About 135 years ago a civil war soldier got off the train at the depot in Statesville. He had just been released from a Union prisoner of war camp at Point Lookout in Maryland after signing the Oath of Allegiance on June 11, 1865. He was a probably a happy young man when he stepped off that train and looked around at the then small village town of Statesville.
On May 1st, 1868 a little after 2 pm a crowd of nearly 3000 people gathered in an open field near the same Depot in Statesville to watch the same young man hang for murder. A reporter remarked that the number of women in the crowd equaled nearly that of the men. Executions were rare and the event had brought people in from all over including many of the men he had served with in the War.
He 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.
After getting off the train the young man had headed straight for home in Wilkes County. Tom’s home was in the Elkville community now known as Ferguson. He was the son of Thomas P. Dula and Mary Keeton and had been born around 1845 enlisting at the age of 17. He had grown up developing musical talent having learned the fiddle and banjo.
Back home Tom enjoyed life after the Civil War playing music at parties and gatherings and pursuing the young ladies in the area. It was one of these young ladies by the name of Laura Foster that he would later die for.
Laura lived about seven miles from Tom and may have been early with child the morning she left home riding her father’s mare Belle. It was a 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 a mountain near Elkville now called “Laura’s Ridge.”
She 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. The man accused of her murder had been in jail for over two months before her body was found. Tom Dula had left after the murder, but was arrested in Trade, Tennessee by the Sheriff from Wilkes County.
Tom was kept in jail in Statesville awaiting trail after his attorney former Governor and Iredell County resident Zebulon Vance had the venue changed. He was convicted twice by jury and sentenced to hang. 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.
Since that day in May the Legend of Tom Dooley has inspired legends, stories, songs, novels, plays, a ballet, a movie, and documentaries. The graves of Laura and Tom lie off Hwy 268 running from Caldwell to Wilkes County and have historical markers for those interested in the story. Whippoorwill Academy and Village off Hwy 268 features a Tom Dooley museum with paintings and artifacts telling the story.
I took my nephew and niece up there a couple of months ago to see Laura Foster’s grave. Her lonely grave lies in a field off 268 with a white post fence around it to prevent cattle from disturbing the site. I retold the story to them as it was getting dark. The area is isolated several miles from the nearest house and surrounded by woods. I must have done a good job telling the story. When I finished by niece looked up with wide eyes and said “Was you alive then?”
Karen Wheeling Reynolds of Wilkes County was approached to write a play about the Legend of Tom Dooley by the Wilkes County Playmakers in 2000. The play called “Tom Dooley: A Wilkes County Legend” has played every summer in Wilkes County since then. Mrs. Reynolds has also written a novel by the same name and is a performer in the play. She is a native of Ferguson, N.C. and serves as the Executive Director of Wilkes Playmakers, Inc. at Benton Hall.
On Sunday June 13, 2004 Mrs. Reynolds presented a program at the Iredell County Public Library on the Legend of Tom Dula and signed autographs of her novel.
Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “Legend of Tom Dooley has Iredell ties” on June 9, 2004