Book Review: The Ballad of Tom Dooley

TomDooleyThumbby Timothy Lane
Sharyn McCrumb has written books in a number of different series, including one on historical cases from the Appalachian region of the upper South (especially those with musical connections). This deals with the story of Tom Dula, a former Confederate soldier hanged in 1868 (though not “from a wide oak tree” in “some lonesome valley”) for the murder of Laura Foster.

It was a sordid little tale, so heavily shot through with syphilis that it’s easy to guess that hardly anyone involved was very good by modern standards – but then, the poor mountain farmers of Wilkes County, North Carolina often had to do whatever they could to survive. To judge from when they called on the local doctor for treatment, Pauline Foster (serving girl to Jim Melton and his wife Ann) got syphilis first, followed by Tom, Laura, and Ann (though evidently not Jim, interestingly enough). The latter two probably got it from Tom (he was ready to bestow his favors on any willing woman), though Tom appears to have thought he got it from Laura rather than Pauline.

McCrumb sees the basic story as resembling the backstory of Wuthering Heights (which I’ve never read myself, but no doubt some here will have). Jim and Ann had married in 1859 (though she and Tom had bee long-time very good friends, it seems). But then the War came, and took both Jim (into the 26th North Carolina) and Tom (into the 42nd). Somehow, both made it back alive and reasonably whole. Tom took up with Ann, but also fooled around with others, evidently including both Pauline and Laura Foster. Then the latter disappeared along with her father’s horse (which was his main concern; he didn’t care if she came back, but he wanted his horse). The assumption was that she meant to elope with Tom, and since he was still around and the horse soon returned, this suggested that she never got very far and probably died an unnatural death. It wasn’t long before Tom Dula fled to Tennessee, working as a field hand (under the name of Hall) for Colonel Jim Grayson. Eventually the authorities sent a party to locate him, and after Grayson noted that their description of the suspect matched Hall’s, they finally got hold of Tom Dula and took him back to jail to stand trial (eventually). He never left again, except to be taken out to the gallows. But all this took time, particularly since Laura was still missing. Finally, however, Pauline told the police that Ann had shown her where the body was, and took them there, and they found what was left of Laura Foster, dead 3 months from a single stab wound in the chest. Naturally Ann was arrested, and eventually they were to stand trial. But Dula’s chief lawyer (pro bono, of course; none of the mountain folk had much money), former Confederate Governor Zebulon Vance, got their trials separated. Dula was tried first, and eventually convicted and executed. He took all blame on himself at the end, exonerating Ann, so she was acquitted and went home, to die of a sickness (possibly syphilis) a few years later.

It’s a sordid tale, but famous, and it was inevitable that McCrumb (who was written about many such cases) would finally take a look at it. She concluded that there was simply no reason for Tom Dula to murder Laura Foster or to try to elope with her. So someone else must have been her intended, someone she never let anyone know about — and soon McCrumb located another person on the scene whom Laura would never have dared identify (nor would he have dared to come forward) in 1866 North Carolina. She also concluded that Pauline was the mover of events, a sociopath who ultimately succeeded in destroying the lives of 3 people, at least 2 of whom (Tom and Laura) probably didn’t much deserve it (though Tom comes off as something of a bum and neither had much in the way of morals). Ann, on the other hand, comes off as a pure narcissist, convinced to the end that the world was her oyster (assuming she knew anything about oysters, of course).

I doubt McCrumb had any serious political concerns in writing the book, but it occurred to me in reading it that Barack Obama’s personality greatly resembles Pauline Foster’s (as portrayed in the book), just as he does with the bratty Veruca Salt of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Consider this telling description (narrated by Pauline): “Ann hated every word I said about Tom Dula and Laura Foster, but never once did it cross her mind to doubt my word. One time she got so furious over what I had to tell that she went and kicked over a slop jar I had not yet emptied, and I had to get down on my knees with a rag and mop it up and then scrub the newly cleaned floor all over again, but it was worth it, just to see her weep.” Many of us have noticed, similarly, how pleased liberals are with the vicissitudes of the GOP over the shutdown – regardless of what harm it’s also done to their idol’s reputation, or to the public at large. As long as the GOP is hurt, little else matters to them. That’s what hate, and a basic callousness to others, will do, and it shows in the behavior of Obama and his devoted acolytes in the Inner Party, but also among many Outer Party liberals as well.

But this isn’t a political book. It’s simply one writer’s reasonable reconstruction (she argues that everything she has in there is based on the actual record, particularly that of the trial) of the story behind a famous song (and a personal favorite, no matter how inaccurate the factual details of the song may be). And, as someone who hails from a rural upper South background, I can say that it’s always nice to see the sort of language that one encounters in a book putatively narrated by a pair of Carolina mountain folks (Pauline Foster and Zebulon Vance), even if one of them did manage to get education and importance. • (2475 views)

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6 Responses to Book Review: The Ballad of Tom Dooley

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Wow. Sounds like a sordid affair. Today they would be daytime TV stars on some pseudo-news show.

    And, by the way, thanks to you I can’t get that song out of my head.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    It’s still in my head.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Of course, I have a 3-disk set of the Kingston Trio, so I periodically listen to the song, which is one of my favorites of theirs. (“MTA” also ranks high, even though it apparently started out as a campaign song. They also have nice versions of several other notable songs. I think many readers here would also appreciate “Desert Pete”.)

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Desert Pete by The Kingston Trio.

        I don’t believe I’d ever heard this song before. Not bad. Ever see the movie, “A Mighty Wind”? It’s a spoof of the folk era, but the music itself is damn good. I have the CD.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          I wasn’t familiar with the song until I got the CD set, but soon realized that it was very nice, and something that few popular singers would do today. I haven’t heard of the movie (and the last movie I saw in the theaters was The Phantom Menace, though I see plenty on TV). We do have a CD of Troubadours of the Folk Era (my housemate actually bought it), which includes pieces by a number of performers (including “Tom Dooley”, of course).

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Forget the movie then. Go straight to the music. And although the movie is a parody of folk music, it’s a loving parody. The album reflects that. Yes, it’s often funny, even a bit rude. But the music is just good. You couldn’t write like that unless you loved the style.

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