Tom Dula

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Thomas C. Dula
Tom Dula soldier.jpg
Born (1846-06-22)June 22, 1846[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. 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 hung 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 the murder of Laura Foster, 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", Ann (later Melton) and her cousins Laura and Pauline.[7]

As the children grew up, Tom and Ann apparently became intimate. Ann Foster's mother found Ann and Tom in bed together when Ann was only fourteen years old. Three months before his eighteenth birthday, on 15 March 1862, he 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 Ann 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. This also puts to rest the rumors that he “played the banjo” in the army band for the Colonel's benefit, or that he entertained Colonel Vance with his antics. These were often cited as the reason that Vance was so quick to lead the defense of Dula during his 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. Dula would not escape 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. 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, Ann Foster, a local beauty, married an older man, James Melton, who was a farmer, cobbler, and neighbor of both Ann and Tom. Melton also served in the Civil War, fighting in the battle of Gettysburg.[6] Both men were taken prisoner and at the end of the war returned home. Shortly after arriving home, Dula resumed his relationship with Ann. Given his reputation as a libertine,[2][9] it did not take Dula long to also begin an intimate relationship with Ann'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 Ann Melton. Some believe Ann murdered Laura Foster because she was still in love with Dula and was jealous of Laura because Dula was marrying her. Others believe that Dula knew or suspected that Ann had murdered Laura, but because he still loved Ann he refused to implicate her after he was arrested and took the blame for the murder. Ultimately, it was Ann's word that led to the discovery of Laura's body, leading to further speculation as to Ann's guilt. Ann's cousin, Pauline Foster, testified that Ann 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 Ann. The local doctor testified that he had treated both Tom and Ann 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 Ann 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 back-woods 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 of 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 his 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, Ann Melton was acquitted. As he stood on the gallows facing death, he 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 the murder of Laura Foster.[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, Ann—– apparently despairing of ever seeing Tom again– met and married an older farmer, James Melton. In reality, Ann 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 the relationship between Tom and Ann.[10]

Another popular myth claims Ann Melton confessed to the murder on her deathbed. According to hearsay, Ann 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 Ann 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 shortly after Dula was hanged. This, combined with the widespread publicity the trial received, further cemented Dula’s place in North Carolina legend. The song written by Land is still sung today throughout North Carolina.

Several recordings were made of the song in the twentieth century, with the first in 1929 by Grayson and Whitter.[10][11][12][13] The most popular version was recorded by The Kingston Trio in 1958.[4] It sold over six million copies[citation needed] and is widely credited with starting the "folk boom" of this time period, and was named by the Grammy Foundation as one of the Songs of the Century.[10]

The Trio's song was covered in the United Kingdom by Lonnie Donegan later in 1958.

The introduction of Abner Jay's song "VD" discusses the story of Tom Dooley, but does not sing the song.

In 1959, Michael Landon was given the role of Dula in the movie The Legend of Tom Dooley.[14] The movie was not based on the facts of Dula’s life, except in the very loosest sense, and neither was it based on any traditional Tom Dula legends. It was rather a fictional treatment inspired by the lyrics of the song.

Also in 1959, Stonewall Jackson's U.S. country music and Billboard hit song "Waterloo" makes reference to Tom Dooley in the final verse.

The members of Macabre, known for their death metal, also put out an album of acoustic folk songs; among them is a song titled "Tom Dooley", about his death, but not exactly the same as the traditional ballad.

The music project Windows to Sky released a version of "Tom Dooley" under his real name of "Tom Dula", with the alternate title "Madness Made Us Wild", which combines elements of several versions of the story and song, including adapting quotes from the original court transcripts as lyrics.[15]

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

Neil Young's 2012 album Americana features a song called "Tom Dula", a re-working of Thomas Land's original poem.


  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. ^ a b 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. 
  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, p. 17."
  9. ^ a b c d e f Lundin, Leigh (2010-02-21). "Who Killed Laura Foster?". Tom Dula. Criminal Brief. 
  10. ^ a b c Lopresti, Rob (2010-01-17). "Boy Kills Girl". Tom Dooley. Criminal Brief. Retrieved 2010-02-21. 
  11. ^ ed. John & Alan Lomax, ed. (1947). Folk Song USA. Duell, Sloan and Pearce. ISBN 978-0452253070. 
  12. ^ "G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter". Our Musical Heritage– Biographies. Bristol, Tn: Birthplace of Country Music Alliance. 2007-09-30. 
  13. ^ "Grayson & Whitter". Artist Biography. CMT. 2009-10-18. Retrieved 2010-02-23. 
  14. ^ The Legend of Tom Dooley at the Internet Movie Database; retrieved on 2007-10-19
  15. ^ "Tom Dula: Madness Made Us Wild; a Play in Five Verses and a Hanging". Song Description. Retrieved 2015-02-12. 

External links[edit]