What is the story behind the folk song “Tom Dooley?”

What is the story behind the folk song “Tom Dooley?”

Alexander Durvin Jr.

Fort Washington, Maryland

“Hang down your head Tom Dooley, poor boy, you’re bound to die.” I can’t tell you how many times I have sung that song over the years.

Tom Dula (pronounced locally as “Dooley”) was born in 1845 in the Appalachian hill country of North Carolina. As a youngster he fell in love with Ann Foster, but he had to leave his love behind when the Civil War broke out and Tom and his three brothers went off to fight Yankees. His brothers were all killed in battle; Tom survived and returned home three years later—only to find that Ann, believing he would be killed, had married an older man named James Melton.

Tom began courting Ann’s younger cousin Laura Foster and impregnated her. On May 26, 1866, the night they were to elope, Laura disappeared. Many believed that Ann, still in love with Tom, had murdered Laura. In fact, Ann told authorities where they could find her cousin’s buried body. When they found it on September 1, 1866, they arrested and jailed Ann.

Laura had died of multiple stab wounds, and the crime garnered national attention. Shortly after her body was found, Tom fled and hid out in Tennessee; he too was soon arrested and jailed.

Authorities tried and convicted 22-year-old Tom Dula, and hanged him on May 1, 1868. The night before his execution, Tom wrote, “I am the only person that had any hand in the murder of Laura Foster.” As a result of his confession, Ann was later acquitted of the crime.

After Tom’s execution, a local poet named Thomas Land wrote a song about the tragic event, cementing its place in American folklore.

In 1958 the Kingston Trio recorded the song and sold more than six million records. The ballad, loosely based on actual fact, helped launch America into the Folk Music era.

What do you think?

Marshall Trimble

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and the Wild West History Association’s vice president. His latest book is 2018’s Arizona Oddities: A Land of Anomalies and Tamales. Send your question, with your city/state of residence, to marshall.trimble@scottsdalecc.edu or Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327.