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"Poor" Tom Dula?

"The Tomahawk," Wednesday, 17 Feb 1971 issue, pp. 1 & 10

"Poor" Tom Dula?

     (EDITORíS NOTE: A section of "The Ballad of Tom Dula" relates how the author learned the identity of James Grayson thru the Honorable J. Luke Grayson of Mountain City, his grandson, as the result of a letter published in the Mountain City Tomahawk and answered by Dean Vennings. One of the illustrations in the book is of James Grayson, who captured Tom Dula at Pandora in Doe Valley community.

     John Foster West, the author of the book, is writer-in-residence at Appalachian State University and a native of the area of Wilkes County where Tom Dula lived. He is also the author of "Time Was," a novel published by Random House, Inc. about life in the Appalachians; it received excellent reviews all over the nation.)

     John Foster West in "The Ballad of Tom Dula," has turned the eye of truth on our most popular old ballad. . .and what he comes up with is a fascinating story, though hardly a pretty one. Mr. West is well qualified for this job of sleuthing. He is a native of Wilkes County and grew up not far from where Tom Dula and Ann Melton murdered Laura Foster; in fact, his grandfather was among the searcherís for the girlís grave. As his novel "Time Was" amply proved, John Foster West knows this rugged country, its lore, and its people.

     The contents of his brief book can be easily suggested. Mr. West presents the different versions of the ballad, the contradictory and largely mythical accounts of the murder, pointing up the discrepances(sic) in the recorded versions. There are other chapters that establish the exact date of murder, discuss the geography of the area involved (there is an interesting map used at the trial), and the legal aspects of the circumstantial evidence that sent Dula to the gallows at Statesville in 1868. He has also reproduced the transcripts of both trials, together with pertinent contemporary newspaper articles. The most interesting chapter is entitled, "Cast of Characters," where the where(sic) the(sic) principals of the case come alive as if they were in a novel: Tom Dula, Laura Foster, the mysterious and beautiful Ann Melton, James Grayson, and the lawyer for the defense, Zebulon B. Vance, wartime governor of North Carolina.

     Perhaps the most important achievement of the book is the stripping away of the many layers of legend and folklore that have accrued around the ballad and its principals and the identification, for the first time, of James Grayson, the man who captured Tom Dula in Tennessee.

     "Tom Dooley" the ballad is a romantic song, popular because of its archetypal pattern and mournful tune. But the truth that subsumes the ballad is unbelievably squalid. The author points out that Tom, Laura Foster, Ann Melton, and Pauline Foster (a cousin of Annís who turned stateís evidence against her and Tom) all had syphilis, that Tom was apparently having affairs with three or four women alternately, that Ann was illegitimate and had been Tomís lover since childhood. Pauline Foster came to Wilkes from Watauga County seeking treatment for syphilis, but Laura Foster was accused of communicating the disease to Tom, and he gave it to Ann.

     This was the motive for the murder: Tom swore to "put through" the woman who gave him the disease. Ann Melton was accused of helping him, though she was exonerated after two years in jail by a note written by Tom the night before he was hanged. To add to the sordidness, there is also evidence of miscegenation and incest, and there is some reason to believe that Tom murdered a man in Wilmington, while he was still a soldier, over the victimís wife.

     Perhaps another author would have dismissed these mountain people as merely depraved. Mr. West empathizes with them in their poverty and ignorance, and for that reason his characters come alive and hold the readerís attention. . .if not sympathy.

"Hang down your head, Tom Dooley,
Hang down your head and cry,
Hang down your head, Tom Dooley,
Poor boy, youíre bound to die."

     Most North Carolinians and Tennesseans have either heard those words sung by Frank Proffitt or Doc Watson or they know the commercialized version by the Kingston Trio. After reading the interesting story behind this romantic song, no one will ever hear it and feel the same about "poor" Tom again.

     "The Ballad of Tom Dula" is aimed at folklorists, but it should also interest historians and sociologists, as well as the general reader. The book is fascinating from start to finish and a superb contribution to North Carolina folklore.

Guy Owen
Author of
"The Flim Flam Man"

(Transcribed from newspaper microfilm by Neva Jane STOUT BRYANT, 22 Sep 2006)

Links to Tom Dula/Dooley

Tom Dula/Dooley's Capture in Johnson County, Tennessee
Tom Dula's connection to the Fletcher family of Wilkes County, North Carolina
by Faye Moran

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Go to the Stories and Legends page

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