Article Published: Sep. 8, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 8, 2011
Think you know the story of Tom
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.
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
“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
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.”
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.’”
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.
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.”
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.”
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
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.