Sunday, February 18, 2018

Tom Dooley: Myth, Legend, or Truth by Sarah J. McNeal

Tom Dula, Confederate Soldier
One of the things I enjoy doing in my historical research is to discover if certain folktales and folk songs have any validity. Surprising to me is the number of these sometimes outlandish tales and songs that have turned out to have a basis in reality. A while back I wrote articles about Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan, legendary characters in American folktales. I found both of them to have been based on truth. Johnny Appleseed, like the Disney character, did indeed, walk across the country in bare feet, raggedy clothes, wearing a cooking pot as a hat as he planted apple trees in communities along the way. Paul Bunyan was a big lumberjack who did heroic things. There was no Babe the Blue Ox, however.
Some of you may remember the song “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley” by the Kingston Trio in 1958. The next part of the verse is “Poor boy you’re bound to die.” So, what do you think—was there a real Tom Dooley, or was he just a fictitious character in a folksong? Well, hand on to your hats because I have discovered the truth behind the song.
The song, as it turns out, is based on an 1866 murder of a woman named Laura Foster which took place in Wilkes County, North Carolina. Yep. Right here in my state right after the end of the American Civil War. It is alleged that a man named Tom Dula murdered Laura Foster. By the way, although his last name, Dula, was spelled with an “a” on the end, in Appalachian speech it is pronounced like a “y”—sort of like the Grande Old Opry.  
Before Tom Dula went off to fight in the American Civil War for North Carolina, he had been Anne Foster Melton’s lover since the time he was twelve. Ann was Laura’s sister. Laura had married James Melton was Tom was serving in the Confederate army, but even so, as soon as he returned after the war, he and Ann picked up where they left off.
Tom must have been quite the romantic or maybe just a smooth operator because he was also the lover of Laura Foster and their cousin, Pauline Foster. He should have known being the lover of three close relatives was going to lead to trouble…and so it did. It was Pauline Foster’s comments about Tom and Ann that led to the discovery of Laura’s body, which was unrecognizable from all the stab wounds, and accusations that both Tom and Ann were involved in the murder. Laura was pregnant at the time of her death and speculation was that Tom was the father. Laura had been stabbed several times with a large knife. The horrendous way in which Laura was murdered added to the notoriety of the murder along with the fact that the former governor of North Carolina, Zebulon Vance, acted as Dula’s defense attorney. The news of the murder had even been reported in the “New York Times.”

Ann was acquitted in a separate trial based on the word of Tom Dula that she had nothing to do with the murder.
In the song, written by a local poet, Thomas C. Land, there is mention of a man named Grayson who, according to the song, was a romantic rival of Tom Dula or a vengeful sheriff who captured Dula and presided over the hanging, but that was not factual. Col. James Grayson was a Tennessee politician who hired Tom on his farm when Tom fled from North Carolina while under suspicion and used a false name. Grayson helped in the capture of Tom Dula and was involved in returning him to North Carolina, but played no other role in the case.

Tom, who never confessed to the murder, made a puzzling statement at the gallows just before he was hanged. He declared he had not murdered Laura Foster, but still deserved punishment. His statement led to speculation that Ann Foster Melton, who had once expressed jealousy of Tom’s supposed plans to marry her sister, Laura, had been the murderer. A few years after the murder, Ann died in a carting accident; another version is that she went insane. Maybe Karmic justice had finally been served. I, on the other hand, cannot help but wonder why no one suspected Pauline Foster. Since she was the eager beaver who led authorities to the body of Laura, implicated Tom and Ann, and, oh yeah, was also a lover of Tom Dula’s. Did anyone else wonder about that? Well, actually the authorities did suspect her. Pauline finally confessed that she and Tom murdered Laura and was given immunity because she told them everything they needed to know to apprehend Tom Dula. 
The whole sad situation was immortalized in the folk song, “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley,” sung by the Kingston Trio back in 1958.  Here is the YouTube video of the Kingston Trio singing this famous folk song:


 Suspicions abound in my new release from Fire Star Press, IT’S ONLY MAKE BELIEVE.

June believed Kit loved her…until she married him

Beautiful June Wingate’s perfect marriage is in shambles—and she hasn’t even left the wedding reception! When she overhears two gossips discussing the real reason Kit Wilding married her, June believes there must be some truth to it—after all, things have happened just the way they said. Is her marriage only make believe? Trust is hard for June to accept, and now, her faith in her husband has been broken—along with her fragile heart.

Kit Wilding has loved June since the moment he laid eyes on her—a vision in pink that he couldn’t get out of his mind. Now that he’s married her, he can’t understand the changes that have suddenly turned her secretive and distant. How can he make things right between them when he doesn’t know what he’s up against?

But the tables are turned when June’s father, a pillar of the community, is accused of a crime that brings shame on the Wingate family—along with prison time. Kit Wilding’s not the kind of man to give up easily, but with his budding political career at stake, will he be able to hold his marriage together? Or will he be forced to admit IT’S ONLY MAKE BELIEVE…

A loud slap echoed through the house. June’s hand stung as she placed it back in the pocket of her dressing gown, part of her vast trousseau paid for by her parents.
Kit stepped back and rubbed his reddened cheek with his left hand while Snort, Kit’s dog, barked. June couldn’t help but notice the flash of his golden wedding band in the light of the dressing room. Her heart clenched at the sight of it. They’d been married only a few hours and now this…
“Hush that barking, Snort.” The dog quieted, but kept a sharp eye on June just in case. Kit glanced from the dog to June. “What the hell was that for, June? Did I do something wrong by trying to kiss my wife?”
“You bet you did. I thought you loved me and now…” She wasn’t quite sure how to say it to him now that she knew the truth. Honestly, she could barely believe what she had overheard at their wedding reception. How could she explain to him what she heard and express the doubts she had about his love because of it? Well, best to find a way because it seemed quite evident to her that he wasn’t about to leave her be until she did.
“You’d best tell me what this is all about, June, because I’m beginning to have doubts about your sanity and beginning to wonder about my own.” He cocked his head and narrowed his blue eyes at her.  If this is one of your cockamamie jokes, it isn’t funny—and please don’t tell me you married me just to spite your parents. I’m fairly certain your mother doesn’t think I’m good enough for you. She’s only spoken to me about four times in all the years I’ve known you. It’s a little late for second thoughts, June.” Snort began to pace between June and Kit as if to decide whose side he should take.
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Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author who writes diverse stories filled with heart. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press and Sundown Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media:


  1. Interesting. I knew he was real but not the details. It wasn't too smart to play in the same family. But I doubt he was thinking.

    1. Well, E., it seems he was quit the ladies' man. That sure didn't pay off too well, did it? I actually didn't know until I researched it, that the song was based on fact.

  2. I love this post. I'd never thought about songs being written about murderers. Thanks for sharing this post. Awesome!

    1. I have to say, Paisley, I didn't know there was a true story behind that song either. It was a folk song (remember how popular they once were?) and I guess folk songs have a tendency to be written on true occurrences.
      Thank you for dropping by and commenting. I appreciate it.

  3. Interesting post. I loved learning about Tom Dula. And your novel sounds like a great read. Best of luck

    1. Thank you, Linda. It was kind of you to come and comment.

  4. Sarah, I had no idea there was a real historic Tom Dula/Dooley. Back eons ago when I was young there was a minister named Tom Dooley who spoke to our church youth. He was raising money to return on a humanitarian mission in, I believe, Vietnam. He was mesmerizing and quite handsome. I was so sad when I learned he had been killed in his mission. I look forward to reading your new novel.

    1. Caroline, that is so sad about the minister you knew who was killed while on his mission to save souls.
      I hope you do het a chance to read my new release. Kit, the hero, has PTSD following WWII. Of course, in those days, they did not call it PTSD.
      Thank you so much coming.

  5. Sarah, I remember seeing the Kingston Trio perform their Tom Dooly song on one of the TV folk song programs back in that era. I knew the song was based on a true event but did not know the whole story. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    1. Lyn, I, on the other hand, was completely clueless about the real history behind the song. I remember the folksong era and how I thought there could never be any music better than folk music...and then the Beatles came to America. LOL

      Thank you for coming to my blog and commenting.


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