What really happened?
Until now the articles have been based on facts or at least on facts as far as we know them today, 145 years after the events, but from now on, they will be based on speculations and guesses. I hope though, that it will be substantiated speculations and educated guesses. We will probably never know what really happened in those days in late May 1866, but maybe we can get a little closer to the facts, than songs and legends do.
The easy way out will of course be to suggest that the prosecution was right. Tom Dooley did murder Laura Foster. He did it for the reason suggested by the prosecution and the way suggested by the prosecution. Maybe he did, but I don't think it likely. If the prosecution was not right, did Tom then kill Laura at all, or did he do it for other reasons? If he did kill her, then why did he do it? And if he didn't kill her, then who did - and why? Ann Melton, because of jealousy or revenge? Pauline Foster for the same or other reasons? Or was it someone completely different, maybe a stranger, or someone else, that we know, but who was never suspected at the time? If it were someone else, then why was Tom convicted, as the evidence against him was purely circumstantial and not very strong actually? All these questions and more, I will try to answer in this and future articles, but first let me ask another question.
Was Laura Foster murdered at all?
Most will of course answer this with a "Sure, she was". But is it as sure as that? I'm not that sure :-). What we do know, is that one morning, she left her home, taking her her fathers mare with her, never to be seen again. And that is actually all we know. If we disregard the discrepancies about the dates, we must believe, that she left home on the morning of May 25th, 1866.
One witness, Betsy Scott who was living next door to the Fosters, testified, that she met with Laura that Friday morning about one mile from her home, and that she had a conversation with her, in which Laura claimed that she was heading for the "Bates Place" to meet Tom Dooley. The Bates place was a place where there used to be a blacksmith shop near the Reedy Branch settlement, about five miles from her home and also from her meeting place with Betsy Scott. This meeting was never confirmed by anyone else and neither was Laura's statement of where she was heading. According to a much later source, two sisters from the Witherspoon family saw Laura passing their home later that same morning, but we have no evidence of this from the time of the disappearance.
Tom Dooley was apparently going another way at the same time. Even if he took a narrow path through the hills, he met with at least three people on this early morning walk. Laura, who on the other hand was riding along the "main road" through the valley close to the river, where a lot of people lived and worked, met only one sinlge person about one mile in direction of the river from her own home. For the next five miles in which she passed several houses, including Rufus D. Hortons's place, David Horton's place, the Witherspoon place and even Lotty Foster's place, she neither met with or was seen by a single person. Strange or...?
Wilson Foster explained in court, that when he discovered that Laura had gone, and his mare with her, he had followed the horse's tracks along the road from his house, passing A. P. Scott's house (maybe a relation to Betsy Scott or the other Scott's mentioned in the case, but I haven't been able to prove any relationship). From there he could follow the horse's tracks to an old field at the Bates Place, where he lost it. We don't know if he met anyone or was seen by anyone during this tracking, but if he was it is not mentioned in any of the surviving testimonies, including his own. He never found Laura at the Bates place so he returned to James Scott's house for breakfast, and later moved on to the Melton place, before returning to his search. During his search he visited several houses, asking for his daughter and his horse, but nobody had seen either.
The painting to the left depicts Laura in her home, busy weaving as Edith F. Carter imagines it. The original picture is in the Tom Dooley Art Museum at Whippoorwill Academy and Village in Ferguson, North Carolina and is reproduced here with permission from the artist.
In the beginning everybody suspected that Laura has run off with someone or had gone visiting relatives in Watauga County (The New York Herald article claims the latter). Laura running away with Tom Dooley was one of the guesses from both Pauline Foster and Wilson Foster, but as he was still around it couldn't be him. Pauline Foster then suspected that she had ran away with someone from her own neighborhood, maybe a colored man, and Wilson accepted that. Pauline stated in court, that she had "said so in consequence of information, she had received from others", so there must have more people thinking that Laura had just disappeared. So for most of one month, nobody thought any crime had been made. Then rumours that Laura had been killed, started spreading, the Hendricks'es whoever they may have been, added Tom Dooley to the rumours, and only then did Wilson Foster go to the authorities. Not until on June 28th, more tghan a monthh after Laura's disappearance did Justice of Peace, Pickins Carter, ask the sheriff to arrest Tom and his presumed accomplices.
In early september, more than three months after Laura's disappearance, a body was found in a shallow grave, much closer to the Dooley cabin than to the suspected place of murder. The body was in such state of decomposition that Laura was identified only because of a space between her two front teeth and the clothes she was wearing, as "the flesh was of the face" according to James Isbell, who found her.
Today it is presumed, that the dead body was actually Laura's but the identification was based on nothing much. It was probably the best, that could be done at the time, but still not very good. Especially since one of the witnesses couldn't remember any space between teeth of the body fdound in the grave - but it may of course have been his memory letting him down at the trial. Actually Laura could have switched clothes with anyone, murdered and burried her and then disappeared alone or with one of her lovers, never to go back to her home. Maybe someone at home knew this, or later learned about it. As rumour has it, Ann Melton admitted on her deathbed that she knew something, that could have saved Tom from the gallows. Normally this is understood, that she herself murdered Laura, but if the story is true, this is not what she said at all. If Ann knew something, that might have saved Tom from execution, it might have been that Laura ws not dead at all and that Tom therefore couldn't have killed her.
But if she was stilll alive, why didn't she come forward when her once lover was charged with her murder. Many reasons are possible. Maybe it was Laura or her lover, that killed the dead girl? Maybe she had moved so far away from her old home, that she didn't even knew. Probably she was an illiterate, and could not read papers and/or she may have lived a place where the North Carolina or New York papers were not available. Maybe she was mad at Tom for breaking up with her and wanted revenge, or maybe someone had paid her not to come forward. We will never know and even if she did not get killed, everybody at the time thought she was murdered, so let me take a closer look on the possible murderers.