Saturday, November 17, 2012

1958: Tom Dooley Hits # 1 on Music Charts ... Based on a notorious North Carolina Murder

On November 17, 1958, the Kingston Trio hist #1 on the Billboard charts with the song "Tom Dooley." Bob Dylan and Joan Baez may have gotten their political and musical inspiration from folk music legends Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, but their commercial appeal can be traced to the success of the Kingston Trio. With their clean-cut looks, smiling faces and winsome harmonies coupled with banjo strumming, the Trio put a non-threatening face on the folk music culture of the 1950s, and brought the music into mainstream America.

Their most popular song, "Tom Dooley" has one of the most interesting and sinister back stories of any American popular song.    

Tom Dula: The Murder of Laura Foster, and the Birth of a Legend
Victims: 1

  Happy Valley sits on the Yadkin River in Wilkes County, North Carolina.  Tom Dula was a happy-go-lucky man with many lady admirers, in particular cousins Laura and Anne Foster.. Even though both girls were sought after by several other men, they both had a special fondness for Tom. He was so unlike all the other men. He was happy, and fun, always singing and playing his banjo. He played for the local square dances and was a very popular young man with the ladies around the community. 
   But he also had a cruel side. Most men remembered him as “quite a mean individual.” He was also considered a “womanizer of a very low level.”
   Laura and Ann Foster were not genteel southern bells from polite society. They were country farm girls. Ann's mother, Lottie Foster, discovered Tom and Ann in bed together when they were just fourteen years old. Both women had a reputation of being loose with their bodies who would have sex with anyone. Ann was also considered “mean as hell” by the locals. Today, they would be called white trash.
  March 1862. Like most of the men in the south, Tom joined the Confederate cause when he was seventeen years old. As a private, he served as regiment musician and soldier. He served under Colonel Zebulon B. Vance, a former governor of North Carolina, and saw action at Morehead City and the battle of Swift Creek in February 1864.
   March 10,1864. Tom was captured and taken to Point Lookout, Maryland as a prisoner of war. He returned home after the Civil War, the survivior of many brutal battles and harsh treatment, but his war heroism was second to his real claim to fame - music. Just as he had entertained the people of Happy Valley with his music, Tom had often entertained his Confederate comrades-in-arms around the campfire with his banjo-playing and singing. It gave them a few moments of joy between long marches and bloody battles.
   June 10, 1865. Tom signed the oath of allegiance and returned to Happy Valley. He discovered that during ihs absence Ann had married James Melton, so Tom began to woo Laura, even though she had several other suitors. Bob Grayson, a local school teacher, was totally smitten with Laura and wanted her for his wife. Laura and Tom met secretly at night. However, Tom was also seeing the married Ann Melton on the sly. Ann had discovered that, marriage or not, her passion for Dula had not waned at all, so the two cousins, shared Dula as their lover.
   Tom finally proposed to Laura and she accepted. They planned an elopement.
  Friday, May 24, 1866. That evening, Laura packed a few clothes and snuck out of her family's house, hopped on her old horse, Belle, and rode off quietly into the night to rendezvous with Tom Dula. She was never seen again.
   Most locals initally suspected Laura had eloped with Dula, but the family organize search parties were formed, but to no avail. Three weeks after Laura's disappearance, Belle was discovered tied to a tree in a hidden copse of thick brush. The soil around was disturbed with horse tracks. By this time, most people thought Laura's body had been dumped in theYadkin River.
   Months later, Ann's relationship with the third Foster sister, Perline, was on edge. Ann had always been critical of her younger sister, but lately the criticism had become more pointed.
   Perline told Ann, “You better be careful, or I'll tell what I know about Laura.”
   “You wouldn't dare,” Ann retorted. “You're as deep in the mud as I am in the mire.”
   Soon the authorities were suspicious of the women's behavior, sure that the women had information about Laura's disappearance. They were taken in for questioning. Perline broke down and shouted, “Tom Dula killed Laura! And Ann has taken me to the grave!” 
   Perline told them where Laura's body was buried. The search party, led by Bob Grayson, began their grim task of looking for Laura's grave. When James Isbell's horse became nervous and shied away from an area of loose dirt the men started digging and unearthed the body of Laura  Foster. Her legs had been broken and there was large wound was found  in her breast. They also found a small bag of Laura's clothing and one other thing -  Bob Grayson found a lady's handkerchief which he claimed did not belong to Laura.   
   Laura's body was brought home and she was buried on a high hill known ever since as "Laura Foster Hill".
   The handkerchief was identified as belonging Ann Melton. She was arrested as an accomplice in the murder of Laura Foster. As she was led away she shouted, “They'll never put a rope around this pretty neck!”
   However, Bob Grayson would not be satisfied until he had the true murderer of his love - Tom Dula,
   July 1866.  A man walked onto the farm of Lt. Col. James W. M. Grayson near Trade, Tennessee. He said his name was Tom Hall from Wilkes County and that he wanted to work just long enough to earn money for a new pair of boots. His were falling apart. Grayson put Tom to work as a hired hand and by July 10, Tom had his new boots and was gone.                                                                                                                                                             
   Later that afternoon the posse fromWilkes County arrived at Colonel Grayson's farm, led by Bob Grayson, no relation.  They told the colonel they werelooking for a man named Tom Dula. From their description of the man, the colonel knew they were looking for his hired man, Tom Hall.                                                                                      The colonel joined with the posse to search for Dula. Nine miles west of Taylorsville (now Mountain City) a place called Pandora they fuond Dula sitting on a rock in the creek soaking his feet. His new boots had rubbed blisters. The colonel dismounted  and told Tom he was under arrest, but when members of the posse began to discuss hanging Tom then and there,  the colonel pulled out his gun. He told the posse that Tom was going to get a fair trial. Tom insisted that he was not guilty.
   Three weeks after Laura's body had been found, the posse rode into town. Colonel Grayson was in the lead followed by Tom Dula with his hands shackled behind his back.   
   A crowd had gathered. Dula, unconcerned as he always was, asked that he be un-shackeled and so he could play a little tune on his banjo for the crowd.  He was incarcerated by A. T. Ferguson and quickly joined by Ann Foster Milton in an adjoining cell.   
  Colonel Zebulon Vance, Tom's former commander and governor, agreed to defend Tom. He negotiated a change of venue because the local people were so passionate against Tom and several continuances. It wasn't until the spring of 1868 that tom went on trial for the murder of Laura Foster.

   The trial was held in Statesville, about thirty miles from Wilksboro, Judge Ralph Burton presiding. Most of the evidence was circumstantial.
    Evidence was introduced that Tom Dula and Ann Foster Milton were having an affair, “criminal intercourse” the court record called it. Tom had contracted syphilis, possibly from either Laura or Ann. Several locals testified that Tom was so outraged about the disease that several times he threatened to “put through” whoever had given him the infection.  
   Bob Grayson brought Betsey Scott as a witness and she testified that she had talked to Laura Foster the day before she disappeared. Laura claimed she was going to “the Bates place” to meet Dula. On Thursday Tom had borrowed a mattock - a shovel - from Ann's mother . He was seen Thursday afternoon near the Bate's place. Ann was also seen leaving town on Thursday and wasn't seen again until Friday morning. When she arrived home her dress and shoes were wet and muddy.  
   The prosecution claimed that Tom's motive for murder was his anger at contracting a venereal disease; Ann's motive was her jealously of Tom and Laura's impending marriage. Other's claimed that Laura's murder was done out of mercy. There was no cure for syphilis in the 19th century and victims faced an agonizing death, so Tom killed her so she would not have to endure the approaching suffering.  
   During the defense Tom insisted he was innocent, but Vance could not get Tom to testify against anyone else. He refused to say anything about his relationship with Ann, or with Laura Foster. He was pronounced guilty and sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead.   
   May 1, 1868. Tom Dula rode through the streets of Statesville in a wagon for the last time.  He sat on the top of his coffin with his banjo on his  knee, joking with the throng of  people walking along. He played his favorite ballad and laughed as the wagon neared the gallows.  
   As the rope was placed around his neck, he joked with Sheriff W. E. Watson, "I would have washed my neck if I had  known you were using such a nice clean new rope". 
   Asked if he had any last words to say, Tom Dula held up his right hand and replied,  "Gentlemen, do you see this hand?  Do you see it tremble?  Do you see it shake?  I never hurt a hair on the  girl's head".
   The trap door was dropped.
   The drop did not break his neck. He performed “the dead man's dance” for more than five minutes, meaning he kicked his feet in the air while he was being strangled to death. After ten minutes, he still had a pulse. Thirteen minutes after he was dropped, Tom Dula was pronounced dead by the attending physician. 
   Tom was buried in a cemetery in Happy Valley on the side of the old North  Wilkesboro Road near Elksville, North Carolina, near where Big Elkin Creek  meets the Yadkin River a few miles northeast of Roaring River.   
  Vance also defended Ann Melton. People in town thought she was a witch, and that evil lived within her, but she was found not guilty. For the rest of her life the shadow of Laura's murder followed her, but one day the shadow caught up with her. She was killed in a freak accident, a wagon overturning crushed her.

   The graves of Laura and Ann are visited each year by thousands of tourists. Tom Dula's grave is on private  property and not open to the public. The "Tom Dooley" museum is located in Ferguson, North Carolina at the Whippoorwill Academy and Village. Tourists can also visit the Old Wilkes Jail where Tom and Ann were held before their trials.

   The famous 'Ballad of Tom Dooley' was written by a local poet, Thomas C. Land,  at the time of Dula's hanging. It became very popular among the mountain people. In 1958, the Kingston Trio had a #1 song with their version of the song titled 'Tom Dooley'.

(traditional; as performed by the Kingston Trio)

Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
Hang down your head and cry
Hang down your  head, Tom Dooley
Poor boy, you're bound to die
I met her on the mountain
There I took her life
Met her on the mountain
Stabbed her with my knife

Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
Hang down your head and cry
Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
Poor boy, you're bound to die

This time tomorrow
Reckon where  I'll be
Hadn't a-been for Grayson
I'd a-been in Tennessee

Hang down your head, Tom  Dooley
Hang down your head and cry
Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
Poor boy, you're bound to die

This time tomorrow
Reckon where I'll be
Down in some lonesome  valley
Hangin' from a white oak tree

Hang down your head,  Tom  Dooley
Hang down your head and cry
Hang down your head,  Tom Dooley
Poor  boy, you're bound to die

Hang down your  head, Tom Dooley
Hang down  your head and cry
Hang down your  head, Tom Dooley
Poor boy, you're bound  to die

Poor  boy, you're bound to die
Poor boy you're bound to  die
Poor  boy, you're bound to die...

No comments: