WHO KILLED LAURA FOSTER?
by Leigh Lundin
When they dug up the poor girl’s grave, they found Laura’s decomposing body.
She had been stabbed multiple times until one of the strikes slipped between her ribs piercing her broken heart. According to a newspaper at the time, an autopsy found she was enceinte– she was ‘with child’, she was pregnant.
Laura Foster departed either the 25th or 27th of May, 1866, planning to elope with her childhood friend and fiancé, Thomas. Her horse wandered back by itself, some say the next day, others say as much as a couple of weeks later. When her shallow grave was eventually discovered, the sheriff found evidence Laura’s horse was tied to a nearby tree and gnawed through its bridle.
Anecdotes suggest the sheriff arrested her cousin, Perline Foster, but if so, the grounds for arrest are not clear. Perline secured her own freedom by saying her sister Ann had revealed the burial spot to her. After the body’s discovery, the sheriff arrested Perline’s sister and Laura’s cousin, Ann Foster Melton who contended Laura’s fiancé killed her. The sheriff had a problem. If Perline and Ann didn’t kill their cousin, where was Laura’s fiancé? The sheriff expanded the search and eventually formed a posse made up, reports suggest, of more than a couple precipitous hot-headed men aching to find Thomas Dula.
Ever since he was a lad, Thomas Dula proved attractive to the ladies. Around Thomas, girls dropped their drawers; they couldn’t seem to help themselves. As young as age fourteen, he attracted the considerably older Ann Foster. Both Laura and Ann Foster had eyes for Thomas, but the older Ann carried the day, at least until she married a farmer and Thomas, age 17, joined the Confederate Army.
Thomas survived the war, serving in the infantry. Sheltered by various farmers’ daughters as he made his way in the world, he returned home where the very married Ann Melton, née Foster, wanted to pick up where she left off. This time, Thomas was smitten by young Laura, closer to his age. They planned to elope and no one thought much more about it until Laura’s horse turned up shortly followed by the girl’s body.
Thomas did not leave town right away, but after insinuations began to circulate in June, 1866, he set out on "shank’s mare", meaning on foot, hiking toward Tennessee. In July, he stopped at the farm of a man who wasn’t merely a Union sympathizer, but a former lieutenant colonel in the 4th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry Regiment of the GAR. Thomas asked for work as he badly needed boots. His own tattered shoes were falling apart.
Lt. Col. Grayson
The landowner allowed Thomas to work for him about a week, until he had collected sufficient earnings to shod his feet. Hardly had Thomas moved on than the posse arrived. From the description, Lt. Col. Grayson recognized his hired hand, a man who’d called himself Tom Hall. Grayson grabbed his service weapons and joined the hunt.
From Thomas’s standpoint, that was both bad and good. Grayson succeeded in tracking him down where the posse found Thomas sitting by a stream, washing blisters chafed by his new boots, just short of the Tennessee border. He offered no resistance to the posse, which, led by Ann’s husband James Melton, set about to hang him. For the first time, Grayson drew his pistol, not to arrest Thomas but to prevent the posse lynching him.
Grayson personally took Thomas into custody. They spent the night at Grayson’s farm and in the morning, Grayson bound Thomas to a horse and delivered him to the sheriff. Fathers and husbands breathed a sigh of relief to have Thomas in jail.
The state indicted Thomas on 1 October, 1866. Fortunately for Thomas, the former Governor of North Carolina, Zebulon Baird Vance, found himself recently released from federal prison after being accused of sedition. He volunteered to defend Thomas.
Another man, Jack Keaton, was arrested as being an accomplice or accessory, but subsequently released based upon producing an alibi. His perceived rôle in the case is not clear, but he may have been thought to have facilitated Thomas’ escape.
Reports vary wildly, but all agree that throughout his incarceration and trial, Thomas remained calm and serene. He did not speak for himself other than to insist he "did not harm a hair on that fair lady’s head." He refused to implicate Ann Melton, who was eventually released. Ann Melton, according to some reports, ignored gossip and enjoyed her freedom, perhaps inappropriately and flirtatiously.
The evidence against Thomas proved circumstantial. He’d become affianced to young Laura, probably got her with child, and planned to elope. As it turned out, he was the only one to elope, leaving poor Laura buried behind.
Although it was not placed into evidence, Perline, Ann, and their mother told the prosecutor that at the time Laura disappeared, they and Thomas had been sitting in the moonlight on a hill overlooking the village, chatting and sipping moonshine. If true, this was not heard by a jury.
The big question was one of motive. Thomas could have left Laura and Wilkes County at any time. Why kill Laura? Wilkes County had an active rumour mill, and word of a social disease spread. Townsfolk factored syphilis into the equation without pinpointing an actual reason, other than to believe Laura may have infected Thomas. By that time, Laura Foster, Perline Foster, Ann Foster Melton, her husband James Melton, Thomas and possibly one other woman were infected.
The state tried Thomas twice, finding him guilty of Laura’s murder. On Mayday 1869, Thomas rode to the scaffold sitting on his own coffin. As he had throughout the ordeal, he remained unruffled. At the metaphorical hanging tree, the execution party forced him to stand upon his own coffin, where they asked if he had final words.
He quietly accused a few people of bearing false witness against him and singled out Perline Foster. He repeated what he maintained all along. "Gentlemen, I did not harm a single hair on that fair lady’s head." With that, a whiplash jerked the horse and cart started forward, leaving Thomas to die at the end of a rope. The noose did not snap his neck, thus strangling him slowly over a ten minute period.
His younger sister Eliza (or Luiza) and her husband collected his body to be buried in the family plot near North Carolina Road 1134, now known as Tom Dula Road.
The town had long since buried Laura Foster atop German Hill, later renamed for the murdered girl. The story of young Laura, pregnant and murdered, traveled as far as New York where it appeared in newspapers there.
The village had long been suspicious of Ann and even Ann’s sister, Perline Foster, but without evidence and the cooperation of Thomas, prosecution could not move forward. It was reported Ann’s handkerchief was found under Laura’s body, but it was easily explained away as having been borrowed from Ann.
Historically, less attention has been paid to Perline (also referred to as Pauline). Although both Thomas and Ann suspected Laura of being the source of the syphilis, medical evidence and court testimony pointed the finger at Perline. She testified at trial that both Thomas and Ann had stated they’d avenge themselves on the person who’d given them the disease. Laura had been wrongly impugned– it was Perline herself.
Ann Foster Melton appeared impervious to local talk and, according to possibly mean-spirited gossips, continued living well, if somewhat scandalously. Whether or not the rumors were true, Ann Melton earned the enmity of friends and neighbors.
Her death drew interest. She died either from injuries sustained by an overturned wagon or from the late stages of syphilis. Many contend that on her deathbed, Ann Foster Melton confessed to the murder of young Laura to her physician. Melodramatic anecdotes claimed she could see the flames of hell at the foot of her bed and black cats climbing the walls.
The Ballad of Tom Dula
In western Carolinas and eastern Tennessee, folklorists say a trailing letter ‘A’ on a word is often transliterated and pronounced as a long E or the letter Y, pointing out Grand Ole Opry as an example. Whether for this reason or because it rhymed better in song, Tom Dula became the stuff of legend.
Almost immediately, balladeers began writing and picking out songs about the tragedy of Thomas, Laura, Perline, and Ann. Some claim Thomas himself wrote the first song, but most insist his last words were incorporated:
I know they’re gonna hang me; tomorrow I’ll be dead,
Though I never even harmed a hair on poor little Laurie’s head."
Modern listeners wouldn’t recognize early versions, but critically, facts became twisted over time. Tom’s involvement with three women (actually four, according to documents) evolved into a triangle involving his capturer, Lt. Col. James Grayson.
In 1927, his grandson, Gilliam Bannon Grayson, a blind fiddler from Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee, recorded a family song entitled "Tom Dooley" and with Henry Whittier, recorded the song in Memphis for Victor Records, 1 October 1929, weeks before the stock market crash. Grayson and Whittier became famous among bluegrass fans.
In 1952, Frank Warner took down a variation of the song from Frank Proffitt and passed it to Alan Lomax who published it in Folk Song: USA.
In 1958, nearly a century after the death of Laura Foster, the Kingston Trio recorded their version, picking up phrases from earlier folk songs. They went on to sell six million copies and The Ballad of Tom Dooley entered the history books as one of the top ballads of all time.
Until I read Rob’s article last week, I hadn’t been entirely certain if Tom Dooley was fact or fiction, although I recalled hearing that another woman was responsible. I began researching, albeit without the benefit of Professor John Foster West‘s book, The Ballad of Tom Dula: The Documented Story Behind the Murder of Laura Foster.
The web has a bountiful amount of information, but many tidbits conflict with others. The most unusual was the North Carolina Visitor Center showing a photograph almost certainly not Tom Dula. They raise the issue of another Grayson, a schoolteacher "Bob Grayson", who was supposedly smitten with Laura Foster.
To be fair, this isn’t the only site that brought up the possibility of another man who may or may not have been (a) a schoolteacher, (b) named Bob Grayson, (c) a Yankee, and (d) involved with Laura (or Perline or Ann), but the cloudy information appears spurious. I hesitate to dismiss the site altogether, because it includes names and plausible details either confirmed elsewhere or filling in gaps others leave out, suggesting grains amongst the chaff.
As a devourer of mysteries since childhood, I could debate a couple of points in Thomas Dula’s defense.
First was the killing itself. It appeared to be messy: repeated blows and multiple stabs until one finally pierced her rib cage. That of course suggests rage and inexperience, and the very disarray could argue that Tom did not commit the murder. He was an infantry private, a trained soldier who saw his share of battles and acquitted himself well on the battlefield. Infantrymen are trained with bayonets and taught to avoid the rib cage. Dula would have known that.
Second, although it’s not entirely clear when Tom departed, if he’d fled immediately following Laura’s death, I would have expected him to take Laura’s horse. This was a man with shoes rotting off his feet traversing a mountainous region. A horse would have gone a long way toward eluding pursuers and getting Tom clear of Wilkes County and out of the state. This scenario depends upon whether Tom fled immediately or well after her death, which seems more likely. Either way, walking suggests Tom did not feel in immediate peril of arrest.
A fifteen page letter supposedly written by Tom the night before his execution surfaced after his hanging, the contents which absolved Ann Foster Melton. Thomas, however, was illiterate, having signed his loyalty oath to the Union with an X. Whoever wrote the note, it was not Tom.
Finally, virtually every argument implicating Ann as a culprit could apply to Perline as well. Perline was released from jail only after she claimed Ann told her where the body was. Apparently the description was clear enough, Perline was able to lead investigators directly to the remote burial spot.
Hold up your head, Tom Dooley
Thanks to Rob, I took a journey from a folk song that turned out to be a murder mystery. In researching this story, I came across an interesting footnote.
In 2001, led by a movement of its citizens, Wilkes County acquitted Tom Dula of all charges.