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Tom Dooley: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

The case was attracting international attention now, with even regional British newspapers like the Hampshire Telegraph and the Sheffield Independent finding room for it. It was already recognised as one of America's most famous crimes of passion, and the New York Herald thought only Harvey Burdell's high society murder in 1857 could stand comparison. The Herald was so confident of the Dula case's appeal that it dispatched a reporter to Statesville to give readers a first-hand description of Tom's final hours.
"He still remained defiant, nor showed any sign of repentance," the paper's man said of Tom on that final evening. "He partook of a hearty supper, laughed and spoke lightly. But, ere the jailer left him, it was discovered that his shackles were loose, a link in the chain being filed through with a piece of window glass, which was found concealed in his bed. While this was being adjusted, he glared savagely and, in a jocose manner, said it had been so for a month past."
With this last hope of escape gone, Tom seemed to change his mind about the confession everyone was nagging him to make. He called for Captain Richard Allison, one of Vance's assistants on the defence team, and handed him a short pencil-written note, its letters scratched together in Tom's own crude, unskilled hand. Tom made Allison swear not to let anyone see the note until after the execution. "Statement of Thomas C. Dula," it read. "I declare that I am the only person that had any hand in the murder of Laura Foster. April 30, 1868."
Tom also gave Allison a 15-page statement exhorting young men to lead a more virtuous life than he'd managed himself, but which did not mention Laura's murder. "There was nothing remarkable in this document," the Herald's man reports.
Nothing remarkable in its content, perhaps, but if the Herald's right in suggesting Tom wrote those 15 pages himself, they become the best evidence we have that he was literate when he died. It's equally possible though, that Tom dictated the long statement to Allison, and that it's only a bit of loose wording on the Herald's part that hints otherwise.

'Thousands came to see the hanging. There were several gun battles on the streets that day'

"All indications had been up to that time that Tom Dula was illiterate, although he did attend school as a child for three months," Foster West writes. "He had signed his Pledge of Allegiance when leaving military prison with his mark, an X with the signature of a witness beside it. [But] there is a remote possibility that Tom, during his long two years of incarceration, had learned to write in a crude manner."
If Tom was illiterate, it's one more nail in the coffin of rumours that he was responsible for writing his own ballad, and treated the crowds to a performance of it as his cart rolled towards the scaffold. Even if you assume he could write, though, you've still got to explain how the Herald's reporter could have watched Tom doing this, and yet never thought it worth mentioning in his long and detailed account. You've only got to read the Herald's story to see its man was determined to report every bit of colour he could find on the day, and to think he'd omit an episode like that is inconceivable.
Left alone in his cell overnight and now with just hours to live, Tom lost the composure he'd maintained for so long. He spent the night pacing up and down as far as his leg chain would allow, and managed to grab only the odd half hour of fitful sleep. He'd refused to see any clergymen throughout all his time in jail, but all that changed as his hanging day dawned. "After breakfast, he sent for his spiritual advisers and seemed for the first time to make an attempt to pray," the Herald tells us. "But still, to them and to all others, denied his guilt or any knowledge of the murder. The theory seemed to be that he would show the people he could die game."
Later that morning, Tom allowed the Methodist minister he'd been given to baptise him, and then dropped to his knees in fervent prayer. "When left alone [he] was heard speaking incoherently, words occasionally dropping from his lips in relation to the murder," the Herald says. "But nothing was intelligible. Thus wore away the last hours of the condemned."
Because Tom's trials had been dragging on so long, and because people from at least three different counties had been involved, news of his hanging spread throughout the region, drawing a large crowd to Statesville as spectators. I can't improve on the Herald's vivid description of the day's events, so I'm simply going to reproduce some long extracts from it here:

"By eleven o'clock, AM, dense crowds of people thronged the streets, the great number of females being somewhat extraordinary. [...] A certain class, indicated by a bronzed complexion, rustic attire, a quid of tobacco in their mouths, and a certain mountaineer look, were evidently attracted by the morbid curiosity to see an execution, so general among the ignorant classes of society.
"The preliminaries were all arranged by Sheriff Wasson. A gallows constructed of native pine, erected near the railway depot in an old field - as there is no public place of execution in Statesville - was the place selected for the final tragedy. A guard had been summoned to keep back the crowd and enforce the terrible death penalty, and for the better preservation of order, the bar rooms were closed." (3)

Rather than the "white oak tree" mentioned in Tom's ballad, Statesville had built him a simple gallows from two upright poles, set about ten feet apart, with a crossbar linking them at the top. The crossbar was placed high enough to let the cart they planned to use for Tom's transport draw up directly beneath it, leaving him to dangle there when the cart pulled away again.
The Herald's man must have been moving through the crowds at this point, stopping to quickly interview any spectators who looked promising and jotting down their replies as he went. He was obviously struck by the unusual number of women in the crowd - far more than he seemed to expect at a hanging - and mentions this several times in his report. He puts the crowd at nearly 3,000 people of Tom's "own race and colour", but makes no attempt to estimate the number of black people also attending.
We have other eyewitness accounts of Tom's hanging too, the best of which comes from a man called Hub Yount, whose father and aunt were both present. Yount, whose family then lived in nearby Catawba County, passed on his father's account to Gardner, who reproduces it in his book. "Thousands and thousands of people gathered to see the execution," Yount writes. "Statesville was a small town then, and [there were] many fist and skull fights, old enemies meeting. There were several gun battles on the streets that day." (12)
It's while patrolling this lively crowd that the Herald's man met Tom's former army companions, noting their "anxious and singular curiosity" to see how their old comrade would die. "They believed him guilty, without a confession, and none sympathised with him," He wrote.
Tom was led out of the jail just before quarter to one, and once again, the Herald's man was there to watch:

"With a smile upon his features, [the condemned man] took his seat in the cart, in which was also his coffin, beside his brother in law. The procession moved slowly through the streets accompanied by large crowds, male and female, whites and blacks, many being in carriages and many on horseback and on foot.
"While on his way to the gallows, he looked cheerful and spoke continually to his sister of the Scriptures, assuring her he had repented and that his peace was made with God. At the gallows, throngs of people were already assembled, the number of females being almost equal to that of the males. The few trees in the field were crowded with men and boys, and under every shade that was present, were huddled together every imaginable specimen of humanity."

As the procession came within sight of the gallows, official horsemen rode fast into the field to disperse the crowds. This cleared the way for Tom's cart, which halted under the gallows' frame at eight minutes past one. Told by Sheriff Wasson he could address the crowd if he wished, Tom stood up in the cart, the noose already round his neck, and spoke in what the Herald calls "a loud voice that rang back from the woods".