Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dula

by Fred Ray on May 21, 2010 · 3 comments

Asheville newspaperman Rob Neufeld has a two part series on Tom Dula, better known (and pronounced) as Tom Dooley. If you’re from my generation you can remember the Kingston Trio singing the sad ballad, which became a huge national hit and is credited with launching the folk revival of the early 60s.

Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
Hang down your head and cry
Killed poor Laura Foster
You know you’re bound to die

Dula was convicted in two trials of killing his sweetheart Laura Foster and hanged in 1868. Even today his guilt is hotly debated here in the Old North State.

What’s all this got to do with the Civil War? More than you’d think. Dula, like most of the men of his generation, was a Confederate veteran (Co. K, 42nd NC) and his counsel for his two trials was none other than North Carolina’s wartime governor, Zebulon Vance. The trials took place just after the end of the Late Unpleasantness and took on a definite aura of Lost Cause vs. Reconstruction, with Vance and his team of former Confederates defending one of their own against prosecutors who had not served.

The Dula trial was one of the first nationally reported murder trials, being picked up by the New York Times among others. Its notoriety was enhanced by the more lurid aspects of the case—Laura Foster was pregnant when she was murdered and Dula was a former lover of her cousin Ann Melton as well as several others. It’s the sort of thing that would be on daytime television these days.

Neufeld’s article, quoting an earlier book, even suggests that that Dula’s motive might have been revenge because Foster gave him syphilis—or perhaps that post-traumatic stress was involved. Dula after all had seen heavy combat. Some have suggested that a jealous Ann Melton was the real murderess. She was in fact tried separately and acquitted, and there was some suspicion that Dula was covering for her.

In any case Dula’s death has entered the realm of song and story, starting shortly after his death with a poem, later made into a ballad, by poet Thomas C. Land, which is still sung locally.

Altho Tom Dula died on the gallows, he has attained a sort of literary immortality. The story, a sort of Tarheel Gone with the Wind, refuses to die or even slow down. The latest additions are a stage play, The Ballad of Tom Dooley, due to open in Burnsville, NC, in August, and Dula, a musical.

Neufeld has promised a third part to the story focusing on the role of Zebulon Vance.


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