June 22, 2015

It Happened on June 22nd

"Tom Dooley" Born, 1845

The real Tom Dula.
In the Appalachian area where he was born and died, Tom Dula's name was pronounced "Dooley." You've probably heard of him -- the Kingston Trio version of the song about him sold over six million copies.

Tom Dula was a real person, however. He was born on June 22, 1845 and was executed on May 1, 1868 for the murder of Laura Foster. Other than that, the details are a little hazy.

We do know that Tom was born to a poor family in Wilkes County, North Carolina. He joined the Confederate Army three months before he turned 18, and served there until the war ended.

He appears to have been somewhat of a ladies' man. He and a neighbor, Ann Foster, had been lovers before he left for the war, and they apparently resumed the relationship when he returned, even though Ann had married James Melton in the meantime. (Some accounts indicate she was married before he left.)

He also seems to have been involved with Pauline (sometimes called Perline) Foster, a cousin of Ann's -- some say at Ann's instigation, to prevent her husband about finding out about her own affair with Tom. He also may have had an affair with another cousin of Ann's, Laura Foster. It seems that all four individuals had syphilis, and it seems that Pauline was most likely the one who infected Tom.

James Grayson turned him in.
Laura -- according to some accounts, and disputed by others -- was pregnant. On the last day of her life she was seen by a neighbor, riding her father's horse. She told the neighbor that she was going to Tennessee, and that she was going to be married there. When her father was told the news, he said that he didn't care whether or not he ever saw his daughter again, but that he wanted his horse back.

Mr. Foster did get his horse back. It returned a few days later with a broken rein, as though it had been tethered and had escaped. No one looked for Laura for awhile; she was assumed to be safely in Tennessee. Tom, however, was still in town. If Laura had eloped, it had been with somebody else.

According to local lore, it was Pauline who found the body. She told officials that Ann had told her where it was buried, and when they looked, there she was. She had been stabbed multiple times with a large knife. One of the stab wounds had pierced her heart.

At about this time, rumors began to circulate that Tom Dula had done the deed. He found it expedient to leave town, and started making his way for the state border, to Tennessee. Along the way, his boots wore out, and he found it necessary to take temporary employment, at least until he could afford a new pair of boots. He found work with James Grayson, a former lieutenant colonel in the Union Army.

The former Governor defended him.
After a short while, Tom had earned enough for a new pair of boots, and had moved on. Soon after that the posse arrived, and Grayson recognized that the description they furnished fit his former hired hand, who had passed himself off as Tom Hall. Grayson joined the posse, and soon found Tom sitting by a stream bathing his feet. His new boots had blistered his feet.

Tom was brought back for trial, and defended by Zebulon Baird Vance, the former Governor of North Carolina. He insisted that he hadn't killed Laura, but was found guilty. An appeal to the Supreme Court of North Carolina resulted in another trial, and he was found guilty once again.

Historical Marker
Before his execution, Tom wrote a 15-page account that exonerated Ann Melton. He was hanged, not from a "white oak tree" as the song says, but from a post near the train depot. His neck did not break, but he strangled slowly, taking about 10 minutes to die. Just before he was executed, he claimed "I never hurt a hair on that girl's head."

Did Tom Dula kill Laura Foster, and if so, why? Was he upset about the pregnancy and didn't want to get married? Did he blame Laura for the syphilis? Was Laura actually on her way to marry someone else and had she and Tom had a falling out?

Some believe that Tom didn't commit the murder, but that Laura was killed by Ann in jealousy, or even by Pauline. Even Tom's 15-page document is a little suspicious, considering that when he joined the army he signed his name with an X -- he was apparently illiterate.

And here are the Kingston Trio singing their 1959 hit:

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