Sharyn McCrumb has meticulously researched and brought to life the stories behind many songs of love, betrayal, murder and loss in her Ballad series of Southern lore. Many are rooted in myth and legend, but the real execution of Tom Dula for the murder of Laura Foster was a well-publicized scandal of a romantic triangle in 1868. Its familiarity lingers today, not because of the actual crime, but because of the No. 1 Billboard hit by the Kingston Trio, which topped the charts in 1958.
"...another rich tale about the times and circumstances of one of the most conflicted eras of America’s history."
Many versions of Laura Foster's murder and her purported killer have circulated over the years, none of which portray the full story. Two facts remain: Laura Foster was stabbed to death and buried on a hill in the woods, and Tom Dula was hanged for the crime following two trials. Even one of the three judges, former Civil War hero and North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance, doubted his guilt, but no one was ever able to come forward with the truth. Did Laura’s lover, Tom Dooley (an Appalachian pronunciation of Dula) do the deed, or was it her cousin, Ann Foster?
Ann and Tom had been teenage lovers before Tom went off to defend the South for the Confederacy, only to return and find Ann married to another war veteran. This did not thwart their lust for one another, and their affair was flagrantly carried on in front of both Ann’s husband and her cousin, Pauline, whose poverty and illness from syphilis led her to work for her room and board in Ann’s home. There were several other suspects who may have had motivation to kill Laura, including her father. However, McCrumb’s research uncovered at least one other potential suspect as she dug through court records, newspaper accounts and local historical accounts. Was Laura planning to elope with Tom on the day she died, as Ann and Pauline accused? Or was it another man with whom she had been having a secret affair, hidden because he was a former slave?
The Civil War left long-lasting effects on those in its direct path. Survival among civilians was almost as fraught with danger as it was for the men in the direct line of fire. It was especially difficult for the young women who were forced to find ways to stay alive that would never have seemed possible under other circumstances. Pauline Foster was one of those women, described by one of the narrators as “a raddled slut who delighted in the destruction she wrought single-handed,” who turned what was a desperate act of survival for some into a profession. McCrumb points a finger in her direction as being a key party to the tragedy that would ensnare her cousins Ann and Laura, and ultimately Tom.
The beautiful, vain and self-centered Ann cared more about Tom than she did taking care of her home, children and husband. She readily welcomed her ailing cousin, Pauline, into their humble cabin to take over the household duties. Between Pauline and Ann and their manipulation of those around them, a web of treachery was woven that ensnared not only Tom but Laura, the other cousin who would become the victim. Did they have motives to kill Laura, a not-so-innocent sweet young girl herself? Did their actions ultimately lead to the execution of a handsome, ne’er-do-well Romeo whose crime may have been no worse than finding romancing pretty ladies and playing cards more interesting than an honest day’s work?
THE BALLAD OF TOM DOOLEY is not a whodunit, because to this day the facts remain murky. Perhaps no one will ever know who killed Laura Foster, and McCrumb doesn’t set out to solve the mystery. Instead, the story is another rich tale about the times and circumstances of one of the most conflicted eras of America’s history.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on August 18, 2011