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The truth about Tom Dooley

by Garth Taylor
Garth Taylor

Garth Taylor

The Ballad of Tom Dooley recounts the details of a crime of passion and was the number one song in America in 1958 when it was copyrighted, published and recorded by Kingston Trio.

It turns out they didn’t write it; they were sued, and lost. It also turns out there were several inaccuracies in their version of events. Doc Watson’s grandmother knew Tom Dooley’s family. The truth according to Doc and other sources is:

  • Thomas Dula was a Civil War veteran from Wilkes County, North Carolina. When he was twelve, he became the lover of Anne Melton — the cousin of Laura Foster – and remained so even after Anne married an older man named James Melton. When Tom returned from the War, he resumed with Anne Melton, and then also took up with her cousin Laura Foster, and also with another cousin Pauline Foster.


  • In 1866, Laura Foster was stabbed to death. She was pregnant at the time. Pauline Foster reported the crime and accused both Tom Dula and Anne Melton. Dula escaped to a farm in Tennessee. James Grayson owned the farm and reported him to North Carolina authorities, but otherwise played no role in the case. The steamy details and the brutality of the attack made this a celebrity event. Dula was represented pro bono by the former governor of North Carolina governor. The trial was covered in the New York Times.


  • Dula was convicted, and hanged. Anne Melton was acquitted, based on Dula’s testimony that she had nothing to do with the killing. On the gallows, Dula stated, “Gentlemen, do you see this hand? I didn’t harm a hair on the girl’s head.” According to Doc Watson’s grandmother, many years later Ann Melton made deathbed confession to husband of something terrible she had done.


  • The Ballad of Tom Dooley was published in 1929 and has been voted one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time. Everyone in Wilkes County pronounced Dula’s last name as “Dooley.” Pronouncing the final “a” like “y is a feature in Appalachian speech, as in “Grand Ole Opry.”
Tom Dooley orig 1929

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