New Bern, NC – Most people with any knowledge of folklore are familiar with the following
Reading of charges against Tom Dooley
though not as familiar as they are with that same story told via a different medium.
The Kingston Trio performing "The Ballad of Tom Dooley." It was a number one single for the folk group back in 1958 not bad for a song that had been written about 90 years earlier in the wake of Tom Dooley's 1868 conviction for the murder two years earlier of his lover Laura Foster in Wilkes County. The song was first heard about the time of Tom's death by hanging following his conviction and perhaps heard by the song's namesake as he went to the gallows.
"I have no proof of that. I don't think there's anything that can prove that didn't happen but it is something that has been discussed for many, many years. He was a musician. Played the fiddle, and had plenty of time while in jail to write a ballad, and many people say he wrote his own ballad."
Karen Wheeling Reynolds of Elkville in Wilkes County, the author of "Tom Dooley: The Story Behind the Ballad." It's a second act for the book Reynolds' first interaction with the story came when she wrote the play "Tom Dooley: A Wilkes County Legend" which has received annual performances by the Wilkes Playmakers for the past 12 years. Much of the book is like that protestation there's no proof something didn't happen. Reynolds refers to the book as historical fiction and admits to a certain artistic license with events, though its not license that others haven't taken. For instance the tale told of Tom Dooley is that the murder of Laura Foster was the culmination of events that occurred after Tom returned from the Civil War to find his lover Anne Melton married to another man. Dramatic just not true.
"One thing that I've always heard was that Tom went away to war and that Anne married James Melton for his money when he went away, but Ann Melton actually married James Melton before Tom went away to war, but again I think for the same reason, she married him for security, for money, to get away from home. Tom was perhaps not the best marriage material."
So in order to present a better story and stay true to the ballad which most people know the Tom Dooley story from Tom returns from the Civil War to find his one true love married to another man. And Anne Melton's mother Lotty is the hand that put the ultimate murder of Laura Foster in motion as she broke off communications between her daughter and Tom Dooley in this scene away from his home to fight for the Confederacy in order to facilitate security for their family by marrying Anne to the comparatively wealthy James Melton.
Reads from page 41
It's the moment in the book where one can see the situation start to devolve but with Anne actually married to James Melton before Tom left for the Civil War it couldn't have happened or perhaps we should say we can't prove it didn't. If you read "Tom Dooley: The Story Behind the Ballad" you might get an impression about who Karen Wheeling Reynolds believes was guilty of Laura Foster's murder. But her book doesn't lay guilt at any one person's feet. Several people are presented as possibilities including Tom Dooley but without anyone's guilt-or-innocence confirmed.
"I'm also an actress, professional actress. We learn in acting classes, one of the first things they'll tell you and it's the same thing I believe in writing, is don't presume that your audience is stupid. They get it. And I think that for me to try to force something on them that says this is true, this is what happened, and particularly in a case like this would be wrong."
One thing that makes the case particularly hard to decipher is the case is a four-sided love triangle. It wasn't just Tom Dooley and his long-time lover Anne Melton and his newly-pregnant and soon-to-be-wife Laura Foster there was a fourth person in the mix who became the prosecution's star witness against Tom Dooley despite problems with her own credibility.
"Perline Foster is such a wildcard in all of this. She worked for the Meltons, and she loved Tom Dooley. There were many people who documented she really cared for him and he did not return her affections. She told so many things during the trial. She accused Anne Melton of killing Laura. And Perline even implicated herself. She got up and said direct from Celia Scott's testimony if I hang, Anne Melton, you will too. You're as deep in the mud as I am in the mire."
It's events such as that which has kept the question of Tom's guilt or innocence alive for nearly 150 years. There's even conflicting words from Tom Dooley himself on the gallows he professed his innocence but the day before wrote that he was the only person who had a hand in Laura Foster's murder. Which was true? Did Tom Dooley rightly go to the gallows, or was his confession just a ploy to protect his true love? Those questions bring up one other aspect that partly explains why the story remains fascinating after all these years. It's not just a murder taking place amid salacious circumstances
"I do think it is a love story. People, sometimes what they want, they go about it the wrong way to get what they want and I think this is a classic example of that. I think there's no question that Tom Dooley and Anne Melton loved each other, and they had strong ties that began at a very young age."
Karen Wheeling Reynolds and the Wilkes Playmakers presented the courtroom scenes from her play "Tom Dooley: A Wilkes County Legend" to the state Supreme Court Society of Historians back in 2002. They ruled Tom Dooley not guilty.
Karen Wheeling Reynolds is the author of "Tom Dooley: The Story Behind the Ballad" published by Little Creek Books. I'm George Olsen.