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. The trial and hanging received national publicity from newspapers such as The New York Times, thus turning Dula's story into a folk legend. While the murder happened in Wilkes County, North Carolina, the trial, conviction, and execution took place in Statesville. There was considerable controversy surrounding 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.
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 her cousins Laura and Pauline. As the children grew up, Tom and Ann apparently became intimate. Three months before his eighteenth birthday, on March 15, 1862, he joined the Confederate Army. Dula served as a private in Company K in the 42nd North Carolina Infantry Regiment until the war ended in 1865. 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 harsh poverty of his upbringing.
Contrary to newspaper accounts at the time, Dula did not serve in Zebulon Vance's 26th North Carolina. 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
Before the war, Ann had married James Melton, a farmer and shoe cobbler who was a neighbor to both Ann and Tom. Melton also served in the Civil War, fighting in the battle of Gettysburg. Both men were taken prisoner and returned home alive. Shortly after arriving home, Dula resumed his relationship with Ann. Given his reputation as something of a libertine, it did not take Dula long to take up with her cousin Laura. Folklore suggest that Laura became pregnant shortly thereafter, and she and Dula decided to elope. On the morning she was to meet Dula, about May 25, 1866, she quietly left her home where she lived with her father, Wilson Foster, and took off on his horse, Belle, never to be seen alive again. While it is not known for certain what happened that day, many of the stories that have grown out of the folklore of the time implicate Ann Melton in some way. Some believe that Ann may have murdered Laura Foster because she was still in love with Dula and was jealous that Laura was marrying him; others believe that perhaps Dula knew or suspected that Ann had murdered Foster, but because he still loved Ann he refused to implicate her after he was arrested and took the blame for the murder. It was Ann's word that led to the discovery of the girl's body. Ann's distant cousin, Pauline Foster, testified that Ann had led her to the site of the grave one night to check that it was still well hidden. Witnesses testified in court that Dula had made the incriminating statement that he was going to "do in" whoever gave him "the Pock" (syphilis). Testimony was given that Dula believed Laura had given him syphilis, which he had passed on to Ann. The local doctor testified that he had treated both Tom and Ann for syphilis, as he did Pauline Foster who it seems was to be the first to be treated. Many believe that Dula may have caught the disease from Pauline Foster and passed it along to the other Foster women and believed he caught it from Laura. It could be speculated that Ann would have desired the demise of whoever passed it along to Tom who passed it along to her. Laura's decomposed body was found in a shallow grave in which her legs were drawn up in order for her to fit in the hole. Many believe that a man would have dug a better sized hole for a grave. She had been stabbed once in the chest. The gruesome nature of the murder, combined with the low murder rate, and numerous rumors that circulated in the small back-woods town when she was killed, captured the public's attention, and led to the enduring notoriety of the crime.
The role of Dula in the slaying is unclear. He fled before her body was found—–when he was declared a suspect—–working for a time for Colonel James Grayson, under the assumed name of Tom Hall, across the state line in Trade, Tennessee. Grayson would enter folklore as a romantic rival of Dula's, but this was not true. It was simply an incorrect inference drawn from the lyrics of the song, and became more widespread as the facts of the case were largely forgotten. Grayson did, however, help the Wilkes County posse bring Dula in, once his identity was discovered.
After Dula was arrested, former 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 not receive a fair trial in Wilkes County. Dula was convicted and, although 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
In 2001, Tom Dula was "acquitted" of all charges after a petition was sent around Wilkes County and to the county seat. This action was unofficial and had no legal force.
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 Governor Zebulon Baird 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.
A popular myth holds that while Dula was fighting in Virginia, Ann—–apparently despairing of ever seeing Tom again—–met and married an older farmer, James Melton. In reality, Ann married James Melton in 1859, three years before Tom left for the war, though it's unclear whether or not that actually changed the nature of the relationship between Tom and Ann.
Another popular myth is that Ann Melton confessed to the murder on her deathbed. According to hearsay, Ann confessed that she killed Laurie in a fit of jealousy and begged Tom, who still had feelings for her, to help her conceal the body.
In popular culture
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.
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, and was named by the Grammy Foundation as one of the Songs of the Century.
The Trio's song was covered in Great Britain by Lonnie Donegan later in 1958.
In 1959, Michael Landon was given the role of Dula in the movie The Legend of Tom Dooley. The movie was not based on the facts of Dula’s life, except in the very loosest sense, and neither was it based on any traditional Tom Dula legends. It was rather a fictional treatment inspired by the lyrics of the song.
Also in 1959, Stonewall Jackson's U.S. country music and Billboard hit song Waterloo makes reference to Tom Dooley in the final verse.
The members of Macabre, known for their death metal style also put out an album of acoustic folk songs, among them is a song entitled Tom Dooley, about his death.
Most recently, Neil Young's 2012 album Americana features a song called Tom Dula, a re-working of Thomas Land's original poem.
Tom Dooley: Bound To die
Tom Dooley - The Story Behind the Ballad by Karen Wheeling Reynolds
Tom Dooley: a Wilkes County Legend, a Play
Tom Dula's gravestone images