Tom Dula

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Thomas C. Dula
Thomas C. Dula.jpg
Born (1845-06-22)June 22, 1845[1][2]
Wilkes County, North Carolina
Died May 1, 1868(1868-05-01) (aged 22)
Iredell County, North Carolina
Cause of death Hanging (Capital Punishment)
Other names Tom Dula aka "Tom Dooley"
Occupation farm hand, soldier
Known for Progenitor of the "Tom Dooley" folk song.

Thomas C. "Tom" Dula (June 22, 1845 – May 1, 1868)[1][2] was a former Confederate soldier, who was convicted of murdering Laura Foster. National publicity from newspapers such as The New York Times, turned Dula's story into a folk legend. Although Laura was murdered in Wilkes County, North Carolina, Dula was tried, convicted, and hanged in Statesville. Considerable controversy surrounded the case. In subsequent years, a folk song was written (entitled “Tom Dooley”, based on the pronunciation in the local dialect), and many oral traditions were passed down, regarding the sensational occurrences surrounding Laura Foster's murder and Dula's subsequent execution.[1][3] The Kingston Trio recorded a hit version of the murder ballad in 1958.[4]

Early life[edit]

Tom Dula was born to a poor Appalachian hill country family in Wilkes County, North Carolina,[5] most likely the youngest of three brothers, with one younger sister, Eliza.[6] The young Dula grew up, attended school, and "probably played with the female Fosters", Anne (later Melton) and her cousins Laura and Pauline.[7]

As the children grew up, Tom and Anne apparently became intimate. Anne Foster's mother found Anne and Tom in bed together when Anne was 14 years old and Tom was 12.

Three months before his 18th birthday, on 15 March 1862, Tom joined the Confederate Army. Dula served as a private in Company K in the 42nd North Carolina Infantry Regiment until the war ended in 1865.[1]

There is evidence Dula was literate, as according to accounts at the time, he wrote a 15-page account of his life as well as the note that exonerated Anne Melton. His literacy is highly unusual given his station in life and the harsh poverty of his upbringing.[3] Tom played the fiddle and was considered from a very young age to be a "ladies man".[6]

Military service[edit]

Contrary to newspaper accounts at the time, Dula did not serve in Zebulon Vance's 26th North Carolina. Also rumors that he “played the banjo” in the army band for the Colonel's benefit and entertained Colonel Vance with his antics were false. These were often cited as the reason that Vance was so quick to lead the defense of Dula during Dula's trial. It seems more likely that Governor Vance simply believed in Dula's innocence or thought that defending a Confederate veteran in the high-profile case would be politically beneficial.[citation needed]

Additionally, Dula did not survive the war completely unscathed, as folklore, oral tradition, and a few modern writers have held. Instead, he suffered various injuries throughout the course of the fighting. Moreover, each of his brothers died in the war, leaving Tom as his mother's “sole remaining boy”.[1]

There is some evidence in primary sources that Dula used his musical talents during the Civil War, as on his Confederate muster card number 17, he is listed as a "musician" and a "drummer".[8]

Murder of Laura Foster[edit]

"Laura Foster" redirects here. For the fictional character, see Laura Foster (Simon and Laura).

Before the war, Anne Foster, a local beauty, married an older man, James Melton, who was a farmer, cobbler, and neighbor of both Anne and Tom's. Melton also served in the Civil War and fought in the battle of Gettysburg.[6] Both he and Dula were taken prisoner and at the end of the war returned home. Shortly after arriving home, Dula resumed his relationship with Anne. Given his reputation as a libertine,[2][9] it did not take Dula long to also resume an intimate relationship with Anne's cousin, Laura Foster. Folklore suggest Laura became pregnant shortly thereafter, and she and Dula decided to elope.[6] On the morning she was to meet Dula, about May 25, 1866,[9] Laura quietly left her home where she lived with her father, Wilson Foster, and took off on his horse, Belle. Laura was never seen alive again.[1]

While it is not certain what happened that day, many of the stories that have grown out of the folklore implicate Anne Melton. Some believe Anne murdered Laura Foster because Anne was still in love with Dula and was jealous of Laura because Dula was marrying her. Others believe that Dula knew or suspected that Anne had murdered Laura, but because he still loved Anne he refused to implicate her after he was arrested and took the blame for the murder. Ultimately, it was Anne's word that led to the discovery of Laura's body, leading to further speculation as to Anne's guilt. Anne's cousin, Pauline Foster, testified that Anne had led her to the site of the grave one night to check that it was still well hidden.[6]

Witnesses testified in court that Dula made the incriminating statement he was going to "do in" whoever gave him "the pock" (syphilis). Testimony indicated Dula believed Laura had given him syphilis, which he had unknowingly passed on to Anne. The local doctor testified that he had treated both Tom and Anne for syphilis with blue mass, as he did Pauline Foster, who was in fact the first to be treated. Many believe that Dula may have caught the disease from Pauline Foster and passed it on to Anne and Laura.[citation needed]

Laura's decomposed body was found with her legs drawn up in order to fit in a shallow grave. She had been stabbed once in the chest. The gruesome murder, combined with the low murder rate and numerous rumors that circulated in the small backwoods town, captured the public's attention and led to the enduring notoriety of the crime.[1]

Dula's role in the murder is unclear.[9] He fled the area before Laura's body was found, after locals accused him of murdering Laura. Under the assumed name Tom Hall, he worked for about a week for Colonel James Grayson, across the state line in Trade, Tennessee. Grayson would enter folklore as a romantic rival of Dula's, but this was not true. It was simply an incorrect inference drawn from the lyrics of the song and became more widespread as the facts of the case were largely forgotten.[9] Grayson did, however, help the Wilkes County posse bring Dula in, once Dula's identity was discovered.[1]


Following Dula's arrest, former North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance represented him pro bono, and always maintained Dula's innocence. He succeeded in having the trial moved from Wilkesboro to Statesville, as it was widely believed that Dula would not receive a fair trial in Wilkes County. Dula was convicted and, although given a new trial on appeal, he was convicted again. His supposed accomplice, Jack Keaton, was set free and, on Dula's word, Anne Melton was acquitted. As he stood on the gallows facing death, Dula is reported to have said, “Gentlemen, do you see this hand? I didn’t harm a hair on the girl’s head”.[9] On 1 May 1868, he was executed nearly two years after Laura Foster's murder.[6] His younger sister and her husband retrieved his body for burial.[1]


In 2001, Tom Dula was "acquitted" of all charges after a petition was sent around Wilkes County and to the county seat. This action was unofficial and had no legal force.[9]



Subsequently, much legend and folklore arose around the tragedy and the life of Tom Dula. Not the least of these tales has Dula surviving the war without a scratch, and Governor Zebulon Baird Vance making use of Dula’s supposed talents with a banjo for his own personal entertainment. Both Dula’s and Vance’s accounts, as well as Dula’s own military record, show this legend to be untrue; it persists nonetheless.[6]

A popular myth holds that while Dula was fighting in Virginia, Anne — apparently despairing of ever seeing Tom again – met and married an older farmer, James Melton. In reality, Anne married James Melton in 1859, three years before Tom left for the war, though it's unclear whether or not that actually changed the nature of Tom and Anne's relationship.[10][better source needed]

Another popular myth claims Anne confessed to the murder on her deathbed. According to hearsay, Anne confessed she killed Laura in a fit of jealousy and begged Tom, who still had feelings for her, to help her conceal the body. People who live in that area still tell stories that on her deathbed Anne saw black cats on the walls and could hear and smell bacon frying.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]


A local poet named Thomas Land wrote a song about the tragedy, titled "Tom Dooley" (which was how Dula's name was pronounced), shortly after Dula was hanged. This, combined with the widespread publicity the trial received, further cemented Dula’s place in North Carolina legend.[11][12] Land's song is still sung today throughout North Carolina.[citation needed]



  • Sharyn McCrumb's novel The Ballad of Tom Dooley (2011) is a fictionalized account of the events surrounding Laura Foster's murder; in a postscript McCrumb claims her reconstruction is consistent with all the available evidence.[citation needed]


  • Stonewall Jackson's U.S. country music and Billboard hit song "Waterloo" (1959) makes reference to Tom Dooley in the final verse.
  • Abner Jay's song "VD"[14] discusses Tom Dooley's story but is distinct from Land's song.[citation needed]
  • The members of Macabre, known for their death metal, also released an album of acoustic folk songs titled Macabre Minstrels: Morbid Campfire Songs (2002),[15] which includes a track titled "Tom Dooley", about Dula's death; Macabre's song differs from Land's traditional ballad.[citation needed]
  • The music project Windows to Sky featuring SJ Tucker released a version of "Tom Dooley" titled "Tom Dula: Madness Made Us Wild; a Play in Five Verses and a Hanging" (2012), which combines elements of several versions of the story and song, and adapts quotes from the original court transcripts as lyrics. They describe it as "our original reinvention of the 'Tom Dula' story for the Neil Young Americana Contest, June 2012".[16]
  • Neil Young's album Americana (2012) features a song called "Tom Dula", a re-working of Thomas Land's original poem.

Uses in other media[edit]

  • Glada Barn's version of Land's song, “Tom Dooley”, closes Rectify Season 2/Episode 6 ("Mazel Tov").[17] Rectify's protagonist Daniel Holden was falsely accused of raping and murdering his high school sweetheart, when he was 18 years old, and he served 20 years in prison, on death row. Despite the fact that DNA evidence resulted in his sentence's being vacated, many people continue to believe he is guilty, and some of them, including the dead girl's family and friends, the local police, and the senator whose career was built on his having prosecuted the case, want to see Holden punished.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i West, John Foster (April 2002). The Ballad of Tom Dula: The Documented Story Behind the Murder of Laura Foster. Parkway Publishers. ISBN 1-887905-55-3. 
  2. ^ a b c "Tom Dula". Wilkes County Chamber of Commerce. Archived from the original on June 8, 2008. Retrieved February 10, 2013. 
  3. ^ a b West, John Foster (May 1993). Lift up Your Head, Tom Dooley: The True Story of the Appalachian Murder That Inspired One of America's Most Popular Ballads. Asheboro, North Carolina: Down Home Press. ISBN 1-878086-20-0. 
  4. ^ The Kingston Trio (album) at AllMusic
  5. ^ Sharyn McCrumb (2007-01-01). "Tom Dooley: Bound to Die". Blue Ridge Country. Retrieved 2009-05-20. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Fletcher, John Edward (2013). The True Story of Tom Dooley: From Western North Carolina Mystery to Folk Legend. SleuthSayers (1 ed.). Charleston: History Press. ISBN 978-1626190436.  External link in |work= (help)
  7. ^ Bill Cissna (2006-09-13). "North Carolina hills hold tale of Tom Dooley". The Atlanta-Journal Constitution. Retrieved 2007-10-21. 
  8. ^ "Dula's Confederate muster card" (PDF). p. 17. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f Lundin, Leigh (2010-02-21). "Who Killed Laura Foster?". Tom Dula. Criminal Brief. 
  10. ^ Lopresti, Rob (2010-01-17). "Boy Kills Girl". Tom Dooley. Criminal Brief. Retrieved 2010-02-21. 
  11. ^ Waltz, Robert B. & Enge, David G. "Murder of Laura Foster, The [Laws F36]". The Ballad Index. Fresno State University. 
  12. ^ Trimble, Marshall (September 25, 2009). "Ask the Marshall: What is the story behind the folk song 'Tom Dooley?'". True West Magazine. 
  13. ^ The Legend of Tom Dooley at the Internet Movie Database; retrieved on 2007-10-19
  14. ^ Jay, Abner (2003). "VD". One Man Band (CD, Compilation ed.). Sweden: Subliminal Sounds – SUBCD7. 
  15. ^ "Tom Dooley". Macabre Minstres: Morbid Campfire Songs. Decomposed Records. 2002. 
  16. ^ Windows to the Sky feat. SJ Jucker. "Tom Dula: Madness Made Us Wild; a Play in Five Verses and a Hanging". CDBaby. Retrieved February 12, 2015. 
  17. ^ "Rectify Season 2 Music Round-up". Sundance TV. August 27, 2015. 

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