On June 11, 1865, a young Confederate solider was released from a Union prisoner of war camp at Point Lookout, Maryland after signing the Oath of Allegiance. The Great Civil War was over, he had honorably performed his duty, and now it was time to go home. He must have felt lucky to have survived the most deadly war in U.S. history without major injury and was surely happy at the thought of seeing his mother and sister and the home where he grew up in Wilkes County.
Less than three years later, on May 1, 1868 around 2:00 pm, a crowd of nearly 3,000 people gathered to watch this soldier’s hanging in an open field at the spot where the Statesville Railroad Depot now sits. A reporter remarked that the number of women in the crowd nearly equaled that of the men. Executions were rare and the event had brought people in from all over.
The soldier was hung from a scaffold consisting of pine uprights and a crossbeam, while standing on the same wagon that had carried him from the jail. He fell only two feet when the wagon was pulled from under his feet. His neck did not break and he hung there without struggling for nearly 13 minutes before he was declared dead.
Tom Dula’s home was in the Elkville community, now known as Ferguson, which lies between Lenoir and Wilkesboro just inside the Wilkes County line. He was born around 1845, the son of Thomas P. Dula and Mary Keeton. Growing up in the isolated rural backcountry of Wilkes County, he displayed musical talent - learning to play both the fiddle and banjo before enlisting for three years in the Confederate army at the age of 17. He served in the Company K, 42nd North Carolina Infantry Regiment, first as a private and then as a musician (drummer). During the war he was hospitalized for typhoid fever in Petersburg, Virginia on November 1, 1862. He was captured at or near Wise’s Forks near Kinston, North Carolina during the Carolina Campaign on March 10, 1865.
Once back home after his release Tom enjoyed post-war life, playing music at parties and pursuing the young ladies in the area. It was for one of these young ladies by the name of Laura Foster that he would die. Laura Foster was a cousin to Tom and lived about seven miles away. She was with child the morning she left home riding her father’s mare Belle. It was early Sunday and she carried a small bundle of clothes and was wearing both her two best dresses as she rode to meet Tom. It would be about three months before her body would be found in a grave up on a mountain near Elkville, now called “Laura’s Ridge.”
Laura had been stabbed through the left breast with the blade reaching her heart. She was buried in a shallow grave so small that her legs had to be broken to fit her in. Tom Dula left the area after the murder, but was arrested in Trade, Tennessee and brought back by the sheriff from Wilkes County. He denied knowing anything about her disappearance and remained in jail for over two months before her body was found.
Tom and another cousin named Ann Melton, whom he was also seeing, were charged with murdering Laura and were kept in jail in Statesville awaiting trial after Tom’s attorneys, former Governor Zebulon Vance and Robert F. Armfield, had the venue changed. He was convicted twice by jury and sentenced to hang. Though he had maintained his innocence for over two years, he wrote a confession the night before he was to be hanged, clearing Ann Melton of involvement. Tom and Laura both came to a tragic end, but the Legend of Tom Dooley was just getting started when they took Tom down from the rope here in Statesville.
The Legend of Tom Dooley has inspired folk tales, articles, songs, novels, plays, a ballet, a movie, and documentaries. Whippoorwill Academy and Village off Highway 268 in Wilkes County features a Tom Dooley Museum, with paintings and artifacts telling the story. In February of 1959 Mrs. Edith Carter, who started Whippoorwill Academy, held an exhibit for ten days at the Statesville City Library featuring the 38 paintings she created to tell the story of Tom Dula.
In March of 1959 the Kingston Trio, who popularized the song “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley,” were scheduled to perform at the Statesville Senior High School. The group arrived in town as scheduled, but shortly after arriving, member Dave Guard was admitted to Iredell Memorial Hospital with infectious flu, forcing the group to cancel their March 4th performance. The group’s planned trip to visit the grave of Tom was also cancelled, but the trio returned and performed in Statesville on April 10, 1959 and also laid a wreath at the grave of Tom Dula. An effort to restore the grave of Tom Dula received an Iredell County boost in December 1958 when Love Valley operator Andy Barker offered to have the grave relocated to Love Valley and restored with a monument. Barker felt that it was appropriate since Dula died in Iredell County and “Since this man was a lover we’d like to offer a spot in Love Valley in which to bury the dude.” The offer was declined. Today the graves of Laura and Tom lie off Highway 268 between Lenoir and Wilkesboro and have historical markers.
— Joel Reese