A tale of passion, murder and intrigue
Hang down your head, Tom Dooley,
Hang down your head and cry,
Hang down your head, Tom Dooley,
Poor boy, you’re bound to die
By Karen Lilly-Bowyer
For the Salisbury Post
Springtime may be when a young heart sways towards romance, but in the spring of 1866, an infamous love triangle/quadrangle brought murder, tragedy and national notoriety to a small Wilkes County community.
The story of Tom Dula — pronounced “Dooley” — his trial and subsequent death sentence for the killing of a young woman named Laura Foster brought newspaper reporters from around the country to a Statesville courtroom and eventually inspired an enduring folk ballad and countless legends. Two notable Rowan County lawyers, John Marshall Clement and Nathaniel Boyer, assisted in the prosecution.
Why does the story of Tom Dula and the murder of Laura Foster, a hill country girl who had a reputation as a loose woman, still hold our interest?
By most accounts, Tom Dula was a handsome man who had a way with women. Born in the Happy Valley community of Wilkes County, 17-year-old Tom enlisted in company K, N.C. 42 Infantry Regiment in 1862 and served as a drummer. Twice wounded (neither time seriously), he was captured by Union soldiers in Kinston at the end of the war and sent to Point Lookout Prison, Md., but was released after a few months. Like other veterans, Tom may have been hardened by the horrors of war, but based on testimony during his trial, it seems that war changed Tom very little. Back home in Wilkes, he played his fiddle, chased women and seemed to find plenty of things to keep himself entertained. Apparently, he was very good at avoiding work.
A teenage romance
One of the things Tom loved best was spending time with Ann Foster Melton. Tom and Ann had grown up together. Their childhood homes were less than a half mile apart. Ann was the illegitimate daughter of Lotty Foster, a prostitute, but according to legend, Ann was a stunning beauty with an aristocratic bearing. Ann was a year older than Tom; they became lovers when she was 15, and he 14.
In a perfect love story, Ann would have waited for Tom to return from war, and they would have lived happily ever after. The true story is very different. Long before Tom left to go to war, Ann married James Melton, a quiet man who had a small farm and a business as a shoemaker. James joined the Confederate Army in 1860 but did not serve in the same regiment as Tom.
Neither marriage nor war severed the relationship between Tom and Ann. Tom regularly stayed overnight in the Melton’s one room cabin, supposedly even sleeping in the same bed with Ann while James slept in a bed across the room. What power did Ann hold over her husband? Why would James have tolerated the relationship that Ann continued to have with Tom Dula?
James Melton knew about Ann’s long-term relationship with Tom before the marriage. He also knew that Lotty Foster, Ann’s mother, made her living as a prostitute. He understood that Ann had learned at an early age to use her beauty and female favors to get what she wanted. Nevertheless, James married Ann and tolerated her ways. Based on trial testimony, Ann seemed self-absorbed and cared very little for her children or her husband. Ann was called lazy, but it is more likely that she felt entitled. She was demanding, temperamental and at times aggressive. Ann was not willing to do the work of a typical poor farmer’s wife.
The death of Laura Foster
In March 1866, Ann’s cousin Pauline (Perline) Foster showed up at the Melton cabin, seeking a place to stay. Pauline was from Watauga County. She walked to Wilkes County on the pretence of coming to see her grandfather, but her secret motive was to see Dr. George N. Carter, whom she believed could cure her of syphilis.
Ann was anxious to have help with her farm chores and convinced James to hire Pauline. Pauline was offered $21 and room and board to stay and work through the summer. This arrangement provided Pauline with the money to pay Doctor Carter, and Ann would have a “servant.” Ann believed that the arrangement would benefit her in other ways as well.
Ann knew the neighbors were talking about the amount of time Tom spent at the Melton’s cabin. She believed she could stop the wagging tongues by making people believe Tom was at the cabin to see Pauline. Pauline testified in court that Ann asked her to “lay” with Tom and encouraged her to tell folks that she had a relationship with him. Given Tom’s reputation as a womanizer, it would have been no surprise that Tom had “taken up” with Pauline. Obviously, neither Ann nor Tom knew the nature of Pauline’s ailment.
In the spring of 1866, Tom continued to visit the Melton cabin, but he also started visiting Laura Foster, a distant cousin of Ann. Laura lived with her father and younger siblings in a cabin about 5 miles from the Dula farm. By some accounts, Laura became pregnant, and she and Dula were going to elope.
Setting out on horseback, Laura left her home on the morning of May 25, 1866, the last day she was seen alive.
Several weeks after her disappearance, folks began to talk, including rumors that Tom had killed Laura. Tom left Happy Valley. A few weeks later, Pauline also left.
Although Laura’s body had not yet been found, the court issued a warrant for Tom Dula’s arrest. Found in Tennessee, he was extradited to North Carolina to face trial for the murder of Laura Foster.
After Tom was jailed, Ann went to Watauga to find Pauline and convinced her to return to Wilkes County. There, Pauline apparently began to brag to locals that she and Tom had killed Laura (a story she would later recant). Shortly thereafter, Pauline was arrested for accessory to the murder. However, those charges were dropped after she told authorities that Ann had told her that she and Tom had killed Laura and buried the body. Pauline led the sheriff and his men to a wooded site where they found Laura’s body, two months after her disappearance. Laura had been missing for two months. She had been stabbed in the chest.
Based on Pauline’s version of the murder, Ann was arrested as accessory before the fact. Ann and Tom were kept in the Wilkesboro jail for over a year awaiting trial.
The former governor, Zebulon Vance, was Tom and Ann’s lead attorney. Because neither of the accused had money to pay for counsel, Vance did the work pro bono and may have been appointed by the court.
The prosecutor was Walther M. Caldwell, district attorney for the Sixth Judicial District. Other members of the prosecution team were the two Rowan County attorneys, John Clement and Nathaniel Boyden. Clement had been a state legislator and in his future years would refuse to prosecute capital punishment cases. Boyden had previously served as a member of Congress and the state legislature and would eventually be elected an associate justice of the state Supreme Court.
When the trial opened in Wilkesboro on Oct. 1, 1866, Vance asked to have Ann and Tom tried separately and requested the trial be moved to Statesville, arguing it would allow for a less biased jury. His request was granted.
Pauline was the state’s “key witness” during the trial. Many of the statements Pauline made prior to trial were ignored. She was called “stupid” and her character was degraded because she had given birth to a mulatto child while living in Wilkes County. Pauline’s actions and her association with the murder of Laura Foster are as much a mystery as the murder itself.
The facts of the case are limited, and the evidence against Tom was largely circumstantial, but this is the scenario presented by witnesses and the prosecution:
On May 13, 1866, Tom stopped by R.D. Hall’s home and told Hall that he had the “pox” (syphilis). Tom said that he would “put through” the person who gave him the disease. That statement was used by the prosecution as motive for the murder. On Thursday, May 14, Ann told Pauline that Tom had given her the “pox” and that he had been given the disease by Laura. According to Pauline, Ann said she was going to kill Laura and Ann said she would kill Pauline too if she told anyone.
On the morning of May 24, Tom borrowed a mattock/axe from Lotty, Ann’s mother. He said he needed to clear the path to his mother’s house. Ann left her cabin early that morning. She said she was going to see her mother. Ann and Tom met at Lotty’s house that afternoon, but they left Lotty’s about 3 p.m. Ann returned home a little before daybreak on Friday, May 25. She said she, Tom and her mother had “laid out all night and drunk the canteen of liquor.” Ann’s dress and shoes were wet when she came home.
Wilson Foster, Laura’s father, testified that when he went to bed on Thursday, May 24 Laura was sitting by the fire. Wilson heard Laura go outside a little before daybreak. He said she was outside speaking with someone, and he thought it was Tom. Laura came back inside the house, packed her few belongings in a bundle, then went outside, mounted the family mare and left.
Betsy Scott testified that she met Laura on the river road on the morning of May 25. Mrs. Scott said she asked Laura why she was on the road so early. According to Mrs. Scott, Laura said she was going to meet Tom.
Verdict and appeal
The notion that Tom and Laura had planned to elope is questionable. Surely, Wilson Foster would have been delighted for his daughter to get married; there was no reason for the lovers to run away. Wilson was quoted as saying he didn’t care what happened to Laura, but he wanted his horse back. Possibly, Laura believed that she and Tom or someone else would be going to Tennessee, and she would need the horse.
Some accounts say that Laura was in love with a mulatto man who was a freed slave, and she had intended to leave with him on the morning of her death. At that time, a man of color would have been lynched for having a relationship with a white woman. The only chance at happiness for an interracial couple in 1866 would have been to go west over the mountains.
Ultimately, all we know for certain is that on May 25, someone stabbed Laura in the chest and buried her in a small shallow grave.
Can any murder be more passionate than an attempt to stab someone through the heart?
Was Tom actually planning to marry Laura? Did Ann kill Laura so she could keep Tom for herself? Would Tom have been a good enough actor to convince Laura to meet him, if his intention was to murder her for giving him “the poxs”? Was Ann an evil temptress capable of masterminding a plot that would lead Laura to her death? Why didn’t Tom and Ann realize that Pauline was the source of the syphilis?
Pauline testified that Tom came to the Melton cabin the night before he ran away to Tennessee. She testified that both Ann and Tom were crying. She also stated that Tom went to Ann’s bed and removed a knife that was hidden behind the headboard. Pauline testified that she was in Tennessee during part of her absence from Wilkes County. This was never explained. Pauline’s testimony most certainly helped put the rope around Tom’s neck. However, Pauline was quoted as saying, “I would swear to a lie any time for Tom Dula.”
Tom was convicted after the first trial, but Vance appealed and the verdict was thrown out. The second trial convened in Statesville on Jan. 20, 1868. Again, Tom was convicted.
Ann was allowed to attend both of Tom’s trials, but it was reported that she showed no emotions. Ann did not appear to be worried. She had told her lawyers, “They will never stretch this pretty neck.” Tom never confessed to the crime, but on the night before he was hung, he gave one of his lawyers a note that said he alone was responsible for the murder. Tom may have learned to read and write while in jail but prior to that he had always signed legal documents with an X.
He was hanged from a makeshift gallows at the old Statesville depot on May 1, 1868. He was buried in Wilkes County
Based on Tom’s note, Ann was exonerated. Her trial only lasted one day. Records do not show exactly how old Ann was when she died, but because of the syphilis, she died young. Folklore tells that on her deathbed, Ann screamed that she could hear meat frying and that cats were climbing all the walls. Ghost hunters say that the old Wilkesboro jail is haunted. They say that murmuring conversations between Tom and Ann can be heard, and occasionally there is laughter.
When the trial was over, Pauline went back to Watauga County. After Ann’s death, James Melton married a fine woman who was a good mother to his children and a good wife.