Tweet Follow @PlanetSlade

Tom Dooley: continued

Page: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15
View as single page
Murder Ballads
Secret London

Tom's next stop was Lotty's place, where he borrowed a heavy digging tool called a mattock. He told Lotty he wanted to "work some devilment out" of himself. Soon after this, a local woman called Martha Gilbert saw Tom swinging the mattock on a path about 100 yards from the cabin he shared with his mother. He told Martha he was working to widen the path there so he could walk more safely at night. Months later, Laura's grave would be discovered about 250 yards from this spot.
McGuire delivered the full canteen to the Melton house at about 10:00am. Ann took a swig from it, announced she was going to take it to Tom, and then left for her mother's cabin. Tom arrived at Lotty's - without the mattock - soon after Ann, and they left together at about 3:00pm. Neither was seen again until dawn the next day. Lotty asked Tom for her mattock back a couple of times in the days that followed, but he didn't eventually return it until Sunday or Monday.
"It would have been an easy matter for Tom to conceal the mattock in the bushes near the grave site on Thursday," Foster West writes. "He returned to Lotty Foster's later that afternoon without the mattock and he and Ann Melton left together with the canteen of liquor around 3:00pm. Both he and Ann were missing from their homes for the remainder of that day and all of the following night. That was a logical time to dig the grave."
Ann arrived home at about 5:30 on the Friday morning, undressed and climbed into bed. She told Pauline that she, Lotty and Tom had laid out all night and drunk the canteen of liquor. When Pauline got up to prepare breakfast, she could see that Ann's clothes and shoes were wet.

'In one quick, forceful motion, he plunged the long blade of a knife into her chest cavity'

Meanwhile, also at about 5:30, Tom was outside Laura Foster's cabin. Careful not to wake her father, she stepped outside to speak with Tom, and then returned to her bedside, where she quickly got dressed and bundled a few spare clothes together.
Laura was a skilled weaver and often took her payment for this work in the form of cloth, which relatives would later make up into dresses for her. It was one of those dresses she chose now, donning a second one made of store-bought material over it as protection from the early morning cold. She pinned the dresses in place with a broach on her chest, threw a cape over her shoulders to conceal the syphilis welts already showing there, and slipped out the door.
Wilson's mare was tethered outside the cabin. Laura pulled its rope free, climbed on and rode bareback down the riverside track towards the meeting place Tom had chosen. Her bundle of spare clothes was stuffed into her lap.
Laura was just one mile into her six-mile journey when she met Betsy Scott, the same neighbour she'd confided in a few days before, and told her she and Tom had agreed to meet at a spot in the woods where an old blacksmith's shop had once stood. All trace of that shop had vanished now, but the site was still known by the name of the man who'd owned it. Everyone around knew just where "Bates' Place" was, and that's where Laura was heading now. Betsy, perhaps thinking how short-lived a promise of marriage from a man like Tom was likely to prove, urged Laura to hurry along. "I said if it was me, I'd have been further on the road by this time," Betsy later recalled. (2)
Meanwhile, Tom was walking along a path parallel to Laura's track on his way to the Meltons' place. He stopped briefly to chat with neighbours three times along the way and, when one of them asked if he was pursuing his plans for revenge against Laura, replied "No, I have quit that". Pauline was already out and working when Tom arrived at the Meltons', but returned to the cabin just after 8:00am for a milk pail, when she found Tom bending over Ann's bed, talking to her in low, urgent tones.
Wilson was up and about by then too, and angry to find that both his daughter and his mare had gone missing. He'd been trimming the mare's hooves that week, and left one of them half-finished, giving it a distinctive pointed shape that was easy to track in the soft ground. He followed its progress all the way to Bates' Place, but lost the tracks there in an old field.
He cadged some breakfast at a friend's house nearby - complaining about the loss of his mare throughout the meal - and then walked on to the Meltons' cabin, where he found Ann still in bed. Tom had just left, stopping to collect half a gallon of milk at Lotty's cabin and then walking off down Stony Fork Road in a direction which could take him either to his own house or to Bates' Place. As always, he carried a six-inch Bowie knife in his coat pocket.
Tom wasn't seen again till noon, when Mary Dula returned to the cabin they shared to find her son already there, lying in bed. They ate their noon meal together, and Tom remained in Mary's company until about 3:00pm, when she went out for a short while to deal with the cows. A couple of Tom's friends met her out working and asked where Tom was, but Mary said she didn't know.
That evening, while Mary prepared supper, Tom went out. Mary assumed he was in the barn, but Ann's mother Lotty and her brother Thomas both testified later that they'd seen Tom heading up to Bates' Place at about that time. The distance from the Dula cabin to Bates' Place was about a mile, so Tom could have walked it in 20 minutes or so if he'd kept up a brisk pace.
He returned home in time to eat his supper, but then went out again just after dark, staying out for what Mary said was about an hour. When he returned, he complained of chills as he prepared for bed, and Mary heard him moaning in the night.
We have Wilson's evidence that Ann was still in bed at home around 8:30 on Friday morning, but no other accounts of her movements until nightfall, when Wilson returned to the Melton's place for a party with Ann, James and Pauline. Ann's brother Thomas was there too, along with three other men. "Everyone was joking and having a good time," Wilson said.
Pauline later claimed that Wilson had announced that evening he didn't care what happened to Laura as long as he got his mare back, and even threatened to kill the girl if he ever found her. Wilson denied saying any such thing, but Pauline stuck to her guns in court, saying she'd jokingly replied with an offer to go and find Wilson's mare herself if he'd give her a quart of liquor for doing so.
Wilson stayed at the Melton's party for two or three hours, and then spent what was left of the night at his friend Francis Melton's place. When he returned to his own cabin on Saturday morning, he found his mare already waiting there. It had chewed through its halter rope, about three feet of which was still hanging from the headcollar. No one ever saw Laura alive again.

All we can say for sure about what happened to Laura that day is that she was dead by the end of it. But it was almost certainly Tom who stabbed her.
There will be those of you who bridle at that, so let me explain why I'm so confident. US murder statistics from 1999 show that 87.5% of all America's murders are committed by men, and that 23% of all homicides there have a male perpetrator and a female victim. Only 2.5% of all US murders have a woman as both perpetrator and victim. That doesn't mean it's impossible that Ann killed Laura, of course, but it does put the burden of proof firmly on those who argue for her guilt rather than Tom's.
Even if we discount the rumours of Tom murdering his Wilmington lover's husband during the war, we know he saw enough battlefield slaughter to risk brutalising any man. The Herald tells us that the Tom Dula who returned to Happy Valley in 1865 was "reckless, demoralised and a desperado, of whom the people in his vicinity had a terror". As we'll see in a moment, his first reaction on hearing local people suggest he might have killed Laura was to threaten them with a beating.
Those who insist Ann was the murderer have some sentimental folklore on their side, but precious little else. The idea that Tom went willingly to the gallows to protect Ann from hanging instead gives an element of noble romantic sacrifice to his story which some people are determined to maintain at all costs. Ann may well have helped Tom dig the grave, and even to bury the body too, but the truth of Laura's killing itself is probably as simple and as squalid as most murders are. Here's how Foster West sees it:

"Sometime on that Friday, Tom met Laura in the woods. In one quick, forceful motion he plunged into her chest cavity the long blade of a knife. Then, perhaps with the help of Ann, he transported the body about half a mile to the grave he had dug with the mattock the night before. Into that hole, about two and a half feet deep, he dumped the body on the right side with the legs drawn up."

Deciding just when Tom stabbed her that day is more difficult, because every scenario presents its own snags. He could have killed Laura as early as 9:00am, straight after his stop at Lotty's cabin, but burying her then would have meant moving the body on his own in broad daylight.

Grave concerns: continued

We drove for another hour or so along I-77 and US 421, found exit 256 OK, and then reached a T junction. "Left or right?" Hadi asked.
    It was a good question. I'd got the impression from other peoples' accounts of this journey that NC263 fed directly off that exit, but there was no roadsign in sight to say whether we'd found the right road or not - let alone any indication of which way we should turn.
    I didn't even know whether it was plausible that a road with that particular designation would look like this, and if Hadi had the means to make an intelligent guess on that front, he was keeping quiet about it. He'd evidently decided I was bonkers anyway and that, if I insisted on pursuing this ridiculous wild goose chase, I had only myself to blame. He would follow my instructions to the letter, but if anyone wanted his opinion, the whole expedition was doomed. "Left or right?" he asked again.
    I tossed a coin in my head, and told Hadi to turn right in the hopes that a helpful roadsign would turn up soon. It didn't, so after a few miles I said maybe I'd been wrong, and that we should turn round and try the other way. We went a few miles past exit 256 in the other direction, but found nothing helpful there either.
    In despair, I said to Hadi that we'd give it one more try in the direction we'd first gone and then, if we had no luck, go straight on to Wilkesboro instead.
    We continued well past the driveway where we'd turned round last time, but still found no signs that could help us. We did find a gas station, though, so I got Hadi to pull in there while I nipped out to ask the old boy in the forecourt for directions. Instead of Harry Dean Stanton's dad, this time I want you to imagine Stumpy, the orn'rey old critter who helps John Wayne and Dean Martin defend the sheriff's office in Rio Bravo.
    My Stumpy had a few random white whiskers sticking out of his chin, plus a couple of gaps in his teeth which gave his voice a slight whistle. He seemed highly amused by the sense of urgency I was trying to convey.
    He did his best to be helpful all the same, and I think he was saying that we would hit 263 if we continued another 20 miles or so in the direction we'd been heading. I couldn't be sure, though, because all his directions took their reference point from somewhere called "the River Road" which no other account I'd seen had mentioned. When he could see I was none the wiser, he added the advice that I should "call the state troopers", which - even if I'd had any idea how to go about it - seemed unlikely to help.
   Everything I'd read about this journey suggested 263 couldn't be another 20 miles on from exit 256 - didn't it? - and I could see the gas station's only other worker already grinning at the realisation that good old Stumpy had baffled another stranger. Perhaps that's why they kept him around.
    The past hour or so of fruitless roaming had left Hadi and I increasingly testy with one another, and I decided I'd better call a halt before this deteriorated into open hostility. "Let's just go on to Wilkesboro," I said as I climbed back into the car.
    Hadi suppressed a grin of triumph as he tapped the address I gave him for Wilkesboro's old jailhouse into the SatNav and we drove off in a slightly tense silence. We passed several signs saying "To 263" on the Wilkesboro road, but neither of us had the heart to propose investigating them further.

continues >>>