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Fifty-six years ago this week, The Kingston Trio had the number-one hit in the nation with their rendition of “Tom Dooley,” an old Civil War era ballad. It went gold the same year, and with it, the folk music revival reached its peak of popularity.
The song tells the story of North Carolina’s Tom Dula, a Confederate veteran from Wilkes County who was convicted and executed in Statesville for the murder of Laura Foster, in 1869. (Editor’s note: Dula is pronounced “Dooley.” It’s not uncommon for southern mountain folk to pronounce final uh sounds as ee, as in “Grand Ole Opry” — or when Sheriff Andy Taylor refers to Aunt Bea’s cooking as being “extry good.”)
The case received widespread publicity at the time because many believed that Dula (who was represented in court by former governor Zebulon Vance) was innocent and was merely covering for the real murderer, Anne Melton, his girlfriend before the war and Foster’s cousin. In fact, the grandmother of famed North Carolina guitarist Doc Watson even claimed to have heard Miss Melton’s deathbed confession that she, not Tom Dula, actually killed Laura Foster.1
Dooley’s last words to the crowd before he was hanged were “I want everybody to know that I did not harm a single hair on that fair lady’s head.”
The Kingston Trio’s success with “Tom Dooley” inspired a 1959 film starring Michael Landon. For even more colorful details on Tom Dula’s fascinating story, read this article from the Encyclopedia on North Carolina.
- The North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources: This Day in North Carolina History