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What Connects The Kingston Trio to Bushwhackers? A convicted killer – but was he guilty?

It’s been a crazy week so let’s keep it short, okay? Let’s talk about Tom Dooley.


He had nothing to do with our summer show, but one of our summer show’s characters had to do with him. So it works.


You’ve heard the folk song, made famous by the Kingston Trio:


     Hang down your head Tom Dooley,

     Hang down your head and cry!

     Hang down your head, Tom Dooley,

     Poor boy, you’re gonna die.


Not exactly happy and uplifting, but here’s his tale:


His name was really Tom Dula, though the locals, for some reason, pronounced it “Dooley.” He was a mountain boy, born to poor folks, and a musician of some note. When the Civil War called he joined the Confederate side as a musician and drummer. He suffered through the war, being wounded several times. His brothers were all killed.


During one of North Carolina’s biggest battles, at Wyse Fork near Kinston in March 1865, he was captured by Union forces.


But that isn’t where his fame lies.


Tom was part of a love triangle after the war – he was in love with Laura Foster (and the song goes into this a little bit), promising to marry her. The other part of the triangle was one Anne Melton. But in 1866 Laura was murdered – a single stab wound – and buried in a shallow grave. Locals were quick to accuse Dula and he made a run for Tennessee where he worked for a man there, until the North Carolina law came and hauled him to jail.


Dula was suffering from syphilis and he’d been heard saying he was going to kill the person who gave it to him – very possibly Laura. The debate today is whether he was indeed guilty or whether a jealous Anne Melton committed the crime.


Well, the folks in that day decided he was guilty. There was a famous trial and Dula’s defense attorney was our own Zebulon Vance himself (read my last blog for more about him). As Vance had been a fellow soldier – colonel of the 26th NC – he did the job pro bono… did not do it well enough, apparently, since Dula ended the affair dangling by the neck from the end of a rope. But, still, Vance was convinced his client was innocent and held to that view to the day of his own death.


There are all kinds of myths and legends rising out of this tale—one of the most interesting is that Anne supposedly confessed to the crime on her death bed, and that in her final delusions she saw black cats on the walls and heard the sounds of bacon frying. If she was the murderer, Dula was the perfect gentleman and never ratted her out. Still, on his way to the hanging, he called out, “Today you hang an innocent man!”


In 2001 the citizens in his home county petitioned Governor Mike Easley, asking him to give Tom Dula a posthumous pardon but their petition was ignored.


You can listen to the Kingston Trio version of the song here:



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