In 1957, no-one outside North Carolina had ever heard of Tom Dooley. Five years on from The Kingston Trio's hit, his name was known around the world, and many millions of people were at least dimly aware that he'd been accused of killing his girlfriend and later hanged for it. Hardcore folk fans may also have grasped that the killing happened in the Wilkes County of 1866. For every 'fact' that emerged, though, there was another one alongside to contradict it, and that meant Dooley's identity in the mass media became more confused every day.
Here was a folk song - a folk song, for God's sake - that had somehow managed to top the charts and sell six million copies. Here was a tale of murder and judicial execution sung by three clean-cut young boys any mother could admire. Here were novelty records, movies, books and a story which contradicted itself with every new telling, and yet never seemed to change. With every drop of a needle onto vinyl, every flickering image of Landon's face on a cinema or TV screen, Marcus's question resounded anew: What is this?
I'm glad you asked...
Captain William Dula came to Wilkes County's Happy Valley in 1790, acquiring several thousand acres of fertile riverside land between the towns we now call Patterson and Ferguson. Dula was a veteran of America's recent War of Independence, and his family soon became part of the rich, educated elite whose fortunes were maintained by their slave-run plantations along the Yadkin River.
Further up the hillsides flanking this land lived a very different class of people. These were the "ignorant, poor and depraved" folk the New York Herald would later be so rude about, and William Dula's brother Bennett lived among them. He owned only a patch of this far less valuable upland property which, although it made him better off than most of his hillside neighbours, still left him well below William's status.
The local dialect meant any name ending in "a" was pronounced with an "ee" at the end instead, transforming the written Dula into "Dooley" when spoken aloud. Nashville, where country music's Grand Old Opera show began in 1925, lies just 300 miles west of Happy Valley, and it's this same habit of local speech that instantly rechristened it the "Opry".
Bennett was Tom Dula's grandfather, and Tom was born in 1844. Just two years later, a man called Calvin Cowles established a general store and Post Office at the mouth of Elk Creek, giving Tom's little community its first central gathering place and the name of Elkville. Cowles's store was the place where any entertainers passing through the county stopped to perform, a mustering ground for the local militia and an ideal spot for any campaigning politicians to gather a crowd. It also served as a makeshift courthouse.
Living about half a mile from Tom's cabin in Elkville was Lotty Foster's brood of five illegitimate children: Ann, Thomas, Martha, Lenny and Marshall. "The entire family was illiterate," John Foster West writes in his 1993 book Lift Up Your Head Tom Dooley. "In addition to her promiscuity, Lotty Foster had a reputation for drunkenness. This is the home Ann Foster Melton had been born into and grown up in until she was married at 14 or 15 to James Melton." (1)
Not long after that marriage, Lotty caught Ann and Tom naked in bed together, at a time when Tom would have been about15 and Ann perhaps a year older. Tom jumped out from between the sheets when Lotty confronted him, tried briefly to hide under the bed, and then fled with the angry woman at his heels. "I ordered him out," Lotty recalled seven years later. "He had his clothes off." (2)
Ann's adultery with Tom did not stop there. Her husband James, a local farmer who also served as the area's cobbler, kept three beds in his single-room cabin, and he often slept alone in one while Tom and Ann shared another. Pauline Foster, Ann's cousin, who occupied the third bed, told the court at Tom's trial she'd often seen Tom slipping into Ann's bed after dark and spending the night with her there. James didn't seem to care. "Ann was a mesmerisingly beautiful creature," Foster West says. "That may have been enough for him. Also, Ann was imperious, aggressive and ferocious when thwarted. That may have contributed to her husband's passivity as well."
Neither Tom nor Ann were short of other bedmates. The descriptions we have of Tom depict a good-looking young man, close to six feet tall, with brown hair and brown eyes. He was handsome enough to regularly bed Ann - by all accounts the area's reigning beauty - and there's no reason to think he'd stop there. Foster West is in no doubt that his character was essentially depraved, with an obsessive lechery that began in childhood.
As for Ann, it was common knowledge in Happy Valley that she slept with any man who took her fancy. "Ann Melton was a unique character, possessing almost all the faults one woman could have," Foster West confirms. "In addition to her promiscuity, she was temperamental, demanding and aggressive. She was also lazy."
Tom was pretty lazy himself. The 1860 census shows his mother Mary as head of the household, suggesting Tom's father was already dead, and leaving Mary with four children to raise alone. The land she owned was valued that year at $195 (about $4,600 today), but much of it was probably rocky scrubland, and Tom showed little interest in cultivating it. His two older brothers, John and Lenny, were a little more industrious, but they both left to become soldiers when the Civil War began in 1861, and neither returned alive.
North Carolina seceded from the Union in May 1861 - the last of the 11 rebel states to do so - but many of those living in Wilkes County had no sympathy for the Confederate cause. Some were outright Unionists, and this led to bitter splits between families and communities which lasted well into the 20th Century. Tom was a Confederate, though, and he signed up for three years in Company K of the North Carolina Infantry's 42nd Regiment in March 1862. It's true that Tom played the fiddle, but not that he served with Colonel Zebulon Vance's 26th Regiment or entertained Vance with fiddle tunes round the campfire at night.
Interviewing Tom's old army companions many years later, a reporter from the New York Herald found they remembered him as "a terrible, desperate character" in those years. As usual, it was Tom's dick that led him into trouble. "Among them, it was generally believed he murdered the husband of a woman in Wilmington during the war, with whom he had criminal intercourse," the Herald's man wrote. (3)