|This is my contribution to Round Fourteen of ABC Wednesday. For the fifth time I am focusing on people – some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten, but all with a tale to tell.|
When I was young, Children’s Favourites was essential listening on Saturday morning when Uncle Mac would play the likes of The Deadwood Stage, My Old Man’s a Dustman, The Ugly Duckling and Donald Where’s Your Troosers.
But amid all the jolly discs there lurked one song with an altogether darker history – Lonnie Donegan’s Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley.
Tom Dula was born in 1845 and grew up in the Appalachian hills of Wilkes County, North Carolina. While at school he began a teenage romance with schoolmate, Ann Foster, and by the age of fourteen the two became ‘intimate’ as the euphemism goes.
Ann married local farmer and cobbler, James Melton, at about the same time, but that didn’t end her affair with Dula who would regularly spend the night with Ann even as her husband slept nearby.
North Carolina became the eleventh and last rebel state to secede from the Union in 1861 and when the Civil War came, Dula joined Company K of the North Carolina Infantry’s 42nd Regiment.
Dula was a handsome lad, but sadly he didn’t have the character to match. He is generally regarded as an indolent lecher and worse. In an interview with former comrades many years later in the New York Herald, it was stated that ‘it was generally believed he murdered the husband of a woman in Wilmington during the war, with whom he had criminal intercourse’.
Others claim that Dula was a brave and dutiful soldier, but that came to an end when he was taken prisoner just before the end of the war in 1865 and he was released a few months later.
Returning home, he resumed his affair with Ann, but he had an eye for other ladies too. One such was Ann’s cousin, Laura Foster, who at the age of twenty-two had a reputation for having ’round heels’ a local phrase meaning she could easily be toppled onto her back!
Unfortunately for Dula and his conquests, the reason behind Pauline’s move was that she needed medical treatment for syphilis which spread between the various players in this sordid play.
It is also where the play turns to tragedy because Dula believed that it was Laura who had given him the pox and he began to plot his revenge. It seems he convinced Laura that they should elope together and she was never seen alive again.
A search party was formed to look for Laura’s body and suspicion fell on Dula who eventually fled the area only to be caught near Mountain City where he was arrested for murder.
Laura’s body was eventually discovered lying in a shallow grave and Dula was charged with her murder and Ann Foster for encouraging the act. He was duly found guilty even though ‘all the evidence that led to the conviction was entirely circumstantial, but so connected by a concatenation of circumstances as to leave no reasonable doubt on the minds of the jury’.
Dula was executed by hanging on 1st May 1868 and his body retrieved for burial by his sister and her husband, but his story became the stuff of folklore as the balladeers did their work creating the song that we know today.
But why Tom Dooley and not Tom Dula? The answer is simply one of dialect in an area where an ‘a’ at the end of a word is pronounced ‘y’, as in the Grand Old Opry.
You can read a much more detailed account of Tom Dula’s murder of Laura Foster online, one that addresses many of the myths that have grown up around the case, but I’ll leave you with Lonnie Donegan’s version of events.