The Ballad of Tom Dooley
What began as a fictional re-telling of the historical account became an astonishing revelation of the real motives and the real culprit in the murder of Laura Foster. With the help of Wilkes County historians, lawyers, and researchers, Sharyn McCrumb visited the actual sites, studied the legal evidence, and uncovered a missing piece of the story that will shock those who think they already know what happened.
What seemed at first to be a sordid tale of adultery and betrayal was transformed by the new discoveries into an Appalachian Wuthering Heights.
About the cover: Laura Foster was killed at an abandoned farmstead in Wilkes County NC, "The Bates Place." Author Sharyn McCrumb took a photograph of that still-desolate landscape and sent it to her publisher, St. Martins Press. Their art department incorporated that photo into the cover art of the book, so that when you look at the book cover, you are seeing the place where Laura Foster actually died.
The Ballad of Tom Dooley is available NOW in audiobook and eBook formats. Check out the Marketplace page.
Tom Dula, a handsome, indolent young man in the Reedy Branch community begins a sexual affair with Ann Foster when they are both 14 years old. At age fifteen, though, probably to get away from her drunken, promiscuous mother, Ann married a 22-year old farmer James Melton.
Tom goes away to fight in the Civil War. In July 1865, after a 3-month stint in a Union prison camp in Point Lookout, Maryland, Tom comes home. He and Ann resume their affair. Court testimony says that Tom would sleep with Ann in the Melton’s cabin, while her husband James was asleep in another bed only a few feet away. (Previous historians have assumed 3 things: 1) that Ann married James after Tom went off to war; 2) That James Melton was elderly and perhaps senile; 3) that James, a simple farmer, was intimidated by the veteran soldier Tom. – All these assumptions are wrong, and I can prove it.)
In March, 1866, Ann’s second cousin Pauline Foster arrives in Reedy Branch to be treated for syphilis by a local physician. (Chastity is not a Foster family trait.) Pauline goes to work as a servant for Ann and James Melton for room and board and 11 cents a day in wages. Trial testimony: Ann tells Pauline to sleep with Tom so that the community will think Tom comes over to visit Pauline instead of to continue his affair with Ann. (Yes, that was a bad idea.)
Pauline gives syphilis to Tom, who gives it to Ann. He also gives it to another cousin of theirs, Laura Foster, who lives five miles away, with whom Tom began a casual affair in April, 1866. (According to contemporary accounts, Laura sleeps around, too.) There is no evidence that Tom and Laura felt any great passion for each other. There is no evidence that Laura was ever pregnant. (Later storytellers assumed both things to be true in an attempt to romanticize or at least rationalize the story. I contend that neither is true.)
Early on the morning of May 25, 1866, a neighbor woman (Mrs. Scott) sees Laura Foster riding her father’s horse (which she has stolen), with a bundle of clothes slung across the saddle. She says she is going away to Tennessee, but that she is meeting someone at "the Bates Place," an abandoned farmstead about 200 yards from the Meltons’ house — within sight of it.
Laura Foster is never seen again.
Sharyn McCrumb Interview for
Carolina Mountain Life
1. Readers have been hoping for years that you would write a novel about the infamous “Tom Dooley.” Why do you think so people were so eager to see your treatment of this story? What led you to choose this story at this point in time? What peculiar challenges and rewards come from writing a story that people think they already know?
I think that because I told the story of another mountain hanging — that of Frankie Silver in Burke County (The Ballad of Frankie Silver, by Sharyn McCrumb, New York: Dutton, 1998) — people assumed that I would want to tackle the most famous execution in western North Carolina history: the 1868 hanging of Tom Dula for the murder of Laura Foster. I didn’t, though. I had looked into the sordid tale of adultery and venereal disease, and I thought whoever wrote it ought to entitle it "Jerry Springer, Call Your Office." Finally, though Blue Ridge Country Magazine asked me to write an article about the legend, and when I read the material on the story, I could not make it make sense. No explanation given for the murder of Laura Foster would withstand a minute of close examination. Then I got frustrated, because I wanted to know what really happened.
I don’t know what readers’ reactions will be to this novel. I expect that many people who believe the tale exactly as their grandmother heard it from the storekeeper/the postmaster/the doctor will refuse to believe any other version of the events, but so far every objective person who has heard my side of the story has come away convinced that I had hit on the truth.
2. Your novels are always meticulously researched, sometimes more than some non-fiction books. In your research for Tom Dula's story, did you use any unusual or new research sources? What were the most interesting treasures you unearthed in your research? What were your favorite places to visit?
After I had the setting firmly in my mind, I read non-fiction accounts of the incident, and studied census records and local histories. Along the way, I discovered that the conventional scenario did not make sense to me. In order to write a logical story, I had to go back to the original testimony and to do my own investigation of the people and the events in the story.
I think the most interesting thing I found — at least the one I can discuss without disclosing too much about the story — concerns James Melton, the husband of Tom Dula's mistress and co-defendant Ann Melton. Because of testimony that Tom and Ann had sex together with James Melton sleeping only a few feet away, previous researchers have assumed that Melton was either elderly or too intimidated by Tom the Confederate soldier to protest.
With the help of Michael Hardy, North Carolina Historian of the Year and an author of Civil War histories, I found out that James Melton was not at all the elderly coward of popular legend. He was still in his twenties at the time Laura Foster died, and he, too, fought in the Civil War. A soldier in Zebulon Vance's own 26th North Carolina, James Melton was wounded twice in the war — the first time at Gettysburg, where he carried the regimental colors into battle. Any man who walks on to a battle field carrying a flag while several thousand other people there have guns — that man is no coward.
3. You often work to expose the vicious ways in which the people of Appalachia have been depicted; The Devil Amongst the Lawyers beautifully illustrates the methods of the mainstream media in creating the fabricated image of Appalachia that lingers today. Was it difficult to work within a story that, in many ways, features people who are the basis for many of the nastier stereotypes of Appalachia? How did you address the unsavory elements of this story?
That is precisely the reason that I waited for so many years to tackle the story. Two things worry me — still do: 1) people who believe the stereotypes will see this as an "average" mountain community, and their prejudices will be reinforced; 2) the superficial readers who used to mistake me for a writer of crime fiction will mistake this for a whodunit — including a few fluffy old dears who review for newspapers. I find it difficult to be forbearing with either group.
I would not have written this book at all if Zebulon Vance had not been the attorney who defended Tom Dula. Vance, the governor of North Carolina during the Civil War, was born and raised in Madison County, NC, near Ashevillle, but despite his family's hard times after the early death of his father, Zeb Vance managed to get an education, read law, and get himself elected governor by the age of thirty. I thought that Vance could counteract the stereotypes — in fact at one point in the novel he remarks on the fact that he and Dula have similar backgrounds, but that the resemblance ends there.
I also try to keep the reader aware that these people have just lived through the hardships of the War, and that often they did whatever they had to in order to survive. In many ways they are the product of the time and place. People seem to understand that when they read westerns, but often they fail to apply this logic to stories set in other rural areas.
Music did not play so large a part in the creation of this novel as it has with some of my other works. Tom Dula was a fiddler, and there is a scene in the woods in which he plays Soldier's Joy, but perhaps because of the emotional numbness of the principal narrator, Pauline Foster, there is no music in the background of this story. It comes at the end of the Civil War, during which the people here suffered many hardships and privations, and they are still recovering from the shock of the war. It is a grim time and place, peopled with characters whose lives do not lend themselves to music.
I hope to record a CD with bluegrass musician Jack Hinshelwood, with whom I occasionally do programs. He will sing the ballad "Tom Dooley" and I will record a reading from the novel.
5. In your Ballad novels, you bring to life both fictitious people with historical elements and actual historical people. Which of these folks are your favorites (I think I know)? Were there some (either in Tom Dooley or other books) who surprised you by being more or less fun to be around than you anticipated?
In Ghost Riders I had a wonderful time bringing Zebulon Vance to life. He was such a colorful character, and certainly North Carolina’s most beloved statesman. It was more difficult to write about him this time, because in order to feature him as a character I had to go over much of the information already covered in Ghost Riders, but trying not to repeat myself.
I expected to loathe the cold and heartless Pauline Foster, who seemed to hate everybody, and who got three people killed with her meddling. It was unsettling to find out how often I agreed with her, philosophically. She says things like, "It's easy to tell people what they want to hear. Just work out what you really think about something, and then tell them the opposite."
6. A number of high school and college classes have incorporated your novels. What have been some of best experiences you’ve had with these students? (We can also put in a plug for the WCC class this fall. It’s HUM 122, Southern Culture, right?)
I love to talk to students about my work. In March the University of South Carolina-Beaufort used my novel St. Dale in its Chaucer class. They had a whole day of programming devoted to the novel, contrasting the veneration of racing legend Dale Earnhardt with the canonization of Thomas Becket.
This fall Prof. Julie Mullis of Wilkes Community College will use The Ballad of Tom Dooley as a text in her literature class. I am grateful to my publisher Thomas Dunne Books, who is donating 25 books to this class so that they can begin their studies before the novel’s actual publication date.
When I began "mentally composting" the story of Tom Dula and Ann Melton, and the murder of Laura Foster, I kept getting the nagging feeling that the pattern of the tale was familiar. Where had I seen this configuration of characters before? Finally I figured it out. The template of the story fits perfectly over Wuthering Heights.
8. Tom Dula's story is not a happy one, but, course, you remind readers, in Frankie Silver's voice, that "happy stories mostly ain't true." Yet, his sordid story continues to engage us today. What do you think is the lingering appeal of this piece of history? What place do you think your novel will have in the artistic treatment of Tom's story?
What is the lingering appeal of this story? Tom Dula's attorney, former governor Zebulon B. Vance poses that same question within the novel. He says: "People will tell this story for a century, though I'm damned if I know why. There's little enough to it. No doubt they will sing about it, and spin fanciful tales, and act it out, turning all its principals into Sunday school sweethearts and black-hearted villains. It will all be nonsense. At least I remember what was real."
One explanation is that the characters are such literary archetypes — straight out of a hundred ballads: the handsome, faithless soldier boy; the vain and beautiful married woman; and the sweet, innocent doomed maiden. Whether they were really like that or not became lost in a haze of romanticism, so that now people imagine them the way they need them to be: Tom the reformed rake who has finally found true love with sweet and innocent Laura Foster, and wicked Ann glowering from jealousy. These romancers have conveniently forgotten that Laura was also being treated for syphilis, and that her reputation was tarnished well before she took up with Tom Dula. They ceased to be real people long ago — now in most of the accounts of this incident they are as mythical as Aladdin and Cinderella.
What I want to accomplish with my novel about this story is to remove all the layers of sentimental varnish that have obscured the real people involved — to see them the way they really were, and then try to understand what happened and why.
9. Though this is The Ballad of Tom Dooley, Tom himself is not your narrator. What decisions did you make regarding the point of view of the novel? How did those influence the way the story has evolved?
Frankie Silver was not the narrator in The Ballad of Frankie Silver, either. In both stories, I felt that the principal narrator needed to be someone who knew what was really going on. Frankie Silver, an illiterate 18-year old from a mountain farm, was a deer in the headlights, completely bewildered by the complex legal system, and clinging to silence as the one safe thing to do. Tom Dula also retreated into silence when he was arrested and jailed. I felt that while he did know the details of the death and burial of Laura Foster, he was completely unaware of the forces that led up to the incident. I studied the trial transcripts, in search of someone who did know what was going on far sooner than Tom did. Pauline Foster, the state's witness, arrived in the Elkville community in early March, before Tom began seeing Laura Foster, and she was working as a live-in servant for her cousin Ann Foster Melton, Tom's married lover. It is Pauline's account of the incident that has come down to us through the trial record, and from various over-looked statements within that trial record, I concluded that Pauline Foster was more than an innocent bystander. So I let her guide us through the story.
The secondary narrator, former Confederate governor Zebulon Baird Vance, is there for balance. He is the aristocratic mountaineer to offset the illiterate and immoral principles in the story, who ran too close to stereotype for my taste. Vance is also necessary to explain the legal side of the story, although I kept the trial details to a minimum, because my intention was to write a psychological study of two deeply flawed women, not to fashion a crime story.
10. Is there anything else that you really want to make sure I mention in the article? (awards we ought to mention?)
In May I won the Perry F. Kendig Award for Achievement in Literature, given by the Arts Council of the Blue Ridge in Roanoke VA.
Three book clubs have already taken "The Ballad of Tom Dooley" to be offered to their readers this fall, including The Literary Guild- Alternate Selection.
The premier of The Ballad of Tom Dooley will be held September 12-14 at Wilkes Community College with a banquet, at which I will speak and sign books, and a day of programming devoted to the story of Tom Dooley. A special Wilkes County edition of the novel will be sold with proceeds going to Wilkes Community College.
"It's a novel, and therefore none of it is true."
Heard that one already.
Why do gentlemen of a certain age believe that?
Did they all have the same fifth grade teacher?
Don't they know that the world is not that simple?
In anticipation of the coming spate of amateur reviews (because these days anybody with a keyboard thinks they are entitled to an opinion on everything), let me post again my views on writing about history. If someone has an advanced degree in say, physics, and if he doesn't read widely, he may have a simplistic view of literary matters, thinking that anything labeled "non-fiction" is gospel truth and anything labeled "fiction" is full of unicorns and pixies. Such an unsophisticated and naïve view of narrative is not worthy of an adult reader.
Sometimes the ONLY way to tell the truth
is to call it a novel.
Please note: I do not make it all up.
Reflections on Historical Fiction
By Sharyn McCrumb
1. Do you consider yourself to be as important and valid as an accredited historian?
I believe that historical novelists (if they are good, if they research well, and if they understand their subject matter) can be as valid and sometimes more important than an “accredited” historian. The difference between “truth” and “fiction” is often spurious. The Iliad is listed in fiction, but in the 1890’s Heinrich Schliemann bought a shovel, went to the coast of Turkey, and found Troy. On the other hand, Mein Kampf is shelved under non-fiction.
One purpose of historical fiction is to make the reader feel the events of the time. I understood World War I by reading non-fiction accounts of that war, but it was not until I read the novel All Quiet on the Western Front that -- in a visceral way-- I got it. Erich Maria Remarque taught me more about the war than “accredited historians;” and Remarque lived through the fighting on the Western Front; most of the people who wrote the historical accounts did not. The fact that Remarque's book was a “novel” does not make it less accurate or less important.
I think my job as an historical novelist is to make people care - to feel the events, rather than just to know the facts in a clinical sense.
2. As a historical novelist, do you feel obligated to research as meticulously as a bona fide historian?
In the one case where an obscure mountain crime was the subject of a novel of mine and of several "non-fiction" books, (The Ballad of Frankie Silver) I found that I did more research than the non-fiction writers, and that I was more accurate in describing the events in the case.
I do exactly the same research that any historian would do, but then I have to go one step further and bring all that research to life, giving it emotional weight and sensory illumination. Historians draw a picture of a battle; historical novelists put you in it.
3. Should you research more, less, different than an historian?
Both more and in the final stage differently. Historians strive to be objective. I can take sides. Thus I have to know as much as I can to choose a side, and in creating a character I have to know how he’d think and feel and what other things in his era would influence his feelings - even to the point of knowing what songs might be in his head.
4. As a historical novelist, what can you do better than a historian to tell a historical account?
Since I don’t have to be objective, I can make the reader experience the event through the eyes of one partisan character, and by doing so I can make the reader care deeply about the event.
I also try to experience what I can to find out what the physical sensations were. I have dressed in a Civil War uniform and fired a muzzle loader. I have sat in Tennessee's electric chair. I have done laps in a race car at Lowe's Motor Speedway. I visit every major place I write about.
I think there's more to history than reading papers in the archives.
5. Have you ever come closer to revealing an essential truth than historians who have written of the same events and subjects?
"Essential truths," hell. At times, I got the facts right, and they didn't.
In 1833 mountain girl named Frankie Silver was hanged for murder in Morganton, NC. Two “historians” who wrote about the case interviewed some local residents in the 1990’s and were told that Frankie Silver was hanged from a formal wooden trap-door style gallows. The locals said their grandparents remembered the event.
Elderly people in 1990 are claiming that their grandparents remembered an 1833 hanging? I don’t think so.
A trap-door gallows in a small mountain town in 1833? I don't think so.
So I did some general research, using three other 19th century hangings for comparison.
1) Nat Turner - Virginia 1833 - Although the sheriff wasn't sure they would have to hang Frankie Silver until the day of the execution (a pardon was expected,) the Virginia authorities were quite sure they would hang Nat Turner. They had weeks to prepare. Yet, by all accounts, those carrying out the execution simply strung him up from a tree, using a ladder to get him up to the high branch.
Would a county sheriff, who thought the hanging might not even take place, go to the trouble of building a gallows? Would he even have the expertise to do it?
2) Thomas P. Dula - ("Tom Dooley") Statesville NC – 1868 – This execution took place only forty miles or so away from the site of Frankie Silver's hanging, and it happened 34 years later. Therefore, the execution technology should have been more advanced. A New York newspaper sent a reporter to cover that hanging, so we know how Tom Dula was hanged. And again — the county sheriff knew weeks in advance that Dula would be executed, so they had time to prepare. But according to eyewitness accounts, Tom Dula was stood on the back of a cart with a rope around his neck – no trapdoor! – I found it hard to believe that a sheriff in a neighboring county, 34 years earlier, would have used a trapdoor gallows.
3) John Brown - Harpers Ferry WV 1859 - In the execution of abolitionist John Brown they did indeed use a formal gallows with a trap door, but there are two factors to be considered here: a) The authorities had weeks to prepare for the execution; b) It was not an execution carried out by a county sheriff. In this case the Army Corps of Engineers with all its expertise and its budget conducted the execution. If you have lots of money and trained engineers at your disposal, then you can have all the fancy frills you want at an event. But I contend that in the case of the hanging of Frankie Silver, neither the money nor the expertise was available.
The only pre-1870's executions in the U.S. that I could find using the trapdoor - gallows were those carried out by the government or the military. Small town county sheriffs, who might perform one execution a year, lacked the resources and the expertise to use such elaborate means.
So, in my novel I said that Frankie Silver was hanged from the back of a cart, and I still say that the non-fiction historians who said otherwise were wrong.
6. Do you feel you were acting as a historical revisionist?
No. I felt that I was using more common sense in interpreting the data. I have never knowingly been "revisionist" in dealing with historical events.
7. At any point in a historical novel, do you feel that you are taking liberties with the historical truth that a real historian wouldn't?
For example, in Ghost Riders, tthere is a scene in which I have North Carolina Gov. Zebulon Vance reacting with rage to the report of the Sodom Laurel Massacre in his home county. I know he did react with rage to that news. Memoirs of that era and the governor’s paper in the NC Archives all say so. But since I don’t know word-for-word exactly what he said when he heard the news, I was “inventing” words to show - dramatize - his response. A non-fiction historian would not do that. I did not change the facts, though - I simply dramatized them.
8. Where in your book does historical fact end, and historical fiction begin?
Historical fiction begins when something cannot be verified, but I take my best guess based on thorough research. What kind of pie did Frankie Silver eat on the way to the gallows? I know she DID eat pie and that it was July in western NC, so I'm guessing it was something like blackberry — too early for apple.
When a conversation took place, in the pre-tape recorder-era, and we have only the gist of it, I have to produce that conversation in dialogue, so I take my best guess - often after reading speeches made by the person in question, so that I can approximate their speech patterns.
Once for Ghost Riders, I took a fragment of something Zebulon Vance really said, and I elaborated on it to make it into a longer scene for my novel. I sent the finished scene to a Zebulon Vance scholar, who was unable to tell where the real Vance left off and my embellishment began. I felt that I had got it right.
9. What rules do you set for yourself in taking liberties with accepted historical truth?
Anything I can verify, I do verify. After that I do all the research I can to make the most-informed guess I can make. If you are writing a novel, you may have to tell what the historical figures are eating or wearing, and often that requires an educated guess.
10. Has the advent of the computer changed your methods of acquiring historical data, storing, verifying…
It has made the more obvious data more easily accessible. I could Google, say, the date of the Battle of Chickamauga, instead of having to look it up. But apart from the obvious, I do not trust on-line sources. What the internet has done is to make it easy to locate used, out-of-print reference books, and it enables me to order them via credit card from bookstores all over the world. That is a great savings of time and energy.
But there is a great deal more to research than looking up facts. Analyzing what you find takes intelligence, perceptive and experience. People who make historical judgments based on wishful thinking or selfish interests ("He couldn't have been born out of wedlock! He was my ancestor!") are not to be trusted.
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