Guilty as Charged?
John Fletcher believes he has debunked several misconceptions
surrounding the 1866 murder of Wilkes County native Laura Foster and her convicted killer.
After scouring over nearly endless copies of newspaper articles, testimony and genealogy records, Fletcher, a Mabel native, said the court system of the time was correct in convicting and executing Tom Dula in Foster’s murder.
His confirmation, which he said goes against public opinion and sentiment, is carefully outlined in his new book, “The True Story of Tom Dooley: From Western North Carolina Mystery to Folk Legend.”
While a jury found Dula guilty of the heinous act, many people in Wilkes County believed Foster’s cousin, Ann Foster Melton, was the real perpetrator, Fletcher said.
“If you go through the articles and transcripts, you would find out that this is not likely the case,” Fletcher said. “The most likely scenario is that Dula was the murderer, and Melton was a bystander. That is the only logical conclusion.”
While Melton didn’t wield the knife that took the life of Foster, she was no angel and likely an instigator in Foster’s death, Fletcher said.
The events leading up to Foster’s death precede the Civil War and exploded in a volatile reaction of jealous lovers.
As teenagers, Dula and Melton were neighbors and likely romantically involved, but only to a certain extent. Melton was Dula’s elder by a year and did not likely consider him a marriage prospect, Fletcher said.
When the Civil War started, Melton’s husband left her and their small child at home.
“At this time, she probably resumed her relationship with Tom,” Fletcher said. “It was an adulterous relationship, and he, too, went off to war.”
Dula, however, would return to Wilkes County before Melton’s husband did, Fletcher said. Upon his return, the affair was believed to have been rekindled.
“Since Ann was married, Tom was cohabitating with every woman in the local area,” Fletcher said. “One of those was Ann’s cousin, Laura Foster. Somewhere along the way, I believe Laura had contracted syphilis and passed it on to Tom, who passed it to Ann. That was the primary motive for Ann instigating to kill Laura. She was also very jealous of her cousin.”
Dula had threatened to kill Laura because of the disease, and Ann urged him to follow through, Fletcher believes.
Despite evidence to suggest Dula was the killer, the general populous was quick to place blame on Melton, Fletcher said.
“Ann’s family was unpopular in the neighborhood,” he said. “Ann’s mother was accused of having a large number of illegitimate children, and Ann was probably accused of prostitution. A second rumor was that she was the most beautiful woman in the area, and other women were jealous of her. She was not likable in a lot of ways. She didn’t like doing household chores or taking care of her family.”
Dula was later captured in Trade, Tenn. He was tried for Foster’s murder in Iredell County, as the notoriety of the case did not guarantee him a fair trial in Wilkesboro, and hanged on May 1, 1868.
According to legend, Melton confessed to her cousin’s murder on her deathbed, but this, too, is another unsubstantiated rumor, Fletcher said.
Despite his death, the legend of Dula lived on in local folklore and national pop culture. In 1958, The Kingston Trio recorded a hit song about Dula’s trial and death.
To purchase the book, visit http://www.historypress.net or search for the title and author on Amazon.