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‘The Ballad of Tom Dooley’

Article Published: Sep. 8, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 8, 2011
‘The Ballad of Tom Dooley’

Author Sharyn McCrumb, pictured at the ‘Tom Dooley Museum’ of the Whippoorwill Academy in
Ferguson, holds the fiddle that belonged to Tom Dula.

Photo Submitted

Think you know the story of Tom Dooley?

Think again.

On Monday, Sept. 12, bestselling author Sharyn McCrumb will release her latest novel, “The Ballad of Tom Dooley,” a fictional retelling of the story that brought Wilkes County into the national spotlight.

Combining months of research and assistance from local historians, lawyers and librarians, McCrumb fuses fact – including a newly discovered piece of the puzzle – with fiction to tell the true story.

“In the beginning, I was really leery about doing it,” said McCrumb, who, in 1998, wrote the New York Times bestseller, “The Ballad of Frankie Silver,” about the first woman hanged for murder in North Carolina. “Ever since then, people have been saddling up to me, saying you’ve got to write Tom Dula.”

According to legend, Dula (the more popular “Dooley” was based on dialect) was hanged for the murder of his lover, Laura Foster, a country girl who went missing and was later found buried in a shallow grave.

But the other players – Dula’s other lover, Ann Melton, her cousin, Pauline Foster, and former N.C. governor and defense attorney Zebulon Vance – also intrigued McCrumb, who wrote her novel from Pauline Foster and Vance’s perspectives.

With a copy of John Foster West’s “The Ballad of Tom Dula: The Documented Story Behind the Murder of Laura Foster,” McCrumb started her research in, appropriately, Wilkesboro. Accompanied by a friend who knew nothing of the case, she followed the trail and offered explanations along the way.

“I’m trying to explain to him about who these people are and what happened,” McCrumb said. “He looked at me and said, ‘You realize this makes no sense.’ I said, ‘Yeah, it doesn’t.’ All the explanations we’ve been given over the years just make no sense. Then I decided I want to know what really happened.”

But it wouldn’t be easy.

“Everybody in Wilkes County knows who killed Laura Foster, but that wasn’t the point,” she said. “The scenario Laura was going to meet Tom Dula and stole her father’s horse … just didn’t add up, so I decided that I was going to try to come up with a scenario that answered all the questions that I had, all the ‘yes buts.’”

After reviewing the trial transcript, she sought and found Dula’s war record, as he’d served the Confederacy in the Civil War. She also found that of James Melton, Ann’s cuckolded husband.

“Tom was a soldier in the 42nd regiment, a drummer boy who later went into infantry,” McCrumb said. “He spent most of the war on sick call, from one hospital to another.”

James Melton, on the other hand, appeared to serve in the 26th North Carolina regiment, that of Zeb Vance, she said. Further, Melton carried the colors for the 26th at the Battle of Gettysburg. “Ten thousand guys on that field with rifles, and he’s got a flag,” McCrumb said. “He was wounded in the leg at Gettysburg, and he was lucky to make it off the field.”

Melton was sent home for 10 months of recuperation, before returning right back to the 26th. He was later wounded and hospitalized in Richmond, Va.

“April 1865 was not a good time to be in Richmond,” McCrumb said. “It fell immediately thereafter, and all of the Confederate soldiers who were in hospitals in Richmond were dumped onto trains and sent to prison camps. James Melton ended up in a prison camp in Point Lookout, Md. Guess who else was in that prison.”

You’ve got it: Tom Dula.

“It’s really interesting to go back and look at things and question assumptions,” McCrumb said.
She then started exploring the psychological motivations behind the so-called crime of passion.

“Did it make sense?” she asked herself. “People were trying to make this a love triangle, trying to put two and two together and make five. They’ve got Tom, Ann … and they’ve got Laura Foster … and they’re trying to make everything in the scenario work with these three people, and it doesn’t work.”

A puzzle piece was missing, sure, but the other pieces seemed hastily jammed together. McCrumb would have to rework it.

“Its like an equation – if you change one of the numbers, you change the answer, and I wanted to know what really happened,” she said. “(The conclusion) was so chilling.”

To find out, find a copy of Sharyn McCrumb’s “The Ballad of Tom Dooley,” available in bookstores Sept. 12. The author will appear Tuesday, Sept. 13, at 7 p.m. at Black Bear Books in the Boone Mall to sign copies and greet fans.

For more information, visit

Additional Images

Author Sharyn McCrumb, pictured at the ‘Tom Dooley Museum’ of the Whippoorwill Academy in
Ferguson, holds the fiddle that belonged to Tom Dula.
Photo Submitted

Sharyn McCrumb’s ‘The Ballad of Tom Dooley’ will be released Monday, Sept. 12.

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