Telling the Tall Tale Behind the Ballad of Tom Dooley
SunPost Weekly September 22, 2011 John Hood
On May Day, 1868, in the town of Statesville, North Carolina, a man named Tom Dula was hanged for murder. The victim, a slip of a woman named Laura Foster, had been stabbed to death and hastily buried on a ridge in nearby Wilkes County. Dula was believed to have been the last person to see her alive. More damagingly, Laura had told folks she and Tom were running away together; though in fact they had no such plans. Yes, the two had a long and carnal relationship. But Dula told authorities it meant nothing. He most certainly didn't care enough to kill her.
There was of course a third party to this sordid story -- Dula's married lover Ann Melton, who was also believed to be involved in Foster's death and at the time of the hanging was in jail awaiting her own murder trial. Tom and Ann had been rutting about like wild animals since they both first learned of the birds and the bees. Since that time there'd been a Civil War (which took Tom away for awhile). Then there was Ann's marriage (which didn't take him away from her much at all). For all intents and purposes, these two were meant for each other.
On the eve of his execution, Dula performed what was perhaps the only gallant deed of his short and shiftless life: he wrote out a note claiming sole responsibility for the killing of Laura Foster. As a result, Ann was subsequently freed.
As you've by now probably guessed, the legend of Tom Dula eventually became a song called "Tom Dooley," arguably the most well-known murder ballad every written. But The Kingston Trio's version of the story is just one of the legend's many renderings; it's also factually inaccurate. Worse, it makes Dula (pronounced "Dooley" in the Appalachian foothill country dialect) sound like some sad sap killer. Turning to Sharyn McCrumb's right and riveting The Ballad of Tom Dooley (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's $24.99) however, we learn that the man probably was no such thing.
That's not to say Dula was blameless. As most folks suspect, then and now (and as McCrumb so vividly writes), it was Ann who did the killing. Dula simply buried the body. And though he was by all accounts nothing but a no account womanizer (such as it was), Dula went to his death with his head held high.
Why? Well maybe because Tom truly did love the loathsome Ann. Then again, it could simply have been a case of pragmatism. "The truth is Laura Foster wasn't worth the forfeit of two lives," McCrumb has him saying near his end, "and there seems to be no hope in saving mine."
Glowing postmortem consensus to the contrary, Dula wasn't the only one who believed Laura Foster to be pretty much worthless. The folks in the inexplicably-named Happy Valley settlement that the gangly gal called home believed her to be somewhat of a slut, despite her having stuck around to keep house and care for the mess of young siblings her mother had died and left behind. Even Laura's own father Wilson was more concerned with his stolen mare than he was with his runaway daughter when she was initially reported missing. Horses of course being something of premium for a tenant farmer in post Civil War South.
But nobody saw Laura with as much callous disregard as a certain Pauline Foster, who considered her "drab little cousin" with the "broom-straw hair" to be nothing but a means to the end of their hated cousin Ann. Not that the perilous Pauline had a "particular score to settle with" her unseemly second cousin, mind you. "[O]ther than the fact that somebody loved her," she harbored no actionable malice, and was content to watch the dowdy second cousin "bring about her own ruin." There was a point though, after Laura went missing and the busybodies and do-gooders were running around trying to ferret out where she went, when Pauline did seem almost spiteful over what was expected of her.
"People thought that we Fosters should care more than other people about what happened to our cousin, being blood kin, but if anything, I think we cared less, for we knew her better, and she wasn't much use to anybody."
That's Pauline being kind. What really put a skip into her step were the many and constant notions of how best to harm others, particularly fair-haired cousin Ann, who was the target of most of Pauline's more diabolical plans. Like a horticulturalist overseeing a bed of rare flowers, Pauline "never ran out of... little seedlings of mischief to tend to." In McCrumb's able hands, the garden literally bursts with ugly and vicious blooms. As a result, Pauline Foster becomes one of the most despicable women in fiction -- and in fact.
Yes, we must never forget this legend is indeed based on fact. That much of said fact was full of discrepancies is what compelled McCrumb to get to the truth of the deadly matter in the first place. That it took fiction for her to get there only makes everything more compelling.
This isn't the first book devoted to the ballad of Tom Dooley (John Foster West's The Ballad of Tom Dula: The Documented Story Behind the Murder of Laura Foster served as McCrumb's starting point). It's not McCrumb's first foray into backwoods gallows either. In 1998, she wrote a New York Times bestseller entitled The Ballad of Frankie Silver , which chronicled the life and death of the first woman hanged for murder in North Carolina. Here McCrumb allows her research to lead us into utter vitriol. And, aside from former North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance (who was recruited to defend both Dula and Melton) and the stoic James Melton (who was resigned to take life -- and his wife -- as it came), not a person in this story rouses even a sliver of sympathy.
Had a man retold this tale, one would think he hated women -- or at least believed most of them to be whores. That this was written by a woman removes such thoughts. Instead we're left with a very violent likelihood. The kinda very violent likelihood of which the best murder ballads are made -- and of which the best murder books are crafted.