Discrepancies about the date of the murder

As long as I have studied the Tom Dula case, there is one thing that I have been wondering about and that is the discrepancies that exist about the date of the murder. I don't think about the later books an articles. Most of them are written far later than the actual events, and most are probably based on oral tradition.

Neither am I thinking about other later sources, like the gravestones of Tom and Laura (there is no gravestone on Ann Meltons grave). The text on Tom's headstone says he was hanged in May 1866, which indicates that the murder must have taken place a good deal earlier thant that. The footstone on Toms grave has the correct year of his death, namely 1868 but don't mention any dates. The headstone on Laura Fosters grave tells us that she was murdered in May 1865 which actually would acquit Tom if it were correct, as Tom at that time still was a prisoner of war at Camp Hammond, the union POW camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. Unfortunately for Tom Dooley this date is not correct either. At Laura's grave, next to North Carolina Route 268 is a historical marker, that has the year right, namley 1866, but has got the day wrong as it claims thar she was killed on the 28th of May*.  All these gravestones are from later times and the dates on them are probably bases on dates in some of the books and articles written about the case.

* According to the marker the land where she were buried was owned by witness J. W. Winkler. Nothing is mentioned of that in the existing trial records.

Today we know that Laura Foster was probably killed on the day she disappeared from her home or maybe the next day. All the witnesses agrees that she disappeared on a Friday morning in late May 1866. This was Friday the 25th of May. According to the prosecution she was killed early in the morning or late in the evening of that day, and buried on the night between Friday and Saturday. We will probably never know when she was killed as the body wasn't discovered until three months later in an advanced state of disintegration, and with the forensic possibilites of the time, it was impossible to determine exactly when she was killed, but it has as mentioned been considered a given thing, that she was killed right after her disappearance. As a matter of fact she could have died from days to weeks after that.

Laura Foster Memorial

The photo shows a memorial inscription near Laura Foster's grave alone NC Route 260. The plate has the date of the murder wrong.

But for now I will join the general opinion and suppose she was killed on the Friday she disappeared. Unfortunately not only the later sources mentioned above does not agree, neither do the official records from the trials.

In the original Bill of Indictment presented to the Superior Court in Wilkes County before the change of venue to Iredell county, the date of the murder is said to be June 18th 1866. It is written in the somewhat more grandiloquent and lugubrious language of the time: "The Jurors for the State upon oath presented that Thomas Dula, late of the County of Wilkes, not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, on the 18th day of June AD 1866 with force and arms in the County aforesaid....." and so on. The Bill of Indictment even sets the value of the knife used for the murder to 5 cents. By the way the 18th of June was a Monday, not a Friday.

When the case finally got to trial in Iredell County after the change of venue and after the motion for severance in the case was granted, the prosecutor gave his opening statement. In this he claimed, that Laura had disappeared from her fathers home on 28th of May 1866 (which also was a Monday).

In his summary, after the second trail in January 1868, judge Shipp (or the clerk) got the date right, when he dated Laura's disappearance to Friday, May 25th.

In the first ruling of the Supreme Court of North Carolina after the appeal after the first trial by judge Buxton the date is not given, but it is mentioned that the murder took place in May. The Supreme Court Chief Justice was Richard Mumford Pearson and I will look a little closer to his rulings in a later article. In his second ruling, on the final appeal after the trial af the Court of Oyer and Terminer, the ruling sets the date of Laura's disappearance to January 25th 1866!

It is strange to me, that a thing such as the date of the murder could be so wrong in the official records. Neither the two Superior Court judges or the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court have notices these discrepancies. And what really makes me wonder is that defense lawyer Zebulon Vance didn't notice it either, or if he did, that he didn't use it in his defense and appeals.  But maybe I just don't know enough about the judicial system of the period. Maybe exact dates was simply not that important.

When I say that today we know that Laura disappeared on Friday 25th of May 1866, it is not exactly true. We don't actually know it, but we suppose so. Most witnesses mentioned that she disppeared on a Friday and we know that it was in the corn planting season. This could be earlier, maybe as early as April, but that is not consistent with other testimonies, that that claims, that Pauline Foster came to Elkville around March 1st and had been there for about two months when Laura disappeared. Wilson Foster also testified, that Tom had begun visiting Laura in early March and that it was two month since. So only Friday 18th or Friday 25th is possible dates and May 18th seems a bit too early in the month to be called late May. So I will suppose that Judge Shipp got the date right, and that any other date mentioned in official records are wrong. Especially the one in January. It is simply not possible to plant corn in January.

Also today official authorities can get facts wrong. On the homepage of North Carolina State Archives,you find some data about the Dula case on their "Educational Ressources for Students" page, and in less than one printed page, they manage to get to facts wrong. According to this page Lauras Fostets murder took place in Iredell County, but it was actually only the trial, tghat took place, while the murder happened in Wilkes County. Later the claim, that Tom Dooley weas arrested on James W. Graysons farm in Tennessee, but that wasn't the case. Tom had already left colonel Graysons farm, when he was arrested near Doe Creek around 12 miles from Trade.

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