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Letters to Planet Slade: May 2011

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

April 18, 2011. Karen Wheeling Reynolds, author of Tom Dooley: The Story Behind the Ballad and Tom Dooley: A Wilkes County Legend, writes:
“Greetings, Paul Slade. You certainly did your homework during your short time in Elkville. Great detective work!
“Tom Dooley is a fascinating story and - whether dealing with the folklore or the facts - it reaches far. In part, we have the reporter from the New York Herald who covered Tom's hanging to thank for it, in part Tom's representation by such a public figure as Governor Zebulon B. Vance. And then, of course, there's the Dooley revival in the late 50's and early 60's when The Kingston Trio recorded the international #1 hit Tom Dooley.
“I would like to speak to your descriptions of people in my home community, however. I find it a little hard to believe that most of the people you met were missing teeth or looked like Harry Dean Stanton. Yes, we still use a slang version of 'the King's English' as we call it (or olde English as you might call it), but Elkville/Ferguson residents are a very intelligent and resourceful people. When I visit larger cities I am astounded by the vast number of homeless people lining the streets and alleys - yet you won't find that in Elkville.
“A strong rural community, these residents take care of their own. Yes, Bubba may live in a small camper/trailer on grandma's farm - but he HAS a home and food. The beauty of this area today, very much as it was when Tom lived here, is that life is dictated by the seasons - planting, harvesting, canning, fishing, hunting, making molasses, gathering honey, chopping wood and killing hogs. We remain in touch with the earth, not concrete and asphalt, and because of this we can survive in most situations.
“The morality that was documented by The New York Herald was in a time of crisis - during the Civil War and dealing with the after effects of that conflict. It was a time of lawlessness as citizens suffered the wrath of traitors and bushwhackers. Many of the women did not maintain their ladylike demeanor, that's true - whether by choice as a means to survive or by force. Tensions were also high in this area of Wilkes (the foothills) because opinions about the Confederacy were greatly divided. Again, relate it to modern day to put it in perspective. One only has to read the tabloids to see that women all over continue to live free-spirited lives.
“Dooley mania is as 'infectious' as your title for this piece. Like clockwork every year, the community of Elkville (now known as Ferguson) gets visits from authors, playwrights, screenwriters, historians and fans of the story claiming that they have discovered what really happened that tragic morning on what is now called Laura's Ridge. Sadly, with over 200 pieces of conflicting testimony and court transcripts - and with no physical evidence or witnesses to the crime - reality is found only in each detective's own perception.
“Even Tom's last documented statements conflict. Just seconds before he dropped to his death under the gallows on the railroad tracks in Statesville, NC, he raised his hand to challenge the crowd of over 3,000 who had come to watch him die and said, 'Gentlemen, do you see this hand? Does it tremble? I never harmed a hair on Laura Foster's head!' The night before the hanging he signed a confession letter stating, 'I and I alone killed Laura Foster'.
“And then there's Perline Foster! She blamed or cast doubt on several others. Perline stated that Anne took her to the place where the body was buried and confided in her that she killed Laura. She also cast suspicion on Tom, saying that he threatened to run Laura through because she gave him syphilis. She even told that Will Foster, Laura's own father was mad that his mare was missing and told her that he didn't care about Laura just so he found his mare - and that if he found Laura he would kill her himself (a statement that Will denied). Perline even went so far as to implicate herself after drinking too much at Cowles' store and told some of the men there that she and Tom killed Laura Foster and then ran off to Tennessee.
“So, unless someone has actually spoken with Tom, Anne, Laura or Perline personally, the 'truth' is only speculation. One thing is for sure: It's fun to come to your own conclusion and Tom's story will be debated in many ways by many people for years to come. It remains an unsolved mystery, a lover's triangle and one of the nation's first highly-publicized crimes of passion.
“I have not personally spoken with Tom, Laura, Anne or Perline, but I have written an historical novel with many of the facts I've just mentioned mixed with our folklore. My greatest compliments from those having read the book or seen the outdoor drama are from the citizens of Elkville/Ferguson, who tell me over and over 'this is the way I've always heard it'.
“I am the great-great-great granddaughter of Calvin and Martha Cowles (the storekeeper in the story) and a relative of Colonel James Horton, one of the men who found Laura's body. I grew up in Ferguson, went to school with many of the families directly involved - the Meltons, Fosters and Dulas - and heard every version of the story anyone could possibly imagine as a child in my Daddy's store (he ran a grocery story directly across from the site where Calvin Cowles' store once stood). For anyone interested in learning more - my book is available on my website
“Sorry I missed you during your visit (I didn't get the part by the way). Maybe next time. You need to see the beauty of Elkville that only a resident there can help you find!"

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for your letter, Karen, and I hope people will check out your book. If you or your publisher would care to send me a copy, I'd love to see it.
The closest I got to Elkville itself during my trip was Statesville, about 15 miles away, and that's where the 'Harry Dean Stanton' encounter you mention took place. Like almost all the Americans I meet during my trips there, 'Harry' and his companion were far more friendly and approachable than their opposite numbers would be here in the UK. It was a striking conversation, though, and I hope I can be forgiven for milking a little gentle humour from it."
I thoroughly dislike the air of (quite undeserved) superiority which some English people affect towards Americans, so I hope I'm never guilty of that myself. Far from suggesting that "most of the people I met there were missing teeth", I immediately followed my two HDS paragraphs with two more explaining how pretty and charming Statesville's Civic Centre receptionist had been.
I'm sure there's a far pleasanter side to Statesville than I saw during my very short visit there. I stand by my description of what I did see, though, and I'm afraid that particular little handful of streets doesn't seem any cheerier in retrospect than it did at the time. It's true that I saw no homeless people there, though, and you certainly can't say that of London.
Your comments about the "strong rural community" around Elkville and Statesville reminded me of the interviews included on the extras track of Debra Granik's Winter's Bone DVD. The real-life community of Ozarks "hillbillies" - their word, not mine - where Granik filmed her movie made exactly the same points about being intimately bound to their families' land, and the survival skills that fosters in them.
I'm sure you're right to say that the moral condemnation the New York Herald's man laid at Tom, Laura and Pauline's door isn't the full story. Perhaps I should have emphasised that point more by also quoting John Foster West's caveat in his own Tom Dula book: "Although depraved families did exist, living on adjacent hillsides or beyond the next ridge could be found the most industrious, honest and moral families living in any society".
Even so, the Herald's view remains a useful corrective to the highly-romanticised version of Tom and Laura's story which the folklore often presents. I agree that it would be easy to find similar behaviour in many hard-pressed communities today, and that's exactly the point I was hoping to make by juxtaposing the Herald story with Jarvis Cocker's 1995 lyrics about life in working class Sheffield.
Where we disagree is your implication that, simply because the principals in this tale are now dead, we have no choice but to throw our hands in the air and decide that all the competing versions have an equal claim to be true. Even at a distance of 140 years, it's possible to establish that some 'facts' are more firmly sourced than others, and apply a little intelligent scepticism to the folklore's more fanciful claims. This process can't hope to eliminate every last scrap of doubt, but it will give you the most reliable account we can hope for.
Often, the people who love the legends most are so invested in their preferred version that they refuse to acknowledge even the most conclusive contradictory evidence. "That's just the way I heard it," is a lovely compliment for a novelist or a dramatist to receive, but any conscientious journalist has to take it with a pinch of salt.
I'm sorry to reply at such length, but you raised a lot of points which I thought demanded an answer. If I ever do get to North Carolina again, I'll certainly drop you a line so we can arrange that tour.

April 21, 2011. Karen Wheeling Reynolds writes:
“The offer still stands. I would love to introduce you to some of the amazing people from the foothills of North Carolina.
“My point on the 'truth' in this story was meant generally. Yes, there is strong evidence in the court transcripts - but it conflicts. Tom confused us even more by writing a confession the night before the hanging and then, seconds before his death, claiming that he never harmed a hair on Laura Foster's head. I still say, an unsolved mystery!"

Paul Slade replies: As with any murder case that's held its fascination for so long, there will always be unanswered questions in the Tom Dula story. In that sense, I agree, it will always be unsolved - and that's a good thing because it's precisely those unanswered questions which ensure the story remains a living thing.


March 4, 2010: Bernard Puckett of Islington Folk Club  writes:
“A free poem:

“Murder Ballad
by Bernard Puckett

"With water pistol full of petrol
He set his friend on fire
The guy with a bike he didn't like
So he strung his route with wire
With a popular picture paper
Wrapped round an old iron bar
He tapped a guy on the head
Who fell down dead
Then went for a drive in his car
He turned his radio on
And this is the song he heard

"Never ever run away from anything you say

"They found the bodies
One, two, three
They found the car
Beside the sea
A boat was missing
The man was gone
They found the radio
It played the song

"Was the man mad?
Was the man bad?
What role, if any
Have his mum and dad?
Was he confused about
Right and wrong
About an idea
Found in a song?

"What of the man?
Where was he bound?
A storm blew up
Boat sank, he drowned.
The trail went cold
The song was sung
They found the writer
And he was hung."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for the poem, Bernard, and for your permission to reproduce it here. Your writer's fate made me think of something the comics writer Neil Gaiman once said.
My memory's hazy, and I'm having no luck with Google, but as far as I can recall, it involved an American teenager who shot either himself or some classmates. Gaiman's Sandman comics turned out to be one of things the kid had been reading, and that dragged him into the whole media circus that followed.
Again, as near as I can recall, Gaiman's response to reporters was to remind them that disturbed people would always find something to push them over the edge. Given the distorting lens that this particular young man brought to everything around him, his own trigger could just as easily have been a soap powder commercial or a random sitcom plot as anything Gaiman had written. So, did he feel responsible? No.
It was words to that effect, anyway, and it's a view that always sounds very sensible to me. I'm not sure if your songwriter hanged himself or fell victim to a vengeful lynch mob, but either way, I think he got a raw deal!

Message board round-up

The sources for my latest collection of blurbs ("Onlookers opine our output offers optimal oomph") can be found below. Sometimes there's quite an interesting discussion attached.


Lost Folk Tapes



My Fine Forum

Roll On Friday


Plenty pundits praise Planet's peerless prose

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On Tom Dooley
“Compulsive stuff.”- Ian Anderson, editor, fRoots magazine.

“So informative.” - Cheminatrix, Metafilter.

“Great Job.” - Karen Reynolds, author of Tom Dooley: A Wilkes County Legend, via e-mail.

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