Tom Dooley [Laws F36A]
DESCRIPTION: Tom Dula/Dooley has killed Laura Foster. He has few regrets except that he didn't get away with it. He curses Sheriff Grayson, who has captured him. He expects to be hanged tomorrow
EARLIEST DATE: 1921 (Brown)
KEYWORDS: homicide execution fiddle
1866 (probably May 25) - Murder of Laura Foster, allegedly by Thomas C. Dula (and his new sweetheart Ann Melton). Dula apparently killed Foster because he had contracted a venereal disease from her, which she had reportedly caught from Grayson.
May 1, 1868 - Dula is hanged for the murder.
FOUND IN: US(SE)
REFERENCES (16 citations):
Laws F36A, "Tom Dooley"
Friedman, p. 228, "Tom Dooley" (1 text)
Warner 118, "Tom Dooley" (1 text, 1 tune)
Warner-Eastern, pp. 59-60, "Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley" (1 text)
BrownII 303, "Tom Dula" (3 texts, all very short; in addition, the "B" text of Brown's #304, "Tom Dula's Lament," is a single stanza found in the Proffitt version of "Tom Dooley")
BrownSchinhanIV 303, "Tom Dula" (1 excerpt, 1 tune)
Lomax-FSUSA 82, "Tom Dooley" (1 text, 1 tune)
Lomax-FSNA 139, "Tom Dula" (1 text, 1 tune)
Cohen-AFS1, pp. 235-240, "Tom DOoley" (1 text)
Cohen/Seeger/Wood, p. 137, "Tom Dooley" (1 text, 1 tune)
Darling-NAS, pp. 207-208, "Tom Dooley" (1 text)
Arnett, p. 188, "Tom Dooley" (1 text, 1 tune)
Silber-FSWB, p. 225, "Tom Dooley" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: John Edward Fletcher, PhD (with a foreword by Edith Marie Ferguson Carter), _The True Story of Tom Dooley: From Western North Carolina Mystery to Folk Legend_, History Press, 2013, pp. 149-150, "Tom Dooley" (the Profitt/Warner version)
Frances H. Casstevens, _Death in North Carolina's Piedmont: Tales of Murder, Suicide, and Causes Unknown_, History Press, 2006, pp. 110-111, "(Untitled Folk Version of the Tom Dula story)," "Tom Dooley" (2 texts, one from Manley Wade Wellman and perhaps rewritten, the other based on Profitt)
Sheila Clark, "The Ballad of Tom Dula" (on LegendTomDula)
[G. B.] Grayson & [Henry] Whitter, "Tom Dooley" (Victor 40235, 1930; rec. 1929; on GraysonWhitter01)
Glenn Neaves & band, "Tom Dooley" (on GraysonCarroll1)
New Lost City Ramblers, "Tom Dooley" (on NLCR02) (NLCR12)
Frank Profitt, "Tom Dooley" [excerpt] (on USWarnerColl01)
cf. "The Murder of Laura Foster" [Laws F36] (subject)
cf. "Tom Dula's Lament" (subject, lyrics)
NOTES: G. B. Grayson, who (along with Henry Whitter) made the earliest known recorded version of the song, was descended from the sheriff who captured Dula. - PJS
Nitpick: Grayson's relative -- his uncle, not his direct ancestor, according to Fletcher, pp. 45, 116 -- helped capture Dula, but he wasn't a sheriff. But read on....
I know of no absolute confirmation of the story that Laura Foster, Tom Dula, and company all suffered from a venereal disease, although Dula and Foster certainly did -- Dr. George Carter, the only doctor in that area of North Carolina, would testify that Dula had had it, and that Dula thought he got it from Laura Foster (West, p. 78; Foster, p. 90); and Pauline Foster testified that Dula's lover Ann Melton eventually became sick and used the blue pills that were the standard syphilis treatment, and furthermore that Melton had gotten "the pock" from Dula; West, p. 80; Fletcher, p. 24). The notes in Brown to "The Murder of Laura Foster" mention that Ann Melton in later life is said to have admitted a part in the killing -- and that she later went blind. Blindness is a known side effect of syphilis. But, as we shall see, no one else mentions the blindness.
To summarize what we'll tell in detail below, Dula was charged with the murder of Foster and Melton with being an accessory before the fact. The trial was moved to a different venue, and after some maneuvering, Dula and Melton were tried separately. The trial was badly conducted, and Dula was granted a new trial by the state supreme court. The verdict did not change. Dula, on his last day, wrote a statement to the effect that he was solely responsible for the murder. Belief at the time seemed to contradict this. At least one witness said that Melton would have hung with Dula had she not been so beautiful.
In 2001/2, an attempt was made in North Carolina to convince the governor to grant Dula a posthumous pardon (Casstevens, p. 31). This seems rather far-fetched. Dula may not have been guilty of murder, but he *did* abandon Foster, and if he didn't do it, he as probably an accessory after the fact to murder by Melton. There is a lot of folklore about the Dula case, most of it false. The story is, if anything, even more ugly than the folklore. And it is unlikely that much can be done to clarify the matter now; although Laura Foster was reburied, the site of the original grave, the "Bates Place," is not certain and the area has been clearcut and otherwise modified in the last century and a half (Fletcher, p. 30).
Those aren't the only uncertainties. Earlier versions of the Index gave the date of Laura Foster's murder as January 25, 1866. I'm not sure where I found that information, but the ultimate source is clear: one of the court records gives that date (West, p. 68).
The exact date cannot be guaranteed. It's worth remembering that many of the people involved in the case were illiterate, and even if they could read, they likely didn't have calendars (West, p. 69). So they would not have recorded the exact date. They knew days of the week, because of Sunday church, but that was it. But some things are know. There is universal testimony that Foster disappeared during the planting season -- so some time between April and June. Every source cited by West says that Foster disappeared during the day on a Friday. Of the half-dozen dates or so dates mentioned in the records, only Friday, May 25, 1866 is a Friday in the planting season of 1866 (West, p. 69), so West is convinced this was the date. He is likely right, but it shows how unreliable all the evidence in the case is!
In addition to a useful summary in Cohen, there seem to be at least four non-fiction books about the Dula/Foster/Melton affair, plus shorter summaries in other books, as well as two or more fictional works (one of which, by Karen Wheeling Reynolds, seems to have been deliberately marketed as non-fiction even though it is a patent dramatization of the tale which doesn't even really list sources; according to Casstevens, p. 31, it blames Pauline Foster and perhaps Jack Keaton).
Unfortunately, all the books were written after the Kingston Trio hit, so all are based on court records and the like rather than eyewitness testimony. Of the books, I have seen West, which was written by a twentieth century resident of the area -- a man who knew descendants of the Dula and Foster families; Fletcher, who is the great-great-grandson of Ann and James Melton (Fletcher, p. 79. It would seem that the Tom Dula craze, these days, exists mostly among those from the area of the murder); and Gardner, a largely-undocumented pamphlet with some useful records but little in the way of firm evidence.
All the books seem to have axes to grind. Fletcher's is to make Dula entirely the guilty party, making everyone else seem like an upstanding citizen. West's is to make Dula's trial appear unfair. And Gardner's is to try to blame everything on Melton and Pauline Foster, with Dula innocently caught between Melton and Laura Foster. (Gardner, p. 4, mentions Dula's musical skills and even says that such a musician couldn't have been a murderer, as if that is in any way relevant!) Casstevens, which devotes only a few pages to the case, on pp. 32-33, also suggests that Pauline Foster and Ann Melton had stronger motives than Dula.
West, p. 10, says Thomas C. "Tom" Dula had dark brown hair, brown eyes, and was of roughly average height. West, p. vi, describes him as rather a catch by local standards; handsome and a few weeks short of 22 at the time of the crime, his family was slightly better off than most others in the area of Wilkes County, and since both of Dula's brothers had died in the war, the land would be his -- although he doesn't seem to have had any interest in working it.
Dula had lost his father in 1854, when he was about ten (Fletcher, p. 19); there doesn't seem to be any record of this affecting his behavior. He was still living with his mother at the time of the murder (West, p. 87. You have to pity poor Mary Dula, who lost two sons in the war and her only surviving boy to the Foster murder case).
Ann Melton (properly Angeline Pauline Triplett, according to Fletcher, p. 19) was a year older than Dula, and also fatherless. She had been married to the cobbler James Gabriel Melton in 1859 at the age of 16 (he was 21 at the time, according to Fletcher), but apparently the marriage was not happy and Melton was very temperamental (West, p. vii). They nonetheless had -- or at least Ann had and James raised -- a daughter Jane, born probably in 1861 (Fletcher, p. 23).
The New York Herald account, from 1868, said that "She is apparently about twenty-five years of age, is the illegitimate daughter of one Carlotta (Lotty) Foster [Fletcher, p. 132, argues that Lotty's children were not illegitimate but were abandoned by their father, causing Lotty to change the family name from "Triplett" back to her family nam "Foster"], and is a most beautiful woman. She is entirely uneducated, and though living in the midst of ignorance has the manner and bearing of an accomplished lady, and all the natural powers that should grace a high born beauty" (West, p. 120; Gardner, p. 26).
Ann was the first cousin of Laura Foster; Wilson Foster, the father of Laura Foster, was the brother of Ann's mother (Fletcher, p. 55).
West, p. v, says Laura Foster was the oldest of five children of Wilson Foster; her father reported at trial that, at the time of her disappearance, her mother Martha Bowman Foster was dead (West, p. 73). (By contrast, Gardner, p. 6, reports only that she had two brothers, and that they were tenant farmers. West is right; Casstevens, pp. 20-21, lists the 1860 census records for her four siblings, three boys and a girl.)
Gardner describes Laura as "a lovely girl with chestunt (sic.) hair and dark brown eyes" who was a weaver. However, Gardner also calls her a "respected girl," but every other report seems to say she had round heels; she was reported to be "wild as a buck" (Casstevens, p. 21). The New York Herald reporter who covered Dula's last days wrote that there was a rumor that she was pregnant at the time of her murder (West, p. 118; Gardner, p. 24; Casstevens, p. 34, seems to accept the rumor without offering evidence), but there seems to be no record of this in the court papers (Fletcher, p. 30, and I saw no hints of it in the testimony in West). Laura Foster is called "frail" in the newspaper reports, as is her cousin Pauline Foster (West, p. 119); this apparently is code for "not a virgin."
A number of sources claimed Laura was 18 at the time of her murder (so, e.g., Gardner, p. 37), but her father said that she was 22. The 1860 census gave her age as 17 (Casstevens, p. 20), so obviously the people who listed her as a teenager were wrong. Folklore also credits her with suitors other than Dula, but these other suitors can't even be shown to have existed (e.g. Gardner, pp. 37-38, has an account of one Bob Cummings, who elsewhere is said to have helped capture Dula; but this "Cummings" name is in fact a mistake for "Grayson," who lived in Tennessee and never saw Laura in his life). Nor are other suitors likely; after all the losses in the Civil War, there were a lot more young women than young men in western North Carolina!
Pauline Foster isn't mentioned in the ballads or in short accounts of the case, but she was a key witness; keep her in mind. By the sound of things, Pauline was none too bright, even by the standards of the Fosters (I find myself wondering about in-breeding; West, p. 2, notes that many in the large Dula family were double first cousins, and Pauline had both Dula and Foster blood). To be sure, it sounds as if Pauline Foster, along with all her other "frailties" (read: extreme promiscuity that resulted in her contracting syphillis) was an alcoholic; she apparently threatened to kill a deputy while dead drunk and talking to other deputies (Fletcher, p 49).
Dula had enlisted in the Confederate army in March 1862 (West, p. 9), meaning that he was not yet 18 at the time (born June 20, 1844, according to West, p. 8, making him a few months younger than his future victim Laura Foster). Give him credit, perhaps, for volunteering rather than being drafted. His brothers had also enlisted, as had James Melton (Fletcher, p. 19; Casstevens, p. 21, reports that James Melton was twice wounded, once at Gettysburg and once late in the war; he was a member of the 26th North Carolina, which as a unit of Pettigrew's Brigade was part of Pickett's Charge); the oldest Dula brother, John, died of disease in 1862, and the middle brother, William, died of disease as a POW in 1865 (Fletcher, p. 20). Many of the men later involved in Tom Dula's trial had known him in the army (Fletcher, p. 21). At least one of them, Washington Anderson, said that Dula's conduct while in the army had been good (West, p. 85). Gardner prints several of Dula's military records, and they seem to confirm Anderson's statement.
Reading the accounts of Dula's behavior after the Civil War makes me wonder about some sort of post-traumatic disorder. I know of no research on this point, but Wallis, pp. 30-31, observes that crime statistics in the United States soared after the Civil War. Wallis blames the increased availability and efficiency of firearms, but in fact all major weapons types available after the war had pre-war equivalents. All recent difficult wars, from Vietnam to Iraq, have left many veterans with post-traumatic stress problems. Surely the Civil War would have done the same!
And perhaps the nature of Dula's service might have made him especially vulnerable. He was a member of the 42nd North Carolina regiment (West, p. 70, although West's military reporting is very bad -- he confuses battalions, which weren't even a normal Civil War formation, with brigades!). Unlike a lot of North Carolina regiments, the 42nd for the larger part of the war stayed in its home state and did not serve with the Army of Northern Virginia. But it did serve in the Richmond campaign of 1864 -- the grimmest example of trench warfare in the entire conflict.
NCRegiments, p. 796, says that the 42nd in late 1863 became part of James G. Martin's Brigade, which served to guard the Bermuda Hundred lines around Richmond; the regiment fought hard when the Army of the James attacked this position. Martin's brigade then became part of Robert F. Hoke's division (NCRegiments, p. 798), and took part in the appalling battle of Cold Harbor, where thousands of Federals were killed in just a few minutes -- although Hoke's own casualties were so light that he claimed there were none at all (Furgurson, p. 161). Rhea, p. 340, reports, "Martin's three North Carolina regiments had done yeoman's work, fending off portions of [three brigades]... Martin, a forty-five-year-0ld professional soldier who had lost his right arm in the Mexican War, reveled in the fight.
General Martin cheered his men, and their enthusiasm was great,' the adjutant [Charles G.] Elliott remembered. 'Mostly armed with smooth-bore muskets, they poured an incessant fusillade of buck and ball into the brave lines that charged and recharged, and fell, many of them, on our works.' Martin's losses were slight, although among them was Colonel A. Duncan Moore, commanding the 66th North Carolina" (Rhea, pp. 340-341).
The map on p. 321 of Rhea shows the 42nd in the middle of Martin's brigate, which faced John Gibbon's assaulting division (although the map on p. 146 of Furgurson implies that Martin's brigade was between assaulting columns); in either case, it was well-entrenched and faced federals attacking over open ground. Gibbon in the charge lost on the order of 1100 men (Rhea, p, 361; other estimates are higher). Thus Dula, in his first major battle, was probably involved in inflicting many casualties without seeing many of his comrades die. Gibbon's casualties were so high that they approached the total strength of the brigade they were assaulting. So odds are that someone died as a direct result of Dula's shooting. Whereas Rhea, p. 362, reports that the divisions of Kershaw and Hoke together lost no more than 300 men, which would make the losses in Martin's brigade perhaps fifty. So they inflicted casualties at a 10:1 rate or better.
Late in the day, the brigade was ordered out of its trenches to attack the Federals -- an attack which, like all attacks on trenches, was repulsed with ease. The Confederates suffered about a hundred casualties for absolutely no benefit (Rhea, pp. 383-384). So in their first real day of battle, Dula's regiment first slaughtered their enemies and then were slaughtered themselves for no reason whatsoever. If that isn't traumatic, I don't know what is.
Later, the regiment was one of those involved in the desperate fight to hold Petersburg until Lee's army could arrive (NCRegiments, pp. 799-800), and it then settled down to trench warfare outside that town. In August 1864, the unit it belonged to became Kirkland's Brigade. In December, 1864, it was released from the lines outside Petersburg and Richmond to help with the defence of Wilmington (NCRegiments, p. 802; Gragg, p. 60, although he notes that it took quite a while to get there because of the failing Confederate rail network). Within hours of arriving, parts of the unit came under fire from the Federal navy assaulting the area -- artillery fire which they had absolutely no way to answer (Gragg, pp. 81-82). Fort Fisher, which guarded the port, managed to hold out for the moment, but was captured by the Federals soon after. Meanwhile, William T. Sherman's troops were marching north from Savannah through the Carolinas, The 42nd was finally run down at Bentonville (NCRegiments, pp. 803-804), where Joseph E. Johnston tried and failed to defeat Sherman and failed. The regiment was then surrendered and disbanded.
Although other regiments took more casualties, there can't have been many with more traumatic experiences.
There is a record of Dula being in hospital in late 1864 (West, p. 71) -- although we have no record of whether this was the result of injury or illness (an earlier hospital stay, in 1862, was more likely illness; Gardner, p. 39). He was captured by the Federals, along with 1500 or so others, on March 8, 1865 (West, p. 71; Gardner, p. 40, reports that he was released on June 11 of that year). I have to suspect that going from relatively easy service straight to the trenches would have been particularly hard on the troops, psychologically.
The other side of it is that his morality seems to have been questionable all along. There were reports that he had shown a violent streak even while in the army, with rumors that he had committed an earlier murder (so the New York Herald reporter, as cited on West, p. 123, Gardner, p. 28) -- although there seems to be no evidence of it elsewhere; I suspect it was an attempt to blacken Dula's name at the time of his death. Still, West, p. 10, indicates that he had already been sleeping around for years even before the war; he was apparently found in bed with Ann Melton when they were both about fifteen; West, p. 14 says that Tom had once been chased from Ann's bed by Ann's mother Lotty Foster (although Fletcher, p. 82, suggests that this was an error of understanding and that this actually referred to the period in late 1861 when James Melton was in the army but Dula had not yet signed up, meaning that Ann had married Melton before she became involved with Tom, who shacked up with Ann when she was a lonely army wife).
One witness, James Isbell (whom Dula would call a liar in his final speech) claimed that Ann Melton slept around with other men as well, but he had this only as hearsay and he was clearly a hostile witness (Fletcher, p. 83). There seems to be no other evidence that Ann slept with anyone except her husband and Dula. James Melton is said to have adored his wife despite her behavior (Fletcher, p. 84 -- but Fletcher is descended from the Meltons, so he had reason to try to make them look good).
Ann, Laura, and Lotty were not the only Fosters involved. There was also another cousin, Pauline Foster -- a fourth cousin of Laura, according to Fletcher, p. 22. She was even closer to Tom -- his second cousin, if I read Fletcher, p. 23, correctly. She apparently also slept with Tom. And, seemingly, with anyone else who came along. A reporter wrote of her, "Pauline Foster, the principal witness against the accused... may be dismissed with the statement that she has since married a white man and given birth to a Negro child" (West, p. 16; the full context is on pp. 120-121 of West and on p. 26 of Gardner. Fletcher, p. 131, thinks the charge false, but can only suggest that her prospective husband may have been a mulatto whose son somehow ended up darker than either his father or mother; the odds of this are low. Fletcher, p. 89, says that Pauline was engaged as early as January 1866, then sought treatment for syphilis, but did not marry until some time after Dula's 1866 trial but before his 1868 trial. In other words, Pauline not only slept with Dula, but slept with him while she was engaged). At least three other men, including Ann's brother, were said to have slept with Pauline, although one of them denied it. She officially admitted in court that she had a venereal disease, and had come to the Meltons to earn the wages to pay for treatment (West, p. 82).
(Exactly what Pauline did with Dula is disputed. Fletcher, p. 91, has her claim that she did not have intercourse with him. But the trial record in West reports her as saying, p. 83, that "I also slept with Dula for a blind at Ann Melton's insistence.")
The situation was so extreme that the New York Herald writer reported that "A state of immorality unexampled in the history of any country exists among these people, and such a system of freelovism prevails that it is 'a wise child that knows its father'" (Fletcher, p. 17; West, p. 3, has a slightly different version of the quote; West, p. 119, and Gardner, p. 24, print it in context). West assures us that this is exaggerated, but clearly there wasn't much social control over the young people of the district, at least in the post-War era when poverty and recriminations were widespread.
It seems clear that Dula was sleeping regularly with both Ann and Laura in early 1866 (West, p. 15), as well as having (perhaps only one) roll in the hay with Pauline Foster. Laura's father Wilson Foster said that Dula had visited Laura several times, and that he had once caught them in bed together (West, p. 73) -- or perhaps more than once (Fletcher, p. 24). He said Dula had started visiting regularly about two months before the murder.
Pauline came to Wilkes County to see a doctor, and was granted lodging by James and Ann Melton in exchange for work. West, p. 15, says she is the first of all these people who is known to have actually sought treatment for "the pock" (syphillis) -- but she later said that "We all have it" (West, p. 16). However, there is no evidence that anyone had it until she showed up; she came to Wilkes County specifically to see the only doctor in the area. That was early in March 1866. Dula first visited the same doctor for treatment around the beginning of April in that year (apparently the doctor did not keep proper case records); Ann Melton also visited him later (at least according to Pauline).
A big question hanging over the story is who started the chain of disease transmission that ended with Tom, Ann, and James Melton. Was it Pauline Foster, who gave it to Tom, who gave it to Laura and to Ann, who gave it to James Melton? Or was it Laura Foster, who then gave it to Tom, and so forth? Dula blamed Laura Foster -- and, on at least one occasion, claimed he would kill her for giving it to him. From the standpoint of who did what, it hardly matters whether he was right or not; he acted on his hypothesis. But it would be nice to know.
West, p. 17, thinks Pauline arrived soon enough that Dula could have caught the disease from her. But it was only about three weeks from the time she showed up until Dula sought treatment. Given that it usually takes several weeks for the first symptoms to appear, that implies that the two of them shacked up VERY quickly after Pauline arrived in the area. What's more, the chances of transmission of syphilis based on a single sexual encounter is not more than 10%. What are the odds that Dula managed to get into her fast enough to get the disease in time to need treatment a mere three weeks after Pauline came to the area? They appear very low.
What's more, Wilson Foster testified that Laura had "the pock" at the time of her death; he had seen the boils on her shoulder (West, p. 74). I can't prove that Dula got the disease from Laura Foster, but I doubt he got it from Pauline. And the same schedule that makes it hard for Dula to have gotten it from Pauline makes it almost impossible for him, if he got it from Pauline, to have given it to Laura. Indeed, Fletcher, p. 26, points out that it would have been impossible for Dula to have gotten the disease from Pauline and given it to Laura if he slept with Laura only in early March and not thereafter. It is of course possible that Dula didn't get it from either Laura or Pauline, but acquired it earlier (perhaps in the army, which might explain his hospitalizations) and that he was the one who gave the disease to both Laura and Ann. Fletcher, pp. 92-93, argues that, chronologically and logically, it makes more sense to assume that Dula was right and that it was Laura who was the source. Of course, that raises the question of where Laura got it, but we have no data on that.
(Oh to have been able to do modern genetic testing on the disease....)
Wherever he actually got it, R. D. Hall reported that Dula in mid-May had said that he would kill the woman who gave him his disease (West, p. 78).
The stunning part of all this is that Laura Foster apparently still expected to marry Dula. And so, apparently, prepared to leave home to meet him in 1866 so they could elope (one local legend has it that they were preparing to leave the area when Ann Melton showed up and stabbed Laura; Casstevens, p. 29). This makes no real sense -- since both Laura and Tom were over 21 at the time, they had the right to marry and had no need to elope (Fletcher, p. 31). But it would seem Tom talked her into running away anyway. She stole away from home on the night of May 24/25, 1866 (probably not long before daybreak), taking her father's badly-shoed horse to a meeting with Dula, and was never seen again except by a neighbor who talked to her as she was on her way (West, p. 20; this neighbor was the one who said that Laura was planning to run away with Dula). Her attempt to leave home should perhaps not surprise us; her relations with her father do not seem to have been good, if it is true, as one of her neighbors testified, that her father said he would kill her if he found her after she ran away with his horse (West, p. 22. Wilson Foster expressly denied saying this at the trial; West, p. 74).
Dula showed up at the Melton home on May 26, where James Melton worked on his shoes and Dula and Ann talked. Both of them, according to Pauline Foster, made suspicious remarks, Dula saying that he had no use for Laura and Ann later saying that she had murdered Laura. Believe THAT if you can.
According to Pauline Foster, the night Laura Foster died, Ann Melton had been out, and showed up late and all wet (West, p. ix). When Wilson Foster came to look for his missing horse, Ann had nothing to tell him.
Dula, like Ann, spent much of the day after Laura Foster disappeared in bed. Nor, when the time came, was he willing to help in the search for Laura Foster. So it appears both Tom and Ann were out overnight on the night Laura vanished, both came home tired and slept a lot the next day, and neither seems to have done much to establish an alibi (West, pp. 20-22; for Pauline Foster's testimony on this point, see West, p. 80). Dula was reportedly back at his home by noon, but the one testifying to this was his mother (Fletcher, p. 33), so the evidential value of the claim is obviously limited. The first attempt to trace Laura's behavior was by Wilson Foster on the morning of May 25 -- he wanted his horse back! -- but he said he lost the trail in "an old field" (West, p. 21). He later found the horse at his home, trailing a broken rope (West, p. 74). Foster described later finding the other end of the rope near the site of Laura's grave (a stupid mistake by the killer, as it turned out, since it was a hint as to the site of the murder)..
It's not entirely clear when other people first began wondering about Laura; the 1868 New York Herald report says it took several days (West, p. 118; Gardner, p. 24). The horse she had taken from her father made its way home on May 26 (West, p. 24), but that doesn't seem to have caused her father to do anything except feel relief. Searches perhaps began a few days later, but it appears the first comprehensive hunt began on June 23 (West, pp. 25-26). By then, word had begun to spread that Dula was the murderer (West, p. 26)
About a month after Laura's disappearance, enough attention had been aimed at Dula that he concluded that he had to leave the area; according, once again, to Pauline Foster, he came to Ann and told her he was leaving (West, p. 27). A formal arrest warrant was issued for Tom Dula and Ann Melton, plus Ann Pauline Dula and Granville Dula, on June 28 (text on p. 28 of West), based on the sworn complaint of Laura's father Wilson Foster (Fletcher, p. 41) -- although apparently the justice of the peace who issued it stopped the hunt for all of them but Tom on the next day (at least, this is what West, p. 28, seems to say).
Fletcher, p. 42, and West, p. 29, disagree on who "Ann Pauline Dula" was; West says she was another first cousin once removed of Tom Dula; Fletcher thinks the warrant was for Pauline Foster and that the warrant was confused because her grandfather was a Dula whose son, Levi Foster, was illegitimate and whose family was sometimes known as Dulas after their natural father.
Granville Dula was Tom's cousin (West, p. 29, says second cousin but gives an ancestry that makes them first cousins once removed); he played no further part in the case either as suspect or witness. The reason Granville Dula was named is not known, but Fletcher reminds us that none of these people were literate and could not read what the warrant said to correct it!
In any case, Ann Melton, Pauline Foster, and Granville Dula were taken into custody, were found to have alibis for when Laura was thought to have disappeared, and were released (Fletcher, p. 42). The attention was now firmly on Tom Dula -- even though no body had yet been found. Fletcher thinks that it was at this time that the search really got serious. It certainly seems to have scared Pauline Foster, who proceeded to turn state's evidence (Gardner, p. 21; Casstevens, p. 29).
Tom, who had already crossed the Tennessee line, started calling himself Hall (West, p. 28; according to Fletcher, p. 44, Dula later explained this as "a joke"). According to Gardner, p. 10, this was seen as a sign of guilt by the people at home, but as we have seen, feelings in North Carolina were already against him. Tom briefly went to work for James Grayson. Grayson, like many in the east Tennessee mountains, was a Unionist; he had been an officer in the Federal 4th Tennessee and 13th Tennessee regiments (West, p. 29), and had gone on to serve in the Tennessee legislature. When Wilkes County deputies Jack Adkins and Ben Ferguson came for Dula, Grayson helped them arrest him (West, p. 30). Dula was taken back to Wilkes County on a horse of Grayson's (West, p. x) with his feet tied beneath his horse, and made at least one attempt to escape.
What comes next is the strangest part of the story. Pauline Foster and Ann Melton apparently had a shouting match about the crime. Foster was overheard by a deputy making comments that sounded as if she had had a part in the murder (Casstevens, p. 23. West, p. 31, says that a deputy heard Pauline say, "Yes, I and Dula killed her, and I ran away to Tennessee." This is confirmed by the New York Herald account on p. 119 of West. Mrs. James Scott said at the trial that Pauline once proposed killing the deputy to cover up the crime; West, p. 85.)
Upon being questioned, Pauline spilled a most improbable tale -- unless syphilis was affecting Ann Melton's mind by this time. If we are to believe Pauline, Ann showed Pauline (who had gone away to Tennessee for a time then come back) roughly where the body was buried; apparently Melton wanted Pauline to make sure the grave didn't wash away or otherwise reveal Laura's body (West, p. 31). Ann also supposedly told Pauline that Laura Foster had given "the pock" to Tom, who had given it to Ann, who had given it to James, and that Ann would kill Pauline if she talked. (Fletcher, p. 27).
In other words, if Foster's testimony is right, Ann revealed to Pauline the grave site, and a motive for murder, even though Pauline had no reason whatsoever to keep things quiet. If Pauline's testimony is true, it shows that, first, that Ann was at least an accessory to the murder, and second, that she was almost as dim a bulb as Pauline. Or, alternately, that Pauline had taken part in the murder, which was the obvious import of her comment. But if Pauline had taken part in the murder, why didn't she know exactly where the grave was? Frankly, Pauline's reported testimony makes no sense.
Whether her testimony made sense or not, on September 1, 1862, Pauline led searchers to the general area of the grave, and a large search party eventually found the exact burial site. This meant that, for the first time, there was proof that murder had been committed, although the body was decayed enough that the doctor could give only limited information about how it was done (West, pp. 33-34). Several people who knew her nonetheless testified that it was Laura's body (West, p. 34) -- although one of those who testified was Pauline Foster, whose testimony surely counts as tainted! But some of her clothes could be recognized, and apparently Laura had unusual teeth that were also recognizable.
This finally meant that there was a real basis for a murder charge; until that time, Tom Dula had been held without bail merely on suspicion (West, p. 34), presumably because there was no one to file a writ of habeas corpus.
Laura had been stabbed in the breast, close to the heart, although the body was decayed enough that the doctor couldn't actually say whether the heart had been hit or not (West, pp. 33-34). One report claimed that her apron had been folded over her face in a neat way that implied a woman had done it (Casstevens, p. 23).
And, given that Ann Melton had told Pauline about the site of the grave, Melton not unnaturally joined Tom in prison, while Pauline was set free (Fletcher, p. 58, absurd as that seems given that she had said once said she committed the murder).
On October 1, the Grand Jury formally brought murder charges against Dula and Melton; he was charged with murder and she with inciting him to do it and with aiding him afterward (West, pp. x-xi, 36).The indictment, as printed by West, looks almost medieval -- e.g. the Devil is said to have induced Dula's action. Fletcher, p. 63, notes that it contains statements that could not possibly have been known, such as the hand in which the murderer held the knife, and that many of the claims were not relevant to the charge of murder. My guess, though, is that someone just took down the words as some illiterate on the Grand Jury maundered on. This would also explain why it gives the date of Foster's murder as June 18 (Fletcher, p. 97), which is more than three weeks after Foster's disappearance. Oddly, no one seems to have made an issue of that.
When Laura's body was found, it was in a grave that wasn't even big enough for it; she had had to be curled up to fit (West, p. ix; Casstevens, p. 23, says that her legs were broken). There was no direct evidence of Dula's involvement; the state would later rely heavily on the testimony of Pauline Foster to convict him (West, p. 15). The state's official version, according to West, p. 22, was that Dula murdered Foster late on May 25, rather than early in the day, which makes him wonder why Foster waited around so long for Dula to show up. But it's worth noting that this was just the state's hypothesis -- there was no valid forensic evidence on when Laura was murdered; all we have is the time she was last seen and the fact that the body was substantially decomposed when it was discovered.
The charge that Melton aided Dula after the fact was dropped by the prosecutor, leaving only the count of incitement (West, p. 37; Fletcher, p. 63, suggests that this was because she had an alibi at the time the murder was thought to have been committed -- although of course we do not know the time of the murder).
Strange twist #300 or so: Zebulon Vance, who had governed the state during the Civil War, decided to defend Dula pro bono (West, p. 37). This even though the war had ruined him and he was only starting to rebuild his reputation and fortune (West, p. 38). He didn't do this for personal reasons; he didn't know Dula (some folk accounts claim otherwise; stories of links between them are listed on pp. 122-123 of Fletcher. Some claimed, e.g., that Dula served under Vance in the war -- but he didn't; they were in different regiments. It is interesting to note that James Melton had served in the regiment that Vance commanded early in the war (Fletcher, p. 61. Fletcher, p. 125, suggests that perhaps Vance had originally decided to defend the wife of his comrade Melton and ended up, in effect, getting stuck with Dula too).
The former governor managed to win a change of venue, causing the case to be moved from Wilkes County to the county seat of the next county to the southeast, Statesville in Iridell County (West, p. 39; Fletcher, p. 64, says that the judge might have decided to do this on his own, since as a circuit rider he was due to move to Iridell County anyway). Vance also managed to separate the trials of Dula and Melton (West, p. 42).
The presiding judge who agreed to the change of venue was Ralph P. Buxton; he also presided over the trial after it was transferred (West, p. 41). Buxton was a Republican appointed by Republicans in unreconstructed North Carolina (Fletcher, pp. 59-60); I can't help but think that he likely obtained his post for political reasons rather than reasons of competence, and he might well have been prejudiced against a Confederate soldier. Gardner, p. 10, claims that the jury was "evidently composed mostly of renegade carpet baggers," but West, who otherwise tries to discredit the trial, makes no mention of this that I can find.
Ann Melton and Dula were both moved to prisons in Iridell; Melton was allowed to stay in the county jail, but Dula was deemed such a risk that he was kept in the prison in shackles with an extra guard contingent! (Fletcher, p. 66.) Melton was present at Dula's trial but did not testify. According to West, p. 43, she was not ALLOWED to testify, even though witnesses were permitted to report things she had said; Fletcher, p. 66, seems to think that she was instead claiming her fifth amendment right..
The legal maneuvers were the limit of what Vance could accomplish. Eighty-three witnesses were called in the trial, although there is no report of what sixty-three of them said (West, p. 43). Even the witnesses who testified had little to say except that they saw Dula carrying a mattock around the time of the murder near the grave site (e.g. West, p. 75, gives this as the entire content of the testimony of Carl Carlton, Hezekiah Kindall, and Mrs. James Scott, and has similar testimony from Martha Gilbert and Ann Melton's brother Thomas Foster on p. 77) -- suspicious behavior, obviously, but Dula's explanation that he wanted to improve the trail is at least possible. There is dispute about just how much work he did on the trail (Fletcher, p. 27), but there was testimony from several sources that Dula did at least some work on it.
Betsy Scott's testimony was simply that she had seen and talked to Laura as she ran away from home and that Laura said she was meeting Dula (West, pp. 74-75). Scott was also the only person to place Dula anywhere near the murder site at the time Laura disappeared (Fletcher, p. 32).
The primary testimony was Pauline Foster's, and a very substantial part of it consisted of her denying the truth of a large number of things she had previously said. For instance, she declared that she had been joking when she said that she would swear a lie any time for Tom Dula (a statement recorded in the testimony of J. W. Winkler; West, p. 87, and made to George Washington Anderson; it was overheard by deputy Jack Adkins; Fletcher p. 42), and of course she claimed she was joking when she said she had murdered Laura Foster (West, p. 83). Foster also testified "It is true that I sat in Dula's lap for a blind, one day when a woman came to James Melton's... I also slept with Dula for a blind at Ann Melton's insistence." (This implicitly contradicts the testimony of Anderson, who says that Pauline voluntarily spent a night in the woods with Dula; West, p. 85; Fletcher, p. 24, seems to think Pauline slept with both Dula and Anderson that night. In any case, what was sleeping with Dula a blind *for*? And why would Dula sleep with someone known to have syphilis simply as "a blind"?)
It is not clear from the record, but my guess is that Pauline was a stupid young woman carefully coached by the prosecution to tell their story, and if ever questioned about her past remarks, to either deny the claim or call it a joke. Possibly they had a signal to tell her which tactic to use. And the jury perhaps accepted her testimony because they thought her too addled to lie. I personally find it hard to believe anything she said. As Fletcher says on p. 93, "Pauline may have been a loose-lipped simpleton, but she was not a complete fool"; she would do whatever was required to shift blame.
We do not know the prosecutor's actual lines of argument, but Fletcher argues it as follows:
* That, although the time of the murder is not known, it must have happened on the day Laura Foster disappeared, or someone would have seen her.
* That Dula and Melton could not have done it together; although both were unaccounted for at one time or another on the day Foster died, there was no time when both were missing simultaneously for long enough to do the deed (Fletcher, p. 112)
* That Dula had a motive, in that he had contracted syphilis.
* That Dula had said that he would kill the person who gave it to him, and had also stated that he had it from Foster (Fletcher, pp. 113-114)
* That Ann Melton was jealous of Foster, and would have encouraged Dula to be rid of her (Fletcher, p. 114)
* That Dula had a knife similar to the murder weapon (Fletcher, p. 113, states "Thomas Dula was known to possess what may have been the murder weapon." Of course, the number of people in rural North Carolina who possessed six inch knives was, what, all of them?)
* That Laura Foster was reported to have stated, the last time she was seen, that she was going to meet (run away with?) Dula (Fletcher, p. 114).
* (On the other hand, there was no evidence to prove that Dula actually met Foster after her disappearance, and there were no witnesses to the murder; no witness ever placed Dula at the murder scene; Fletcher, pp. 114-115).
* Dula had borrowed a mattock at the time the grave was dug, and supposedly there were mattock marks near the grave (Fletcher, p. 116) -- although I note that a mattock cannot dig a grave, it can merely break up the soil. Something is needed to dig out the dirt once broken up. No one is recorded as seeing Dula with a shovel.
* That Ann Melton knew where the grave was, and told Pauline Foster roughly where it was (Fletcher, p. 115). Foster did not know the exact location -- or, at least, said she did not, although of course she we cannot prove that she did not know. The obvious presumption is that, if Melton told Foster, then Melton either did the deed or had been told by the one who did the deed.
This, it seems to me, leaves us with four possibilities:
1. That Ann Melton committed the murder and told Pauline about it. Note that, because Melton's trial had been separated from Dula's, the jury did not have to decide on this possibility, except to allow it as a possible alternative to Dula's guilt.
2. That Dula committed the murder as charged, with Melton an accessory after the fact (since she didn't report the crime) who tried to cover up for Tom.
3. That Pauline Foster did it, and concocted the story about Ann and Tom, to cover up her own guilt. This might be because she had loved Dula and been rejected (admittedly she was engaged, but that certainly didn't stop her from fooling around!), or because she resented Ann, who was her employer but (by all accounts) not a particularly nice person (although it's not obvious why she would kill Foster in that case rather than Ann or Tom).
4. (A very faint possibility, but a possibility:) That someone other than Melton, Dula, or Pauline Foster did it, and Pauline reasoned out where the grave must be based on where Laura was last seen, and concocted the story as in scenario 3. If this is the case, then Wilson Foster is perhaps the leading candidate -- after all, his daughter had round heels and he had threatened her. And the entire story about the broken rope and the badly-shoed horse comes from him; his was one of the few other pieces of testimony that actually added something to what Pauline said.
(There are, to be sure, other stories that floated about who murdered Laura Foster. One version, printed in 2001 and repeated on p. 121 of Fletcher, is that Ann Melton and Pauline Foster, not Dula, conspired to do the deed, with Melton actually wielding the knife. But this was an old woman's retelling of something she heard from someone she had heard as a young girl from someone who was very young at the time -- probably too young to genuinely remember. All such stories are possible, but all are so unlikely that they need not detain us. The jury had only the four possibilities above.)
If I had been the defense, I would have gone all-out against Pauline -- demonstrating her promiscuity, her conflicting evidence in past situations, her complete worthlessness. Without her testimony, the case against Dula would surely have collapsed. (Indeed, I don't think it stands on its own even WITH Pauline's testimony.) But it appears that the defense made no such attempt. Perhaps this is a token of Vance's indifferent legal abilities; DAB (Vol. X, p. 158) reports that "He was never a close student of the law," being more interested in politics -- the law of course being a good way to practice his speaking and get his name in the news.
With all that non-evidence to sort through, the trial took two full days, October 19-20 (West, p. 44). The jury deliberated overnight; the next morning, Sunday, October 21, 1866, Dula was convicted of murder. The defence made a series of motions, including one to delay sentencing, but these were denied (West, pp. 44-45). Judge Buxton sentenced Dula to be hanged on November 9, 1866.
In the 1860s, appeals were not the automatic result they are now, but Dula's lawyers filed one -- and, because Dula was indigent, he was allowed to appeal without giving security (West, p. 45).
Interestingly, because there was no trial record, the judge and court clerk wrote a summary of the result to take to the appeals court. This included testimony from only twenty witnesses (less than a quarter of the total), and that not verbatim (West, p. 45; even what we have was not clearly written and hard to read; West, p. 72. There is a second, seemingly unofficial, record of Pauline Foster's testimony, printed by West, pp. 100-103. It does not supply much information not in the official transcript, but at least it supports the accuracy of the official record as far as it goes).
To make things worse, of the twenty witnesses whose testimony is summarized, only five were witnesses for the defense (Fletcher, p. 67). This surely biases the trial record, although it's hard to know exactly how.
(It is interesting to note that among the witnesses were Thomas C. Land and Calvin L. Triplett, both of whom wrote poems about the case; Land is thought to be responsible for "The Murder of Laura Foster" [Laws F36]; what is perhaps his original text is recorded on pp. 12-16 of Gardner. But no testimony was recorded from either Land or Triplett; Fletcher, p. 108.)
The lack of a proper transcript means that the information seen in the appeal was both incomplete and biased by the opinions of the judge and clerk. But the appeal did go forward; the Supreme Court noted four procedural errors, including the use of hearsay evidence, and ordered a new trial (Fletcher, p. 68). Because the courts met so rarely, that meant the case was not taken up again until April 1867 (West, p. 45) -- and then had to be held over until the fall term because some of Dula's witnesses who had not appeared at the first trial were unavailable (Fletcher, p. 68). This resulted in a postponement, with Dula and Melton in jail the whole time, and this time, it was the prosecution that had trouble getting its witnesses (including James Grayson who had helped take Dula into custody; West, p. 46, Fletcher, p. 69. Grayson was busy with his duties as a Tennessee legislator, but because no relevant records exist, we don't really know why either side asked for the witnesses it did). Eventually a new trial started in January, 1868 (West, p. 47, says January 21; Fletcher, p. 70, says January 3; they agree that William M. Shipp was the judge). As before, the defense moved to separate the trials of Dula and Melton, and once again the motion was granted.
The retrial did not change the result (West, p. 48). There was another appeal to the state Supreme Court, which delayed the execution but did not result in any relief for Dula (West, p. 48; Fletcher, p. 70 says that no new material was submitted to the Supreme Court, so naturally they didn't interfere). Once the appeal failed, the judge set the date for Dula's hanging as May 1, 1868 (18 days after the sentencing; Fletcher, p. 70).
Despite all the problems in procedure, and the poor evidence, Fletcher, p. 157, notes that both presiding judges seem to have been convinced of Dula's guilt, which may be better evidence than the surviving court records.
Dula's behavior at this time was interesting. He refused to see a clergyman -- or even his relatives (West, p. 49).
He apparently had been trying to escape by abrading his shackles. He didn't finish in time (West, p. 49).
On April 30, 1868, the day before his execution Dula wrote several papers. It's not clear whether he wrote them himself; we're not certain that he was literate (census records show that in 1860 he was fifteen and in school; Gardner, p. 41; but after the Civil War he had signed his release paper with an X; Fletcher, p. 65), The most important of the papers that he left was a note in which he said that only he had a role in the murder of Laura Foster (West, p. 49; the New York Herald version of the note is on p. 121 and Gardner, p. 27). He did finally accept baptism that night, and apparently engaged in a long string of incoherent prayers (West, p. 50) -- but reportedly refused to admit any part in the murder of Foster even to the minister (Fletcher, p. 71).
Dula was hung at Statesville on May 1 after giving a long speech about the wages of sin in which he accused some of the witnesses against him of lying (West, p. 124). The gallows was incompetently built; the drop did not break his neck, and it took some ten minutes for him to die by strangulation (West, p. 51; Fletcher, pp. 72-73).
Ann Melton had never been called to testify. Dula apparently never mentioned her prior to that last note. After Dula's death, Melton was taken back to Wilkes County to be tried (Fletcher, pp. 75-76). The case was tried in the fall term of 1868 (Fletcher, p. 76). The trial was brief and Melton was allowed to go free, mostly on the strength of Dula's note admitting guilt (West, p. 52). She was released, having spent about two years in prison. This even though the locals apparently regarded her as guilty (Fletcher, p. 76). In fact, according to Fletcher, p. 158, "The popular view in much of Wilkes County [today] is to deny that Tom Dula actually committed the act of murder and that Ann Melton did the actual killing." But things were different at the time; Fletcher, p. 159, quotes one man who saw her who said (much later) that "Ann Melton was the purtiest woman I ever looked in the face of. She'd a-been hung too, but her neck was jist too purty to stretch hemp. She was guilty, I knowed it... Ef they'd a-been ary womern [any women] on the jury, she'd a-got first degree. Men couldn't look at the woman and keep their heads."
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, there do not appear to be photographs of any of the principals to verify this. None of the books has a photo of Dula, Melton, Laura Foster, or Pauline Foster.
Thomas Land's poem "The Murder of Laura Foster" does not mention Ann Melton by name -- but then, it doesn't mention Tom Dula either! However, the fourth stanza (as printed by Gardner, p. 12) says that "She [Laura] met her groom and his vile Guest" -- which would have to be Dula and either Melton or Pauline Foster.
Interestingly, West, pp. 54-55, does not mention Brown's story that Melton went blind later in life -- but he does mention some reports that hint that she went insane in the years before her death some time between 1871 and 1874 (there seems to be no definitive record of her death). Another account reports that there were "black cats running up and down the walls" in the place where she died (Casstevens, p. 29), which sounds like a variation on the same thing. Insanity, too, is a side effect of severe syphilis, which kills about one person in six who contracts it. But Fletcher points out (p. 76) that she managed to bear another healthy child, Ida Melton, in 1871, so presumably the syphilis wasn't affecting her too severely at that stage. Indeed, Fletcher, p. 77, says there is no proof that either Melton ever had syphilis; the only evidence we have is that of Pauline Foster (plus, of course, the fact that she slept with Dula).
At least one report claimed that she died as a result of injuries in an overturned horse-drawn vehicle (Fletcher, pp. 76-77). Which makes you wonder a little if James Melton got tired of his wife. One also wonders if the Melton children were in fact James Melton's (Fletcher, p. 86, says that the older daughter, from her photograph, clearly resembles James Melton -- but doesn't print the photos to prove it). James outlived Ann by many years, and went on to marry another wife (West, p. 55).
Foster, p. 162, says that there was not sufficient time for Melton to have committed the murder by herself. Probably true, although all this is based on the witnesses' accounts of events that happened some time before as recalled still later by the judge and clerk -- if we accept that evidence, then the murderer was either Tom Dula or an unknown party. But this is, in practice, weak hearsay evidence.
There are two obvious questions arising out of the case: Did Dula kill Laura Foster, and did he deserve his fate? The answer to the former is, frankly, that we do not know with certainty. Dula knew; Ann Melton may have known; but neither really told us much. Dula is certainly the best candidate, with Melton being the only other likely alternative (Fletcher, p.117, is convinced that they are the only possible alternatives; I can only say that I am not convinced), but there appears to be no real evidence against Dula except his obvious disdain for Foster. And there was that comment by Wilson Foster that he would kill his daughter for stealing his horse, and all the garbage that Pauline Foster spouted....
The court case is what is truly disturbing. Recall that a warrant was sworn out for Dula before Laura Foster's body was found -- in other words, before it was even known that she was dead! And Dula was extradited from Tennessee before the body was found, without legal process; the deputies from North Carolina simply showed up in Tennessee, and Grayson helped them take Dula. Even once he was in custody, it is by no means clear that the case against him was strong enough to keep him in prison. As for the trial itself, we cannot be sure, because we have no proper trial record -- just the summary prepared by the judge and court clerk. Given that guilt must be demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt, the evidence as it now appears does not seem sufficient to convict. Especially since so much depended on Pauline Foster, who seems to have changed her story at least once AND to have been a ninnyhammer anyway. Either that, or she was out to get Dula -- she did sleep with him, after all; is it possible that she wanted more and he didn't? No way to tell, now.
And Dula in his last speech -- when he had nothing to lose -- said that some of the witnesses had lied about him, and Fletcher agrees -- he states that James Isbell (who actually helped pay for the prosecution) had given biased testimony (Fletcher, p. 162), and he adds on p. 163 that some of Pauline Foster's testimony "is certainly questionable, if not an outright lie."
West, pp. 128-133, consulted a relative who was a lawyer, seeking his opinion of whether the outcome met the rules of proper justice. That lawyer objected to the process on four points. Two struck me as quite cogent. Dula's "arrest in Tennessee and removal to Wilkes County was, to say the least, most informal, compared to the legal standards required to extradite a person from another state's jurisdiction under today's circumstances" (West, p. 128). (Fletcher's answer, pp. 45-46, was that the deputies who took Dula were in "hot pursuit," which they perhaps thought was true, but remember, the body still hadn't been found! He also says that North Carolina, which was unreconstructed, was under martial law. True but irrelevant -- Tennessee, which had a large Union population, HAD been reconstructed).
Second, the lawyer pointed out (West, p. 131) that the evidence against Dula was all circumstantial. He implied that that was bad; we now know that circumstantial evidence is better than personal testimony when the evidence is truly relevant. But none of the circumstantial evidence was strong. To repeat, Dula was clearly the best candidate for the murderer. But there are at least three others: Ann Melton, Pauline Foster, and Wilson Foster -- who may have been getting tired of maintaining his unmarried and hard-to-marry daughter (remember, whatever else we know about Laura Foster, she was not a virgin, had syphillis, and had no inheritance or noteworthy skills). With three other possible murderers, did the evidence add up to guilt beyond a reasonable doubt?
The lawyer West talked to concludes, "I do not think it takes a lawyer to conclude, after reviewing this record, that the evidence presented against Tom Dula does not meet at least one of these standards [for conviction].... The evidence is not, however, subject only to the interpretation of the guilt of Tom Dula and therefore does not exclude every reasonable hypothesis. [In other words, there are other reasonable scenarios which are also consistent with the evidence.] It shows only a motive and the opportunity which is generally held insufficient to support a conviction."
Based on the evidence available to me, I have to agree. Although I genuinely think he was guilty, Dula probably deserves a "Scots verdict" of "Not proven."
On the other hand, given his other activities, I think it could be argued that the world was better off without him.
West and others are quick to condemn this song as inaccurate. Certainly the folklore about Dula is often wrong. But the neighbors also remembered incorrectly -- e.g. the Rev. R. L. Isbell (the son of James Isbell, who had been one of the searchers for Laura Foster and one who testified against Dula), who was a child in the area at the time, claimed that the murder happened in 1865, not 1866, and says that the proper name of Laura's father Will Foster was not "Wilson Foster" but "William Foster" (Gardner, p. 20) and that Dula was captured in Virginia, not Tennessee (Gardner, p. 22) and he wrongly believed that Foster's horse was found still tied up near the murder scene. To be fair, Isbell said that the events he described had happened "eighty-six years ago" -- Gardner, p. 23 -- so he must have been about ninety at the time he was reminiscing.
Compared to that, the ballad often has the details right:
"Stabbed her with my knife": Whoever killed Foster did it with a knife (probably about six inches long), according to Dr. George Carter, who did the autopsy (West, p. 78).
"Hadn't been for Grayson, I'd have been in Tennessee." Dula was in Tennessee when James Grayson assisted in his arrest. The folklore that Grayson was another suitor for Laura Foster is wrong, but the ballad doesn't say that he was.
"Take down my old violin, play it on my knee." Dula was a fiddler, and apparently a fairly good one (West, p. 24).
Other versions of the song have him play the banjo instead; indeed, according to Fletcher, p. 122, folklore claimed that it was his banjo playing that first brought him to the attention of his defense lawyer Vance. But West, p. 71, and Fletcher, p. 122, agree that there is no evidence that he ever played banjo. Presumably the mention of the fiddle is older. He had served as a drummer in the Civil War (Fletcher, p. 21).
"Met her on the mountain, As everybody knows... and there you hid her clothes." Dr. George Carter told the court that a bundle of clothes was buried with her (West, p. 78). Betsy Scott had testified that, when Laura had left her home for the last time, she was carrying extra clothing (Fletcher, p. 29).
"Down in some lonesome valley, Hanging from a white oak tree." Dula was hanged, but not in a lonesome valley or from a tree; it was from a public scaffold in Statesville with a very large crowd watching (Fletcher, p. 72). On the other hand, there apparently were rumors of lynchings as he was taken from Tennessee to North Carolina.
Although people usually spell the names "Laura Foster" and "Tom Dula," the pronunciations in the song are correct: the Dulas were called "Dooley/Doolie," and Laura Foster was called "Laurie" (West, p. xviii). The spelling "Dooley" is used on both Dula's parole as a POW and his oath of allegiance to the re-united United States (shown on pp. 21-22 of Fletcher), although Dula did not sign the former and (I suspect) did not sign the latter. At least once in the court papers, he is called "Dooley" (Fletcher, p. 65), although Fletcher reports that he corrected that to "Dula." Gardner, before p. 1, shows a Union list of Confederate parolees; the reproduction (which appears to be a bad photocopy) is almost illegible, but the Union recorder seems to have given Dula's name as "Dooly." On p. 41 Gardner says that Dula signed the parolee list as "Dooley" to match his name in the list, then wrote "Dula" above it.
The folklore in Doc Watson's family, that Grayson was a rival for the love of Laura Foster, is obviously false; Grayson never met Foster in his life (Fletcher, p. 13).
It turns out that there was a movie, "The Legend of Tom Dooley," sort of inspired by this song (Casstevans, p. 18). Looking over the cast, it cannot have been based on anything real; it starred Michael Landon as Tom and Jo Morrow as Laura Foster -- but the cast does not include parts for Ann Melton or Pauline Foster. And it does include one for "Charlie Grayson," who of course did not exist (and who surely did not have a big enough role to be the #3 person in the cast list!).
A North Carolina resident, H. M. "Hub" Yount, wrote to a paper to say that the movie had it all wrong (Gardner, p. 34). He had the story from his father and aunt. Ironically, Yount made errors of his own -- he said the murder took place in 1867 and the hanging in 1869. This account also claims that the Tom Dooley song was already known at the time, and cites the chorus. I suspect, however, that Yount was confusing "Tom Dooley" with "The Murder of Laura Foster." - RBW
Last updated in version 4.2
- Casstevens: Frances H. Casstevens, Death in North Carolina's Piedmont: Tales of Murder, Suicide, and Causes Unknown, History Press, 2006
- DAB: Dumas Malone, editor, Dictionary of American Biography, originally published in 20 volumes plus later supplementary volumes; I use the 1961 Charles Scribner's Sons edition with minor corrections which combined the original 20 volumes into 10
- Fletcher: John Edward Fletcher, PhD (with a foreword by Edith Marie Ferguson Carter), The True Story of Tom Dooley: From Western North Carolina Mystery to Folk Legend, History Press, 2013
- Furgurson: Ernest B. Furgurson, Not War But Murder: Cold Harbor 1864, Alfred A. Knopf, 2000
- Gardner: Rufus L. Gardner, Tom Dooley, The Eternal Triangle, Gardner Enterprises/Reliable Printing Company (Mount Airy, NC), 1960
- Gragg: Rod Gragg, Confederate Goliath, 1991 (I use the 1992 HarperPerennial paperback)
- NCRegiments: Walter Clark, Editor, Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-1865, volume II, (State of North Carolina)/Nash Brothers, N.D. but includes material dated 1901
- Rhea: Gordon C. Rhea, Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864. Louisiana State University Press, 2002
- Wallis: Michael Wallis, Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride Norton, 2007
- West: John Foster West, Lift Up Your Head, Tom Dooley, Down Home Press, 1993, 1996
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