Thomas C. Dula (June 22, 1845 – May 1, 1868) was a former Confederate soldier, who was tried, convicted, and hanged for the murder of his fiancée, Laura Foster. While the murder happened in Wilkes County, North Carolina, the trial, conviction, and execution took place in Statesville, North Carolina. There was considerable controversy around his conviction and execution. In subsequent years, a folk song was written (entitled "Tom Dooley", based on the pronunciation in the local dialect), and many oral traditions were passed down, regarding the sensational occurrences surrounding the murder of Foster, and Dula's subsequent execution. The Kingston Trio recorded a hit version of the murder ballad in 1958, initiating the "folk music" craze that became an important part of American music for several years thereafter.
Tom Dula was born to a poor Appalachian hill country family in Wilkes County, North Carolina, most likely the youngest of three brothers, with one younger sister, Eliza. The young Dula grew up, attended school, and "probably played with the female Fosters", Ann (later Melton), and Laura, her younger cousin. As the children grew up, Tom and Ann apparently became close, falling in love at some point. Three months before his eighteenth birthday, on March 15, 1862, he signed up as a private in Company K in the Forty Second North Carolina Infantry Regiment and served until 1865. Surprisingly, there is some evidence that Dula was literate, as according to accounts at the time, he wrote a 15-page account of his life, as well as the note that exonerated Ann Melton. His literacy is highly unusual given his station in life, and the incredible poverty of his upbringing. During the three years Tom spent in the military, Ann--apparently despairing of ever seeing Tom again--met and married an older farmer, James Melton. This would become a pivotal decision in events that were to come.
Contrary to newspaper accounts at the time, Dula did not serve in Zebulon Vance's North Carolina 26th. This also puts the lie to the rumors that he “played the banjo” in the army band for the Colonel's benefit, or that he entertained Colonel Vance with his antics. These were often cited as the reason that the then Governor Vance leapt so quickly to lead the defense of Dula during his trial. It seems more likely that Governor Vance simply believed in Dula's innocence or thought that defending a Confederate veteran in the high-profile case would be politically beneficial. Dula would not escape the war completely unscathed, as folklore, oral tradition, and a few modern writers have held. Instead he suffered various injuries throughout the course of the fighting. Each of his brothers died in the war, leaving Tom as his mother's “sole remaining boy”.
The murder of Laura Foster
Upon returning from the war, Dula discovered that Ann had married James Melton. Given his reputation as something of a libertine, it did not take Dula long to take up with young Laura. She became pregnant shortly thereafter, and she and Dula decided to elope. On the night she was to meet Dula, she left her home, never to be seen alive again. While it is not known for certain what happened that evening, many of the stories that have grown out of the folklore of the time implicate Ann Melton in some way. In fact, it was Ann's word that led to the discovery of the girl's body. Foster had been stabbed multiple times with a large knife. The gruesome nature of the murder captured national attention, and most likely led to the enduring notoriety of the crime.
The role of Dula in the slaying is less clear. He fled shortly after her body was found--when he was declared a suspect--working for a time for Colonel James Grayson, in Watauga County, before taking refuge across the state line in Trade, Tennessee. Grayson would enter the folklore that later surrounded Dula as a romantic rival, but this was simply not the case, and history has vindicated him. Grayson did, however, help the Wilkes County posse bring Dula in, once his identity was discovered.
After Dula was arrested, North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance represented him pro bono, and maintained Dula's innocence of the charges. He succeeded in having the trial moved from Wilkesboro to Statesville, as it was widely believed that Dula would never receive a fair trial in Wilkes County. Dula was convicted, and although he was given a new trial on appeal he was convicted again. His supposed accomplice, Jack Keaton was set free, and on Dula's word, Melton was acquitted of the crime. As he stood on the gallows facing his death, he is reported to have said, “Gentlemen, do you see this hand? I didn’t harm a hair on the girl’s head”. He was executed nearly two years after the murder of his fiancée, on May 1, 1868. His younger sister and her husband retrieved his body for burial after the execution.
After the execution
A local poet named Thomas Land wrote a song about the tragedy shortly after Dula was hanged. This, combined with the widespread publicity the trial received, further cemented Dula’s place in North Carolina legend. The song written by Land is still sung today throughout North Carolina. "Tom Dooley" was named one of the Songs of the Century. Subsequently, much legend and folklore arose around the tragedy and the life of Tom Dula. Not the least of these tales has Dula surviving the war without a scratch, and Colonel Zebulon Vance making use of Dula’s supposed talents with a banjo for his own personal entertainment. Both Dula’s and Vance’s accounts, as well as Dula’s own military record, show this legend to be untrue; it persists nonetheless.
In popular culture
Several recordings were made of the song in the twentieth century, with the first in 1929 by a group called “Grayson and Whitter”. The most popular version was recorded by The Kingston Trio in 1958. It sold over 6 million copies, and is widely credited with starting the "folk boom" of this time period. In 1959, Michael Landon was given the role of Dula in the movie The Legend of Tom Dooley. The movie was only loosely based on the facts of Dula’s life, and not on any of the traditional Tom Dula legends. It was rather a fictional treatment simply inspired by the lyrics of the popular song.
- West, John Foster [April 2002]. The Ballad of Tom Dula: The Documented Story Behind the Murder of Laura Foster. Parkway Publishers. ISBN 1887905553.
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- West, John Foster [May 1993]. Lift up Your Head, Tom Dooley: The True Story of the Appalachian Murder That Inspired One of America's Most Popular Ballads. Asheboro, North Carolina: Down Home Press. ISBN 1878086200.
- Cantwell, Robert (1996). “Prologue: Tom Dooley”, When We Were Good: The Folk Revival. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2. ISBN 978-0-674-95132-7. OCLC 832579880.
- Bill Cissna (2006-09-13). North Carolina hills hold tale of Tom Dooley. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution. Retrieved on 2007-10-21.
- (1947) ed. John & Alan Lomax: Folk Song USA: The 111 Best American Ballads. Duell, Sloan and Pearce. ISBN B000I6X8DC.
- Russell, Tony (2007). “G. B. Grayson (1887-1930)”, Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-532509-6. OCLC 85822512.
- West, John Foster (1993). Lift Up Your Head, Tom Dooley: The True Story of the Appalachian Murder That Inspired One of America's Most Popular Ballads. Asheboro, NC: Down Home Press, 71. ISBN 978-1-878086-20-4. OCLC 28443958.
- The Legend of Tom Dooley (1959). American Film Institute. Retrieved on 2 October 2013.