In 1958, the Kingston Trio made a recording of a ballad fragment based on a sensational 1866 murder that occurred in the mountains of western North Carolina. They are said to have learned it from a man named Frank Proffitt. The details given in their version are frustratingly vague: only the name of the putative murderer–Tom Dooley–is given, and he, in first person, allows that he met some anonymous her on the mountain and stabbed her to death. A man named Grayson, whom Tom blames for his arrest, is mentioned in passing, and the ballad ends conventionally, with Tom bewailing his fate; he has been sentenced to hang.
In 1964, the legendary North Carolina guitarist/singer Doc Watson recorded an alternate version of the song. Doc, interestingly, grew up a bare five miles from Frank Proffitt, but the two songs on the same topic could not be more different.
In Doc’s version, we learn that the victim’s name was Laura “Laurie” Foster, that the killer “hid her clothes and shoes”, that they were apparently running away to be married, that he buried her in a shallow grave. No cause of death is given for “poor Laurie Foster”. Grayson is given the title of sheriff. And we learn that Tom Dooley was a fairly good oldtime fiddle player.
Embedded in the midst of this information, though, is this verse, which puts a whole new complexion on the story.
I know they’re gonna hang me,
Tomorrow I’ll be dead,
Though I never even harmed a hair
On poor little Laurie’s head. . .
Novelist Sharyn McCrumb, whose 2011 book The Ballad of Tom Dooley, is based on the murder of Laura Foster and the subsequent hanging of Tom Dooley, makes a very strong case for the truth of this verse. She researched the surviving trial records and local lore for several years before writing the book. On a trip to North Carolina, which she detailed for Blue Ridge magazine, she was told again and again by locals that Tom was not the murderer. The constant verdict was Ann did it.
His surname was not Dooley; it was actually spelled Dula, although it was pronounced Dooley. In 1866, when he was accused of killing a local woman named Laura Foster, he was barely twenty years old and only a year home from the Civil War. And–shall we say–he had quite a reputation as a ladies’ man.
His one true love, it seems, was a childhood sweetheart named Ann Foster. And there is one fact in this tangled tale that is beyond dispute: Ann Foster was a staggeringly beautiful–and staggeringly selfish–woman. She came from a family that had a reputation for promiscuity, but she had married a respectable local farmer and shoemaker named James Melton in 1859, and was, by 1866, the mother of two. Her marriage, however, was no insurmountable bar to a continuing sexual relationship with Tom Dula. She and Tom often made love and slept together in a bed with James Melton sleeping alone in a separate bed in the same room.
Among other women with whom Dula was involved were cousins of Ann Melton: Pauline Foster and Laura Foster. Pauline Foster had come over the mountains from Tennessee early in 1866, and she became a catalyst for murder.
Pauline Foster was being treated for pox; not smallpox, but syphilis, by a Wilkes County doctor. It is believed that she infected Tom Dula, who in turn infected both Ann Melton and Laura Foster.
Laura Foster was described in newspapers of the time as beautiful but frail—frail being a euphemism for promiscuous. Although of marriageable age, she was keeping house for her widowed father and raising several younger brothers. Rumor had it that she was engaged to Tom Dula (although he had been heard several times to declare he cared absolutely nothing for the girl) and that they were planning to run away to be wed.
(It is a measure of the brutality of Laura’s short life that her father declared, after her disappearance, that he didn’t care if she never came back, but he did want his mare back.)
Sometime on or around May 26, 1866, Laura Foster took a bundle of her clothing and a pair of leather shoes (made for her by James Melton), stole her father’s mare, and left home. The mare came home a couple of days later, unharmed. Laura was never seen alive again.
Tom Dula was suspected from the beginning of having done away with Laura; both he and Ann Melton apparently suspected she was the source of the pox, although Tom had also been intimate with Pauline Foster, who undoubtedly had the pox at the time of their relations, while Laura did not.
Laura’s body, buried in a shallow, four-foot-long grave, was finally located in August of 1866. Dr. Carter–the local physician who was also treating Pauline Foster for syphilis–found that she had died of a single stab wound through the ribs, and put paid to another rumor: she had not been pregnant at the time of her death.
Tom Dula ran away first to Watauga County, where he worked for a farmer named Grayson for a few weeks before crossing over into Tennessee. He was captured by North Carolina sheriff’s officers in Trade, Tennessee, and returned to North Carolina.
He and Ann Foster Melton, based on the testimony of Pauline Foster, were both charged with murder. Tom, twice convicted, was hanged in May 1868, two years after Laura’s murder. Before he was hanged, he laboriously wrote out a statement in which he completely exonerated Ann. She was acquitted and sent home. Several years later, she died, still in her thirties, possibly of tertiary syphilis. Doc Watson, whose great-grandmother was at Ann’s deathbed, said the dying woman complained continually of black cats stalking the room and–perversely significant–of a sound like frying bacon.
The mountain people, though, believe Ann was the actual killer of Laura Foster–and not only because she suspected Laura of passing the pox to Tom and thus to her, but for the oldest motive in the world: jealousy.
McCrumb, after studying trial transcripts and newspapers of the period, concurs. Her novel about the case, therefore, is not a whodunnit, but a whydunnit–and her contention is that Ann Melton was provoked to a killing rage through the machinations of Pauline Foster. Tom Dula, in this view, literally did not even harm a hair on poor little Laurie’s head; he merely helped small-framed and lazy Ann bury the body.
Some of her points–such as the identity of the man Laura Foster was meeting the morning she disappeared (it wasn’t Tom)–are purely speculative, but in the absence of other facts as plausible as any. The most compelling aspect of her story, however, is the presentation of the character of Pauline Melton–a homely, loveless female Iago who sets out to destroy her cousin Ann out of sheer hatred and tangles two relative innocents in the web.
If you’re interested in historical fiction, this novel is definitely worth a read.
In passing let me note that I have never run across any references to ghosts of Tom, Laura, or Ann. McCrumb herself points out that she regards the story as an Appalachian version of Wuthering Heights–which I regard as somewhat of a stretch, but what the hey, it’s her story–and has one character blatantly crib from Bronte and declare that he could not imagine “unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”
So, it seems, that whatever their trials in life, they rest in peace.
Laura and Ann are buried in marked graves, as is Tom. As for Pauline Foster, she is said to have given birth to a mixed-race child after having married a much older man; beyond that, she simply disappears from the historical record.
For the record: I was convinced of Ann Melton’s guilt from the first time I heard Doc’s version of the ballad, thirty years or more ago. Call it woman’s intuition. 😉