Deep in the North Carolina Appalachians, the people believe passionately in a sense of justice and they also like to tell some stories. Both are perhaps a result of the people’s Scotch-Irish ancestry, and if you’ve ever traveled to these parts, you know what I mean. The locals like to tell legendary tales of moonshiners, bootleggers, and unrepentant Confederate soldiers who lived above the law and often paid for it with their lives. Many of these legends have been turned into songs, creating a genre known as “murder ballads.”
Chances are, you’ve heard one of these ballads: the 1958 hit “Tom Dooley” by the Kingston Trio.
If haven’t heard the song, it is actually quite dark and depressing for an otherwise optimistic era in American history. The song relates how a young man named Tom Dooley came back home to North Carolina from the Civil War and got involved in a love triangle. He killed the woman he was cheating on his girlfriend with, was caught for the crime, and hanged after a trial. The Kingston Trio’s song was taken directly from the local legends.
But the local legends were based on facts.
The real Tom Dooley was a man named Tom Dula who was born in Wilkes County, North Carolina in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains in 1845. Due to the people’s accent in that part of Appalachia, Dula’s last name was pronounced with a long “e” sound.
Dula was quite the player with the ladies around the county when he was a young man, getting involved in an on-again, off-again relationship with a girl named Anne Foster and, later, two of her cousins, Laura and Pauline Foster. He was said to be a skilled musician and very articulate and literate for a backwoodsman with little formal education.
But Tom Dula’s carefree life had to be put on hold when he went to fight for the Confederacy.
Anne Foster had married a man named James Melton before the war, but as fate would have it, both Dula and Melton were captured by Union forces and spent time in the same military prison. Both men returned to Wilkes County, which is when things got interesting.
And a bit confusing.
Melton returned to his wife Anne, but Dula continued to see her, as well as Laura and Pauline. Eventually, Laura went missing and was later discovered dead, and Dula was on the run. When Dula was captured a short time later in another county, his guilt sure looked certain to most people. Even after his trial was moved to another county, he was still convicted and hanged from the end of a rope.
But the reality is that there was no physical evidence tying him to the murder, and there were other reasonable suspects.
The ballad contends that Laura was pregnant when she died, which means that the list of possible suspects of her murder is lengthy. The prosecution argued that Dula killed Laura to cover up his indiscretion so that he could continue his freewheeling lifestyle. But Anne was a potential suspect due to jealousy; she also made incriminating statements to family members. The ballad mentions a man named “Grayson” as a jealous rival or perhaps one of the many men Dula cuckolded in his short life. Perhaps the murderer was one of these men?
Tom Dula proclaimed his innocence until the very end.