The version I like best was sung by North Carolina native and folk musician Frank Proffitt, who said he learned the somg from his grandmother who had heard Dula singing it while in prison. Frank Proffitt's voice is perfect for the song; he's one of my favorite of the old-time ballad singers for his renditions of so many of the Child Ballads and other mountain songs. Proffitt passed away in 1965, but his voice lives on in his recordings.
But about Tom Dula and Laura Foster: Tom Dula was born and raised in Wilkes County, North Carolina. Wilkes County is still rural, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains and about just as pretty a place as you'll likely ever see.
Location of Lottie Foster's cabin
Tom lived a couple miles from the home of a prostitute named Lottie Foster.
Site of Tom Dula's home, which was torn down some years ago and a new house built on the property
Lottie had a daughter named Anne. Tom and Anne were sweethearts from an early age, even before reaching their teen years. Anne Foster got married when she was 14, but not to Tom. Instead she married James Melton, a man about 7 years older than she was, with a respectable career as a cobbler, a home and a farm.
Only known photograph of Anne Melton.
Anne's marriage did not stop her relationship with Tom, however; they continued to see each other and according to many accounts, slept together while Anne's husband was in another room. Odd.
Site of Anne Melton's home just across the road from her mother, Lottie Foster, and about a mile or less from Tom's home.
Dula and James Melton signed up for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Tom became a drummer, but was often sick and in and out of Confederate hospitals. Eventually he was captured and sent to prison at Point Lookout, Maryland. Melton was a prisoner in the same camp at the same time. They were released eventually and at the end of the war they both returned to Wilkes County.
At this point things begin to get complicated. Tom, possibly jealous of Anne's continued marriage to Melton, began courting Anne's cousin, Laura Foster. Another cousin, Pauline (pronounced Perline) came from Caldwell county to live with Anne and James as a servant. Pauline apparently had the "pox," or syphilis; Tom, Anne and Laura also had the disease, either catching it from Pauline or, as some speculate, from Tom who may have returned for the war with the illness (is it possible that this accounted for his many illnesses and hospital stays during the war?). Anne was, by some accounts, jealous of Tom's ongoing affair with Laura, and Pauline also had a crush on Tom.
Eventually Laura got pregnant. At this point, versions of what happened veer into the land of conjecture. What is fact is that Anne and Tom were at a party the night before Laura disappeared, and both were very drunk. Laura went missing the next day; her horse was found but it took 3 months to find her body. The day Laura went missing, Anne was seen in bed in the middle of the day, with a pile of muddy clothes and shoes beside her. Tom was seen along the road with a mattock very near where Laura's body was later found--he said he was fixing the road. Some time later Anne and Pauline got into a terrible argument and Pauline threatened in front of others to tell something bad about Tom and Anne. Pauline disappeared soon after that fight.
Laura's body was eventually found and it was evident that she had been murdered-- she had been stabbed with a knife and buried in a shallow grave. Tom Dula left the county soon after the discovery, perhaps because word had gotten around that Laura had told a woman she met on the road the day she disappeared that she and Tom were running off that day to get married. Suspicion had already swirled around him anyway.
Tom was captured in Tennessee and returned for trial. Because of things Pauline and Anne had said, they were also arrested and held for murder. Tom Dula was tried and convicted; the verdict was thrown out by the North Carolina Supreme Court and he was retried and again convicted. Pauline turned state's evidence and charges against her were dropped. Tom gave a written statement exonerating Anne so charges against her were also dropped. Tom always said he was innocent, and on the gallows he repeated that claim vehemently.
So what really happened? Did Anne murder Laura out of jealousy, and engage Pauline to help her bury Laura? Did Tom actually meet with Laura and argue with her, and in the course of the argument kill the young woman? Or did Pauline do the murdering at the instigation of Anne, or both Anne and Tom? No one will ever know the truth. Anne died insane a few years later; Pauline disappeared from history. Anne is said to have made a dying statement to her husband and her doctor, but neither ever revealed what she said.
Two recent books have opened the discussion again, over 100 years after the murder. In Wilkes County, however, the discussion has never truly ended. Every person seems to have an opinion about the matter; most believe that Tom was innocent and went to his death to protect Anne Melton. I went to Wilkes county this week to attend a seminar given by Sharyn McCrumb as part of the book release celebration for her book The Ballad of Tom Dooley, the latest addition to her "Ballad Series." Her conclusions, which I will not reveal here, are surprising and a new twist to the story. Karen Reynolds' book, Tom Dooley: The Story Behind the Legend, which was published this past spring by Little Creek Books, has yet another possible solution and her version is the basis for the outdoor drama performed in Wilkes County each summer.
After reading about the case and visiting the sites where much of the story took place, I've formed my own opinion, which is not one likely to be favored by Tom's proponents. One of the oddities in the story is that while Laura was supposedly running off to Tennessee with Tom, she told him to meet her at a place that was a mile in the opposite direction. Why would she do that? And the meeting place was located next door to Anne Melton's house; if Anne was as jealous as legend claims, surely that was foolhardy of both Tom and Laura?
I think this is a possible scenario: Laura told Tom she needed to talk to him. She may not have told him yet that she was pregnant. He knew he would be staying with Anne that night so he suggested meeting at the Bates place which was close by. Or perhaps Laura had told him about her pregnancy and he had said meet me and we'll figure something out. Maybe he asked Anne for money to "buy off" Laura. He would have chosen the Bates place as somewhere out of sight but close enough for him to not have to travel far after a wild partying night.
Laura was confident that the only solution Tom could propose was to marry her, and quickly. So that was what she told the woman she met on the road that morning. When Tom arrived he found Laura expecting to run off and get married; he was not at all expecting that and may have argued with her. Tom was one who liked the ladies and being tied down with wife and baby doesn't seem like something that would be attractive at all to him--and he was still deeply involved with Anne.
Laura might have gotten angry and physical--she might have pulled out a knife (in ballads it seems many women carried them!) and in the struggle he took it from her and stabbed her, or perhaps she fell on it. After he realized what he'd done, he ran off, leaving Laura's body on the ground. He ran back to Anne's and told her what he'd done. Anne seems to have been a calculating, planning kind of person and it's likely that she told him what a fool he was. Then she got Pauline and the three of them returned to the scene, dragged Laura's body a good distance away from the Bates place and dug a quick grave and covered the body. They would have been exhausted which would explain the muddy clothes and Anne being in bed in the middle of the day. It would also explain Tom being in the road with a mattock near the grave site.
My version also explains why Tom claimed innocence--Laura attacked him and it was her own knife that killed her.
So there you have yet one more possible solution to the unsolved murder that is almost 150 years old. The ballad will continue to be sung as it was written, books will continue to be written and people will continue to argue about Tom's guilt or innocence. And in the end, we will never know for certain just who killed little Laura Foster.
This time tomorrow, reckon where I'll be
I'll be way down yonder
hanging on a white oak tree
Tom Dula's grave is on private property and the landowner does not allow visitors. People go there anyway, and the gravestone is badly chipped by souvenir hunters. Laura Foster's latest stone was purchased by Zsa Zsa Gabor, who became interested in the story. Tom Dula's home is no longer standing; neither are the homes of Anne Melton or Lottie Foster. But if you visit Wilkes County, you can purchase a listening tour that leads you to the main sites of the story and see the places where it happened. Then you can form your own opinion of the truth.