The true story of Tom Dooley - a critical review

In 2013 Dr. John Edward Fletcher published the book, "The True Story of Tom Dooley - From Western North Carolina Mystery to Folk Legend". Dr. Fletcher is a descendant of Ann and James Melton through their oldest daughter, Martha Jane Allen. This is a kind of critical review of this book.

In March 2011 I wrote on this website:

"Unfortunately there was no public place of execution in Statesville, but the sheriff had erected a simple gallows near the raillway depot just south of town, a place commonly known as "the circus lot". This place is across the railway tracks behind the "new" railway depot from 1906, at 111 Depot Place, presently housing Statesvilles Convention and Visitors Bureau. I guess the gallows must have been placed close to present days South Center Street.

From the jail on Broad Street, Tom was to be transported a little over half a mile to the place of execution. Unlike what is claimed in several of the ballads, Tom was not hanged from an old oak tree and definately not in a lonesome valley. " (See the article Execution and Aftermath).

This location of the place of execution was based on knowledge, that I had gathered on a previous visit in the area in 2004. Research up to a visit in July 2012 made me believe, that I was wrong about the location in the first place, and after a second visit in October 2013, I corrected this in another article from late October:

"The orginal railway station was actually placed around 300 yards northeast of the present "Old Railway Depot" that now houses the Statesville Housing Authorities - and Tom was executed just south of the building. Depending on how precise this direction is, it means that the place of execution must have been either near the corner of Jefferson Street and Washington Avenue or even more likely where the small gravel road, Railroad Avenue departs from Harrison Street, on the eastern side of Bartlett Milling Company, rather than on the western side as my first article indicated that it was. During my last visit in October 2013, I took pictures of the two possible sites, with the most likely site shown here." (See Tom Dooley - An update I)

In Dr. Fletchers book (p. 72), you can read the following paragraph:

"Unfortunately, there was no public place of execution in Statesville, but the sheriff had erected a simple gallows near the railway depot just south of town, a place commenly known as the "circus lot". The location of the gallows where Tom was to be executed was across the railway tracks behind the new railway depot built in 1906 at 111 Depot Place (it presently houses the Statesville Convention and Visitors Bureau). This would locate the gallows close to present-day, South Center Street in Statesville. From the jail on Broad Street, Tom was to be transported a little over half a mile to the place of execution. Unlike what is claimed in several of the ballads and poems, Tom was not hanged from an "old oak tree" and definately was not hanged in a lonesome valley."

Dr. Fletcher apparently has not visited Statesville himself before writing his book, or he would have known, that Statesville Convention Center and Visitors Bureau is no longer located in the old depot building and wasn't in 2012 either.

This is just one of many similarities between information on this site, and the book. I'm glad that someone finds my writings so interesting, that they are used in a book, and my point is not to criticize Dr. Fletcher for using it, though I would have liked to be named as the source.

Besides from this, the book contains a lot of interesting information, especially on the relations between the involved, some of which was quite new to me, when I read the book, or answered some open questions I had. I have not used a lot of it of it on this website though as much os undocumented. I would like to quote another paragraph from the book (page 132):

"One of the most maligned and perhaps misinterpreted persons in the story of Tom Dooley is Ann Melton's mother, Carlotta (Lotty) Foster. John Foster West wrote in his book The Ballad of Tom Dooley (actually 'The Ballad of Tom Dula') that she was a depraved, drunken and illiterate person,  who gave birth to a large number of illegitimate children. From his first book, there is no document or record cited to indicate the truth of that description or any supporting documents. It is assumed, as he stated, that this characterization of her was from comments of older surviving members of the Elkville community, who were quoting remembrances of people contemporary with the trial period (1860-70)."

Dr. Fletcher is right here. John Foster West does not document this, except for quoting Wade Gilbert, grandson of James Melton's second wife, and maybe it was hearsay or he was trying to make himself more knowledgeable tghan he actually was. One infornmation can be documented though, namely that she was illeterate. The census records from 1870 states that Lotty Foster "cannot read" and "cannot write". Neither could anyone else in her household at that time, and neither could her married daughter Ann or Ann's husband, James Melton. I'm not saying that Lotty Foster had illegitimate children or that she was a drunk, but that was the rumor at the time following the Dula case.

The strange thing is, that Dr. Fletcher goes on with some undsourced claims of his own. One is that Lotty Foster and Wilson Foster were sister and brother and that Laura and Ann therefore were first cousins, as some of the legends tell. This claim of close kinship seems strange as a contemporary newspaper (The Statesville American) wrote in an article after the first trial, that the two girls were only "distant relatives". I have not been able to find any close relationship between Wilson and Lotty, documented neither in census records nor in any genealogies. Fletcher names their parents as Thomas Bell Foster and Frances Triplett. This can be documented as goes for Wilson, but the children of that couple are named as George,Wilson, Nancy, Sarah, Elizabeth, Elbert, Triplett, Robert, Thomas and William. No Carlotta, Charlotte or anything like it. The genealogy can be wrong of course, but no other sources document, that Wilson and Lotty are sister and brother. The census records states that Lotty was 49 in 1870, making her born in 1820 or 21, but the child Elizabeth was born in 1821, making it diffiicult for Frances to have had another child within the same year (see the genealogy on The Homepage of John Ward) Neither was the name Carlotta or anything like it, used for any other children or childrens children in this part of the Foster family.

Later Dr. Fletchers tells, that Lotty Foster was actually married around 1840 to a Francis Triplett, son of Martin Triplett and Nancy Brown. In 1850 she lived with the parents of her mother-in-law with her then three children, Pinkney, Ann and Thomas, who were all legitimate. Their father had disappeared though, maybe dead or just gone. Also this claim is undocumented. I have not been able to find any relevant Francis Triplett in any public records. A Martin Triplett married one Nancy Brown in 1820. She died soon after, or maybe they were divorced (according to Faye Morans homepage), but not before having children with Martin Triplett; one of these children could of course be Francis, but in that case it is not documented in any public records.  In 1822 Martin married again, this time to Mary Hall.

Even if her being a Foster by birth and a Triplett by marriage explains the change of her name in the records, it doesn't explain why she changed it back to Triplett once more. Neither does it explain why Ann called herself Foster at the time of her marriage, if her fathers name was actually Triplett, and she was born while her mom and dad were still married, and her birthname therefore must have been Triplett.

As Dr. Fletcher writes, Lottty Foster lived with a James (age 74) and Nancey (age 69) Brown in 1850. But why should she live with the maternal grandparents of a husband, who had left her?  Another explantion is more likely in my opinion. That one of the children born to Nancy Brown in her shortlived marriage with Martin Triplett, was actually Lotty, and that in 1850 she lived with, and was taking care of her own maternal grandparents, who by the way, owned real estate to a value of 1.000 dollars, a large tract of land in 1850*. Lotty may very well have been married, and maybe to a Francis Triplett, but I still need to see some documentation for this and until I do, I prefer to believe that she was born Triplett, not Foster and that maybe she married a Foster somewhere along the way (early 1860's), or at least had children with a Foster and gave them that name, and maybe later marrying the father. Also this explanation is of course undocumented, as I haven't been able to find any official records of any marriage involving Lotty.

* Interestingly enough is, that the entry in the census records just above James Brown is for the household of Bennett Dula, Tom's rather wealthy, paternal uncle and his family, including the children, Ann, Granville and Clarissa and also Tom's grandmother, Anna. Bennett's real estate was only valued $ 600.

This is not the only place, where Dr. Fletcher's book lacks documentation. In an earlier article (Pauline Foster) I have considered the possibility that Pauline Foster was identical with Tom's cousin, Ann Pauline Dula, daughter of Bennett Dula. I don't know if she was, but I still think it is possible. Dr. Fletcher has another explanation though. According to "The true Story..." (p. 23, p. 42 and p. 130), Pauline Foster was the daughter of one Leander Levi Foster, who himself was an illegitimate son of Tom Dooleys grand uncle John Dula, and an unknown Foster-woman, daughter of Robert Foster, Wilson Foster's and (according to Dr. Fletcher) Lotty Foster's uncle**. Leander had lived near his father in Kings Creek during the civil war and his family had become known as "The Dulas". This may very well be true, but once again Dr. Fletcher does not document any of it. Fletcher also claims, that Wilson Foster got the Ann Pauline Foster, known as Dula and the real Ann Pauline Dula mixed up, when he told the justice of peace who he wanted arrested, thus explaning why Tom's cousin, Ann Pauline Dula is mentioned on the arrest warrant. A mix-up of the two Paulines doesn't explain why a Granville was included in the arrest warrant, unless of course both Pauline's had a brother named Granville, but none of the Hughs children (see below) are named anything like Granville.  Besides, it doesn't sound likely to me, that Wilson would confuse the two girls, which he must have known were two different people, even if they were living quite a distance from each other, the "real" Ann Pauline Dula in Elkville, and the "fake" Ann Pauline Dula near King's Creek. Especially as the one he wanted arrested (the one originally from King's Creek), was actually related to him.

** Robert Foster had four daughters, Rebecca, Mary, Ann og Nancy. One of them might me the mother of Levi Foster, but in that case it must have either Rebecca or Mary, as Ann and Nancy would only have been respectively 12 and 9 years old in 1825 and even younger in 1822. Rebecca would have been 24 and Mary 20. Rebecca was married in 1824 though, while Mary didn't marry until 1828. (The Homepage of John Ward)

In the 1850 census records one Levi Foster, born in 1822 or 1825 (census records from 1860 and 1870 don't agree on when) was living in Watauga County. He was called Levi F. Foster, but that may have been a writing error. He 25, is head of household, farmer and has no real estate nor personal estate. Interestingly enough every other member of his household are called Hughs, including 30 year old Anna and the children Lucinda (13), Anna (4), Joseph (3) and Horton (1). Levi most have met and moved in with Anna and at least her daugter Lucinda. Levi could be the father of the three remaing children, but in that case Levi and Anna were not married as the children were all called Hughs, not Foster. If Pauline Foster was the daughter of this Levi, she must have been the Anna, born around 1846 (Pauline is thought to be born around 1845), but why was she known as "Foster" during trial if her name was actually Hughs? Levi Foster and Anna Hughs were married, but after 1850. In 1880 Levi and Anna still lived in Watagua county with their 21 year old son, Robert.

Tom actually had a grand uncle called John Dula, but he died in 1846, so Pauline and her family could not have stayed with him during the civil war. More likely would be John "Jack" Dula, Tom's uncle (brother of Tom's father), born in 1800 and dead some time between 1870 and 1880. He could easily have had an illegimate child around 1825 as his first child, Sarah, with his wife was apparently born in 1830.

Once more Dr. Fletchers claim may very well be correct, but it lacks documentation. The same goes for Pauline Foster's marriage to one John Scott around 1867. I have only been able to find records of one John Scott marrying an Anna B. Foster, but that marriage took place in January 1866, not after the murder, as claimed in the New Herald Article, that Dr. Fletcher refers to on page 131). Dr. Fletcher tells us, that this John Scott may have been a very lightskinned mulatto, which would explain the story in the newspaper article, about Pauline getting married to a white man but giving birth to a negro child. I haven't been able to locate a John Scott, married to a Ann, Anna, Pauline (or anything like that ) Foster in any of the public records I have access to, exept for the above mentioned marriage from January 1866, but if that had been the case, she would have been referred to as Pauline Scott in the trial records.

The book contains other undocumentet claims, like Jack Keaton being Tom's half uncle (his mothers half brother), Pauline being a law abiding citizen, who would never lie in court, that when Lotty Foster in court said that she caught Tom in bed with Ann two years before the war, she didn't mean 1859 but 1861, but I wil not go into those.

The book contains other strange information. Strange because some of it is rather easy to prove wrong - or at least not quite valid.  

One of them is the claim, that one Margareth "Betsy" Scott, a mulatto woman from the Fort Defiance area and neighbor of Wilson Foster, testified about her meeting with Laura Friday morning and the meeting place of Laura and Tom  (The True Story, p. 102) while one Elizabeth "Betty" Scott testified that Laura had told her of her plans to run away with Tom (The True Story p. 106). This is strange for more reasons. James Isbell's map of the area shows only Eliz. Scott as neighbor to Wilson Foster. Second, Fort Defiance is around 3-4 miles from German Hill, so a person living here could hardly be called a neighbor. Census records from the time does not mention any Margareth "Betsy" Scott, or any other Margareth Scott by the way. The 1860 census though mentions an Elizabeth Scott, mulatto, 40 years old, living with two children, the youngest a four year old girl called Laura (was she named for her neigbours then 16 year old?). She lived close to Wilson Foster, presumably a sharecropper on land belonging to one Reese Triplett, one of Wilsons prosperous neighbors. The best evidence though is the case records itself. On page 20 of the files from the first trial, the record states:

"Mrs. Betsy Scott testified, that I saw Laura on the Friday morning she was missing..."

After an obejction from the defense the same witness continued (case files p. 21) "... The witness further stated that these questions was asked by her in consequence of a communication made to her by Laura a day or two before."

No testimonies from a Margareth "Betty" Scott is quoted anywhere in the trial records. If Dr. Fletcher has used the transcription of the trial records from the homepage of Faye Moran, this can be the cause of the mistake. In her article Ms. Moran uses the name Betty: "Mrs. Betty Scott testified that I saw Laura on the Friday morning she was missing...." even  if the transcript from the case clearly states "Betsy" Scott as shown in the above pictures.

In a text to a picture on p. 133, Dr. Fletcher mentions that Mariah's Chapel (near present day Grandin Road) was attended by the Jones', Carters, Meltons and other wealthy families. They may all very well have attended this chapel, but not in the days of the murder, as the chapel, the first religious building to be raised in Happy Valley, wasn't built until 1879. According to Dr. Robert Isbell (World of my Childhood, p. 138), Francis Melton was a tenant farmer on land belonging to Dr. Carter for 40 years. As a tennant farmer he was probably better of than a sharecropper, but that doesn't mean he was wealthy. As goes for Wilson Foster farming on Isbell land, it may be right, but Dr. Robert Isbell doesn't mention anything about it in his book. He does mention though, that at a later date Wilson Foster and some of his children were living on land belonging to Larkin Horton, James Isbell's brother in law (The World of my Childhood, p. 101).

I could mention other provable errors in the book but that would make this review rather long, so I will let this be enough.

The problem with this book is, that most ofd the claims may very well be correct, and would actually answer a lot of unanswered questions about the case, but unfortunately a lot is undocumented. Therefore I don't feel, that the text presenting the author is justified when it claims "Dr. Fletcher has not only determined what can be known about the true story but has also solved most, if not all, of the remaining mysteries about the murder case, and he has identified who its many participants really were". Don't worry! There is still work left for future researchers.