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The Tom Dooley Mystery

Updated on August 31, 2015

It may have been the first love triangle murder case to become national news. As children, Tom Dula, or Dooley, and Ann Foster fell in love. However, in 1862 before they could marry Tom joined the Confederate 42nd North Carolina Infantry Regiment to fight in the Civil War.

The 20 year old Private, born in 1845 close to the Yadkin River in Wilkes County, NC, was released from a Union prison in 1865 at which time he returned to Wilkes County. Unfortunately, he found Ann had married an older farmer and shoe cobbler named James Melton. She had done so truly believing she would never see Tom alive again, but that didn’t stop them from rekindling their love affair.

A love triangle emerged when Tom also began an affair with Ann’s cousin Laura Foster. The situation became more complicated when Laura became pregnant. Some versions of the tale say they made plans to elope. In May, 25, 1866, the night the two had supposedly planned to elope, Laura disappeared.

At this point in the story, fact and myth become entangled. Laura’s disappearance quickly turned into a murder case when her body was found in a shallow grave. She had been stabbed several times in her chest. Naturally, Tom was the prime suspect and he made tracks for Tennessee. However, he was soon captured by a posse and put on trial.

Witnesses testified in court Tom had declared he was going to kill whoever gave him syphilis. Testimony was given he believed Laura had given it to him and subsequently passed it on to Ann. The local doctor had treated both Tom and Ann for it as well as Ann’s sister, Pauline. That would have been ample motivation for Ann to have done the killing.

In any event, the trial made headlines across the country. Tom was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. He was executed May 1st, 1868. A local poet, Thomas C. Land, later wrote a poem that became a popular song about the tragedy.

It was first recorded in 1929 by a group called “Grayson and Wittier, but it was the Kingston Trio who made the song popular in 1958. The following year the story was made into a movie with Michael Landon playing the lead role. However the movie was very loosely based on the facts.

Ever since his execution it’s been debated whether or not he was guilty. Some believe Ann committed the murder out of jealously. It was she who led authorities to Laura’s grave. Although she was originally indicted along with Tom for the murder she wasn’t convicted because he testified he did it.

But did he? Some have postulated another scenario. Perhaps the two conspired to kill the pregnant Laura so they could continue their affair. And it’s been said Ann confessed to the killing on her death bed a few years later, insane.

Tom Dula's grave is located on Tom Dula Road on private land just before the Yadkin River bridge. Regrettably, the granite tombstone has been half-chiseled away by souvenir-hunters.

Unfortunately, the only ones that know who really killed Laura Foster have been dead over a century. The truth will probably never be known.


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    • profile image

      tonywaiakea 5 years ago

      Thanks, now I can't get that song out of my head. Great read. Very informative. It adds life to the song.

    • KerryAnita profile image

      KerryAnita 5 years ago from Satellite Beach, Florida

      Very interesting mystery!

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      And I thought I was one of the few who remembered that song from my youth!! You ladies are showing your age. LOL

    • K J Page profile image

      K J Page 5 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      How many times I heard and sang along to the words of that song and never had an idea that there was a thread of truth in it. Great write!! Great research!!

    • eHealer profile image

      Deborah 5 years ago from Las Vegas

      Hey JY, this is a fascinating story, I never realized that Tom Dooley was actually a real person. Very well written and I could follow the intrigue. Thanks! Voted up and pinned!

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 5 years ago from south Florida

      Never knew the real story behind that song before, JY. Thanks for the clarification. So Ann's sister, Pauline, was also treated for that disease. Hmmmm. Maybe she was involved in the killing, too. Jealousy, y'know.

    • Conservative Lady profile image

      Sheila 5 years ago from Surprise Arizona - formerly resided in Washington State

      Very interesting story - makes me want to read more about this trio. Voted Up and interesting.

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      I had heard the song in the 50s and just got to wondering if there was anything to the story, so here it is.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 5 years ago from sunny Florida

      This just goes to show that even in our early history individuals were executed and then there has been a question about the guilt or innocence of that person. This was an interesting read. thank you for sharing. :) ps

    • Georgie Lowery profile image

      Georgianna Lowery 5 years ago from Lubbock, TX

      I'd heard the song, but I never knew there was a story behind it. Thank you for sharing!