The Ballad of Tom Dula: The Documented Story behind the Murder of Laura Foster. Boone, NC: Parkway Publishers, 2002.
Wikipedia. "Tom Dooley (song)." Accessed 28 March 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Dooley_%28song%29.
Wikipedia. "Tom Dula." Accessed 28 March 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Dula#Military_service.