Tom Dula, pronounced Dooley in North Carolina, was a 22-year-old Civil War veteran hanged for murder in 1868. The events that brought him to that end is the source of legend, song and film.Credit: Public Domain
Before the Civil War, Tom Dula was involved with a woman named Anne Foster. When she was about 14 years old, she married James Melton. After he returned to Wilkes County, North Carolina from the war, Dula and Melton continued their relationship even though she was married. When Melton's cousin, Pauline Foster, came to town for syphilis treatment she worked for the Melton's as a maid, and no one knew why she was there. Anne Melton may have instigated a relationship between Tom and Pauline to throw suspicion away from her affair with Dula. Of course, Dula contracted syphilis, which he gave to Anne and another cousin of Anne and Pauline, Laurie Foster. Anne's husband, James, also contacted the disease. When Dula found out he had syphilis, he thought he got it from Laurie, and vowed revenge.
Laurie Foster was last seen with her father's horse on May 25, 1866. She told a friend she was going off to marry Tom Dula. The horse returned later with a broken rein. Several searches failed to find Laurie. In June, when rumors started to circulate that Dula had killed her, Tom left North Carolina for Tennessee. He found work for Col. James Grayson. A warrant for Dula's arrest was filed, and Grayson helped in the arrest when he found out about the warrant. Dula was put in the Wilkesboro, North Carolina jail in early July.
When Pauline was questioned, she said Anne had showed her the grave and she led them to the site. The decomposing body was identified as Laura Foster. During the trial, the relationships between Tom, Anne, Pauline and Laura became known. A Grand Jury found Tom Dula and Anne Melton guilty of the murder. After a retrial and at the end of several appeals, Dula wrote that he alone was responsible for Laurie Foster's murder. He was hanged on May 1, 1868. Anne was acquitted of the crime because of Dula's confession. She died in the 1870s due to complications from syphilis. Some say she was out of her head and saw demon cats around her bed.
The story had wide coverage at the time. It was covered in New York and other big city newspapers and became well known. As with most stories and legends, they change to reflect the bias of the teller, improve and embellish the story, improve the image of one of the participants to make them an innocent bystander. The tale of Tom Dula is no different. Some stories have Laurie Foster pregnant, and she pressured Dula to marry her. Other accounts have Grayson as a Sheriff who is in love with Laurie, and pursuing Dula to frame him for the murder.
The story that Dula sang the song on his way to the hanging is probably a myth. The song "Tom Dooley," may have been written by Thomas Land shortly after Dula's hanging. Another source has it coming from Frank Proffitt's grandmother in Watauga County, North Carolina. Alan Lomex included the Frank Proffitt version in his folklore collection "Folk Songs USA". The Kingston Trio recorded it on their first album, which they sold only at their concerts. It became popular when disk jockey bought one, played it on the radio, and convinced disk jockey friends to play it. In1958, the song "Tom Dooley," by the Kingston Trio became a worldwide hit, and number 1 in several countries. This folk hit was responsible for the popularity of folk music revival in the U.S. Many folk groups, folk albums and clubs became popular because of it. Many recordings of it have been made of the song since then. Doc Watson recorded a version in the 1960s he heard while growing up. Watson's great-grandmother at was present at Anne Melton's death.
Michael Landon played Tom Dooly in a 1959 movie. The story followed the Kingston Trio recording, but didn't rely on the facts. A German company made a movie on the story and set it in South America.
Tom Dula's story is part of North Carolina history. A decendant, John Foster West, wrote a book, "The Ballad of Tom Dula" about the affair. The gravesites and location where the murder occurred are tourist attractions with historical markers, museums, plays, reenactments and gift shops. The song is still played in the area. Tom Dula's story is a tale as modern as todays news.