The Ballad of Tom Dooley: A Ballad Novel

The Ballad of Tom Dooley: A Ballad Novel

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by Sharyn McCrumb

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The Ballad of Tom Dooley is a literary triumph—what began as a fictional re-telling of the historical account of one of the most famous mountain ballads of all time became an astonishing revelation of the real culprit responsible for the murder of Laura Foster

Hang down your head, Tom Dooley…The folk song, made famous


The Ballad of Tom Dooley is a literary triumph—what began as a fictional re-telling of the historical account of one of the most famous mountain ballads of all time became an astonishing revelation of the real culprit responsible for the murder of Laura Foster

Hang down your head, Tom Dooley…The folk song, made famous by the Kingston Trio, recounts a tragedy in the North Carolina mountains after the Civil War. Laura Foster, a simple country girl, was murdered and her lover Tom Dula was hanged for the crime. The sensational elements in the case attracted national attention: a man and his beautiful, married lover accused of murdering the other-woman; the former governor of North Carolina spearheading the defense; and a noble gesture from the prisoner on the eve of his execution, saving the woman he really loved.

With the help of historians, lawyers, and researchers, Sharyn McCrumb visited the actual sites, studied the legal evidence, and uncovered a missing piece of the story that will shock those who think they already know what happened—and may also bring belated justice to an innocent man. What seemed at first to be a sordid tale of adultery and betrayal was transformed by the new discoveries into an Appalachian Wuthering Heights. Tom Dula and Ann Melton had a profound romance spoiled by the machinations of their servant, Pauline Foster.

Bringing to life the star-crossed lovers of this mountain tragedy, Sharyn McCrumb gifts understanding and compassion to her compelling tales of Appalachia, and solidifies her status as one of today's great Southern writers.

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St. Martin's Press
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Ballad Series , #9
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What did I know about murder cases that a man’s life should lie in my hands? I had spent the whole of my adult life in politics, except for a few years on a mountain circuit court, a decade before that trial. A war ago.
This tale is not a penny-dreadful thriller, penned by the likes of Mr. Wilkie Collins. Look elsewhere for clues and footprints and the trappings of a puzzle story—and go to the devil if you try to make this tale into one.
A case of law is a chess game for those who make their living at it, and a great sorrow for those who get caught up in its web.
A man died bravely, doing perhaps the only noble thing he ever achieved in his brutal, useless life. Another fifty years of living would not have improved him, for he had only a minute’s worth of courage, and he spent that.
That is the burden of this story, and it would shine brighter if there were a good woman at hand with the heart and the wit to tell it well. But we have no good woman to speak out for the doomed man—only a vain and selfish ditch rose, who rightly feared for her own life, and a raddled slut who delighted in the destruction she wrought single-handed. One of those wretched women is also my client, for the pair was arrested together, and bound over to stand trial for the same crime, but I had deemed it better for all concerned that they be tried separately for this deed, and I vowed to ask for severance as soon as I was able.
The young soldier was the first to face the judge, and it was he that I was concerned with at the outset. I would do what I could for him.
People will tell this story for a century, though I’m damned if I know why. There’s little enough to it. No doubt they will sing about it, and spin fanciful tales, and act it out, turning all its principals into Sunday-school sweethearts and black-hearted villains. It will all be nonsense. At least I remember what was real.
I remember.
*   *   *
I am weary and garrulous in my old age, sitting by the fire in my fine Washington home, and thinking back twenty-odd years, to when I was domiciled here in the old Capitol Prison, instead of in the United States Senate, where I have been nigh on ever since. I have been paging through my personal papers, idly speculating about whether I should like to write my memoirs someday. They would make interesting reading, though I do say so myself. One might trace my progress from backwoods farm boy to country lawyer, to Congressman, and then to Colonel of the 26th North Carolina during the War. I saw action on the front lines in Virginia. That was about as much soldiering as I cared to experience, so when the opportunity arose, I got myself elected Governor. From the Governor’s Palace in Raleigh, I sat out the remainder of the hostilities, skirmishing with bureaucrats and trying to protect the people of my state from both armies. They clapped me in prison here in Washington at the War’s end, for my trouble, but I didn’t take it personally—all the governors were there, so I did not lack for society. In a few weeks, they let us all out again, and I went home to a state made so desolate by war that my own personal ruin hardly mattered. I began again.
I had to practice a little law after the War ended, before those same trifling government bureaucrats saw fit to let me back into the congress I had unwillingly left when my home state seceded. I do not mean to ever leave Congress again. I shall die here, protecting the interests of my fellow Tarheels for as long as God grants me breath and strength.
A fine row house in the District of Columbia city is a far cry from my birthplace—a log cabin in the Carolina backcountry—but from my boyhood I could see my way clear to getting here as surely as I could see that blue haze of mountains that walled us off from the state of Tennessee. I come of good stock, though you might not think it, for we looked no more prosperous or cultured than most of our frontier neighbors, but my father’s father had fought in the Revolution. He wintered at Valley Forge with General Washington, and fought alongside him at Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth. I am proudest, though, of the fact that he fought closer to home—at King’s Mountain on the South Carolina border, just west of Charlotte. In 1780 a group of backcountry volunteers, calling themselves The Overmountain Men, engaged the British forces there, and defeated them in an hour, killing their commander, and proving that untrained colonials could defeat the mighty British army. George Washington’s troops were losing the War to the north, and that little victory on a Carolina hillside proved to the rest of the country that winning was possible. It was the turning point of the War, and I was proud that my family had been part of it.
On that little mountain farm where I grew up, we plowed furrows, and slopped hogs, and hewed firewood, but we were never allowed to forget that we were destined for greater things. My grandfather had left a library of five hundred books, and my mother read to us each night when the chores were done. My father died young, though, and so the way to prosperity was a steep and thorny path for us. I got some schooling over in Tennessee at Washington College, so that I had the rudiments of Latin, and composition, debate, and ancient history, but my father’s death ended that idyll, and before long I was clerking in a fine resort hotel in Warm Springs. That, too, was an education, though. It was a zoo for the aristocracy, and I learned to pass muster as one of them.
I read law in Asheville, and then begged and borrowed the funds to take me to the University of North Carolina for the formal study of law. I meant to get elected to something before long, and so I did, but for a few years in my youth I practiced law on the circuit court out of Asheville. There was little in those experiences worth mentioning in a senator’s memoirs.
But this Wilkes County case … That came later in my career, and in it, I was defending a man on trial for his life. I had thought of including the tale in my memoirs, because it became quite a celebrated trial. The New York Herald even sent a reporter down to cover it. But the public finds it hard to recognize success or skill if one ultimately loses the case, so perhaps I will not include it, after all. I have had enough adventures for two lifetimes, without telling that sad little tale.
That Wilkes County court case constituted my brief hiatus from public life, falling in 1866, when, having been the Confederate Governor of North Carolina, I was barred from running for public office yet awhile, so, when they let me out of Capitol Prison with the rest of the Rebel governors, I bided my time and supported Harriette and the boys by returning to the practice of law. Perhaps I thought that my renown and popularity would make up for any deficiencies I might have in my long-disused courtroom skills.
The law was never much more than a means to an end for me, anyhow. I was always happy to help people escape what was coming to them, which is mostly what a defense attorney does, but from the very beginning I was only marking time until I got elected to something. But for the War, I would have never looked back.
*   *   *
A frail girl was stabbed to death in the foothills of Wilkes County, and nigh on everybody there knows who did it. Well, I didn’t know. I was practicing law in Charlotte, some ninety miles away, and I was only called in to defend the man they had arrested, a complete stranger to me, despite what people have said to the contrary over the years. He was a Confederate veteran, as was I, but we never served together, and would not have been acquainted even if we had, for I began and ended my military service as a colonel, and he stayed a sickly private and a drummer boy. We were worlds apart, except perhaps to people who looked at our lives on paper.
This twenty-two-year-old former soldier got himself arrested, and I in my infinite wisdom got the trial moved to the next county, where nobody knew any more about it than I did. My intentions were good. And I suppose I could not have done otherwise, even if I had been more in possession of the facts. In the end, a lawyer must do his client’s bidding, and I did that.
God help us both. I did that.
*   *   *
I expect that in years to come there will be more people wondering why I took this case than there will be wondering if he did it.
Oh, why did I agree to represent a man, generally accorded by my learned colleagues in the legal profession to be guilty, who could not have paid for a shot of whiskey, much less an attorney for his defense? An idle, amoral Confederate veteran, accused of stabbing a young girl to death and burying her body in the woods.
Well, somebody had to represent him. Any country lawyer will tell you that. If we managed to get Satan himself into a courtroom, it would be some lawyer’s lot to defend him, and to argue, no doubt, that he is a hard-working fellow.
But why me?
I don’t know that I had any choice in the matter. The Wilkes County judge appointed me, and ordered me to defend this young man pro bono. It is a fine sentiment, pro bono. For the public good and in the interest of justice, a lawyer can be assigned to an indigent defendant, and he must represent his client completely without charge. This ensures that the poor are accorded a defense, but it can be hard lines on a struggling attorney, and I expect that the temptation would be great to rush through the case, and move on to more lucrative matters. A man’s life is at stake, though; if I shirked my duty in so grave a matter as this, I would never sleep again.
I don’t suppose the judge pulled my name out of a hat. He could have found lawyers a-plenty in the surrounding counties without reaching all the way to Charlotte to fetch one. Perhaps he intended the appointment as a favor. Here was I forced to practice law, but lacking in experience, and perhaps he thought that a notorious murder trial would set my name before the general public, so that people would queue up to retain my services for their legal requirements.
I am sensible of the honor, but I could scarcely afford the opportunity. There I was, former Governor of the state of North Carolina, and before that a U.S. Congressman, and, in-between, for a few ill-considered months, a colonel in the Army of the Confederacy, and, only incidentally, an attorney licensed to practice law in my home state. I never thought I’d be called upon to do so again after all the loftier honors I had achieved. Indeed, I hoped not, but our fortunes shift like the tides, and the fall of the Confederacy had left me high and dry, penniless, jobless, and free only on the sufferance of the United States President. In those days I was rich only in friends.
From the corridors of power to a stuffy little courtroom in a town in Iredell County that is only on the map two days a week. When I charted the course of my life, that was an unforeseen development, but there I was.
If I should ever have the ear of posterity, it would take me a good many words to talk my way out of that one. But I am both a lawyer and a politician. Words are my stock in trade. This story, though, will be omitted from my memoirs. After all, for all the protracted nature of the legal proceedings, the case only took up a few days of my time, and its outcome did me no credit. It is a mere footnote in the long and illustrious history of a dedicated public servant. I shall not speak of it.
From time to time, though, that poor wretch crosses my mind, and before I force my thoughts on to other things, I repress a shudder, and think, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
*   *   *
I was born beyond the pale of gentrified civilization, as was that young man in the dock on trial for his life. You might think that coincidence of circumstance would have made for common ground between him and me, but the truth is that we could not have been farther apart had one of us been born on the moon. My childhood poverty was only in material want, but in heritage, intellect, learning, and morality, my family had wealth beyond avarice.
For reasons I am at a loss to explain, this Wilkes County case became a cause celebre among the national press, and I fear that whenever people read about the sordid circumstances of these wretched people, they will attempt to tar all the inhabitants of the Carolina mountains with the same brush, which is hard lines on the honest and educated people who choose to live in those mountains. In defense of my fellow countrymen, I offer up the example of my own life.

Copyright © 2011 by Sharyn McCrumb

Meet the Author

SHARYN MCCRUMB is the author of The Rosewood Casket, She Walks These Hills and many other acclaimed novels. Her books have been named Notable Books of the Year by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. She was named a "Virginia Woman of History" for Achievement in Literature in 2008. She lives and writes in the Virginia Blue Ridge, less than a hundred miles from where her family settled in 1790 in the Smoky Mountains that divide North Carolina and Tennessee.
SHARYN MCCRUMB is the author of The Rosewood Casket, She Walks These Hills and many other acclaimed novels. Her books have been named Notable Books of the Year by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. She was named a “Virginia Woman of History” for Achievement in Literature in 2008. She lives and writes in the Virginia Blue Ridge, less than a hundred miles from where her family settled in 1790 in the Smoky Mountains that divide North Carolina and Tennessee.

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Ballad of Tom Dooley 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
kbock More than 1 year ago
Unlike many of the readers that have reviewed the book, I did know about the background story for this ballad. Yes, I knew the song, but I am also very well versed in the history of the characters. I grew up in Wilkes County, have heard about the case my whole life, and actually tell the story myself as a tour guide in Wilkesboro. I was extremely excited when the book was announced because Sharyn McCrumb is one of my favorite authors, and I couldn't wait to read her treatment of this case. I was not disappointed at all! The story McCrumb has written does deviate greatly from the version that I grew up hearing, and slightly from the way I tell it myself. I knew this ahead of time from reading background info on McCrumb's website, so I was prepared. I was fortunate enough to be able to actually meet the author and discuss the "facts" with her prior to reading the book, and I must say that her arguments made sense to me. Her conclusions about who actually killed Laura Foster and Tom's role in the episode matched what I have always believed. Pauline as the great pathological mastermind struck me as a little far-fetched (I think McCrumb gives Pauline way too much credit for intelligence), but I can accept that. And I know that many folks from the area have taken offense to the portrayal of Laura Foster as less than the virginal victim of a crime of passion. But in this case, she was what she was, and the purity that was attributed to her in death was not the reputation that followed her during her short life. My one complaint about the book is Zebulon Vance's narratives. I understand that McCrumb is using Vance to balance the portrayal of mountain folks, and he is definitely a stark contrast to the Happy Valley crowd. But he states the same thing repeatedly throughout the first half of the book, and to be honest, once was quite enough. We got it already! After the trial and the hanging, he contributes to the story through his carrying out of Dula's last wishes, and that was important. Other than that, I could have done without his voice after he introduced himself and his role in the drama. Finally, I have to speak up in defense of McCrumb and her characterization of the residents of Happy Valley. Many of the reviewers have taken offense at the stereotyping of backward Hillbillies in the book. And the author herself addressed her trepidation about this issue. But I am afraid that Ms. McCrumb was dead-on with her portrayal of these particular individuals. Does that mean every resident of the area at that time was totally lacking in any morals or character? NO! The reader must take into account the time and the area that is the setting for the story and not try to apply today's morality to that situation. Pauline was a nasty, cruel, vindictive tramp, but she was created by her environs and circumstance. Does that excuse her behavior (either historical or as written by McCrumb)? No! But again, she is what she is. I enjoyed this book greatly and found the background to be well researched and presented. I am so glad that Sharyn McCrumb finally chose to tackle this well-known crime that should have long ago been forgotten.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is historical fiction at its best. I really njoyed that she told how she came to these conclusons i plan to visit the tom dula musem one day.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Having lived in Watauga and Wilkes counties, I was interested in getting McCrumb's take on the Tom Dula story. Her research is thorough and meticulous, but lends itself to a more accurate portrayal of what might have actually taken place without becoming boring or pedantic.
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donnareads911 More than 1 year ago
Historical novel centered about the ballad of Tom Dooley. This story is not only historically accurate, but intriguing and calls up some mystery as well. It will draw you in!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Ballad of Tom Dooley was the first Sharyn McCrumb novel I have ever read, and I enjoyed it thoroughly! Only aware of the once popular folk song, I never gave much thought to the story behind it, but it is full of mystery, intrigue, and devilishness! :) Excellent book, and I will be looking to read more by Ms. McCrumb in the near future.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a big fan of Sharyn McCrumb, if you have never read one of her books, start here or The Ballad of Frankie Sylvia (sp). The plot for the book was very predictable, I wish she could have kept the suspence going a little longer.
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reader02VA More than 1 year ago
Sharyn McCrumb did an excellent job researching this story and presenting it in a very readable manner. I enjoyed it because there was a lot of North Carolina history.
tracyw More than 1 year ago
I have always been a McCrumb fan. I love her novels about the NC mountain people. The Ballad of Tom Dooley was great. A very different take on a very old story. Really made me think. I couldn't put it down. You must read it!
Epsie More than 1 year ago
Sharyn McCrumb is a talented writer and I enjoyed her book on Frankie Silver and on the Rosewood Casket.I have finished reading her latest book, "The Ballad of Tom Dooley" and I am filled with questions. We all know a legend is a blend of both fact and fiction. Ms. McCrumb states hat she digs for truth with accurate research, so is her book a book of fact or fiction? Growing up where the traqic story of Tom (Dooley) Dula took place, I think there is a lack of research involved in the writing of this book. Tom's fiddle, for example, is displayed as belonging to Tom Dooley on Ms. McCrumb's website and on most of her publicity posters, but it is not Tom's fiddle. The statement was made several times to Ms. McCrumb that this is not Tom's original fiddle. In fact,the fiddle in the Dooley museum was purchased at a yard sale for $5.00.The photograph continues to make the rounds of the newspapers stating that the fiddle is the original. Not so. She states that she has found the missing piece of the puzzle which must be John Anderson, a freed slave and a man of color, who was eloping with Laura Foster. Where is the evidence? The Anderson descendants say that their family did not own slaves. John's name was mentioned in the court records when by cross examination, Eliza Anderson, white, was asked if she was related to John Anderson. The question was ruled out. Where else is his named mentioned? John Anderson was found in the Caldwell county census as married with children, so how could he be eloping with Laura Foster? In that day and time, a relationship with a man of color with a white woman was sure to mean he would be hanged. The Bates place where the murder took place was no where near the Caldwell county line as stated. It is located on the Gladys Fork Road, Wilkes county, over five miles from the Caldwell county line. Ann and James Melton had only one daughter, not two, prior to Ann's arrest.Later, after she was released from jail, she and James had another daughter. In Ms. McCrumb's book, these children are invisible and seldom make an appearance. Why believe anything Pauline Foster says since it is stated that she was a liar? Yet, she is the main character of the book. Laura's mother was 54 years old when she died. It is highly unlikely that she died in child birth, leaving Laura to care for a new baby. Women today, even with today's medical care, are unable to successfully have children at that age. Ms. McCrumb portrays the people of Wilkes and Caldwell counties as common, immoral, red neck hillbillies and hard drinkers. The Dulas, Meltons and Fosters were and are good people even though there are black sheep in every family and they do often go astray. We do not deny her the right to her own interpretation of the Tom Dooley legend but let's get the research right. Karen Reynolds is the true keeper of the legend. She should be commended for keeping the legend alive with her two award winning books, "Tom Dooley- a Wilkes county legend," 2002 and "Tom Dooley- the story behind the ballad", 2011, and her successful outdoor drama which has brought thousands of tourists to Wilkes county. She grew up in the Ferguson-Elkville community,hearing the stories from childhood and has done intensive research. She is a descendant of the Dula, Horton and Cowles families.John Hawkins, a noted genealogist, historian and writer, is also a keeper of the true legend. His research is invaluable and valid.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book, grew up with the Kingston Trio's version of the song, didn't know or had forgotten that it was based on a true story or legend. I found her acknowledgements in the back of the book almost as good as the story itself., how she came to the conclusions that she did, and having grown up in the region found the inferences to the traditions and sayings of that area very true. I can remember hearing some of my family members saying the same thing. Very glad I read this one. Haven't read anything of Sharyn McCrumb in a long time. May have to go back and read some of her others.
harstan More than 1 year ago
Just after the Civil War ended in Wilkes County, North Carolina, former Confederate soldier Tom Dula was arrested for the murder of his fiancée Lucy Foster. He and his former lover married Ann Melton were accused of killing Lucy. Former North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance is released from the Capitol Prison to defend Dula. However, Pauline Foster the servant girl is a powerful witness for the prosecution. From the day he was jailed until he was finally hung, Dula insisted he was innocent though at the end he protected his beloved Ann who was acquitted. Vance wonders whether an innocent man, Lucy's killer or a love sick accomplice abetting his beloved hung on that fatal day. This is an incredible one sitting historical thriller that will stun readers with the revelations as Sharyn McCrumb, known for her Elizabeth McPherson Appalachia mysteries, tells the legendary Ballad of Tom Dooley. With the help of scholars and other locals, the author pieced together what really happened in 1866 and presents it in this great novelization. Ms. McCrumb may have written the Americana historical thriller of the year. Harriet Klausner
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I can't write a review since the book has yet to be released, however, I can say that I am a cousin of Tom Dula (correct spelling of his name) and I honestly hope that this author got the story correct. I look forward to reading it and will have it on my shelf the day it comes out.