Tom Dooley in recent and not so recent fiction

In this article I will comment on a song, a movie and two novels. The article reflects my own opinion and nothing else. I'n not a critic of neither lyrics and music, movies or litterature, so my purpose here is not to critize any of these things, but I will look at them from a historical point of view, knowing very well, that no fiction has ever been or should be exact, when it comes to historical facts.

The song by the Kingston Trio and others

In 1958 The Kingston Trio had a number one hit with their song, The Ballad of Tom Dooley. This caused a lot of interest in the case, and 40 years later, it trigged mine as well. I just promised I wouldn't critize the song for it's musical values, and I won't, but I would like to say, that I really like this song, and listen to it rather often.

The song didn't tell much of the true story, and what it did tell had nothing to do, with what really happened. I suppose most people know the song, and if not you can find it on Youtube, and listen to it there, or maybe it is possible to buy it somwehere. There are of course many other versions of the song, like an English version with Johnny Rivers, a German version by Tom Astor, a Danish version by Preben Uglebjerg & Four Pals and so on. And of course Doc Watson's quite different version, both in lyrics and tune is also worth listening to.

Some of the covers of the Kingston Trio's version starts with a spoken introduction like the original. The Kingston Trio's version has:

"Throughout history, there've been many songs written about the eternal triangle. This next one tells the story of a Mr Grayson, a beautiful woman and a condemned man named Tom Dooley.... When the sun rises tomorrow, Tom Dooley must hang..."

One Danish Version (translated to English) goes

"This is the song about the cowboy, Tom Dooley, who after having killed his lover out of jealousy, now sits in his cell, waiting to be hanged tomorrow at sunrise."

and a German version goes:

"This is the story of Tom Dooley from Tennessee and his end. He loved the wife of another, but because she would not have anything to do with him, he stabbed her. I, the Sheriff had Tom Dooley sentenced to death, and tomorrow, yes tomorrow he must hang."

I don't think the translators knew anything about the story, and just wanted to have an introduction, that made sense in their own language. The Danish version lets Tom kill Laura out of jealousy because she was seéing another man, and makes Tom a cowboy by the way, and in the German version Tom is from Tennessee and he kills her because she is already married, and will not have anything to do with him. On the other hand the English introduction doesn't say anything about any murder at all, just that Tom is condemned, but not for what.

But let me focus on the lyrics used by The Kingston Trio. It just tells that Tom Dooly "met her on the mountain" and took her life, by stabbing her with his knife. Tomorrow he would have been in Tennessee if it hadn't been for Grayson. In stead he will now be "down in some lonesome valley, hanging from a white oak tree". This is actually all the song tells. No mention of Laura's name, no mention of any other women or men for that matter, except for Grayson, and not even the slightest hint of why Tom killed the girl or of what Grayson did to prevent him from being in Tennessee. So all we know is, that Tom killed a girl and now he must hang.

The version by Doc Watson has more details, as does some other versions, but none of them are historically true either, so I won't go further into these.

The movie "The Legend of Tom Dooley"

One year after the Kingston Trio had their great hit with "The Ballad of Tom Dooley", a movie was made, allegedly based on the song. As  the song doesn't actually tell anything that you base a movie on, the movies moved even farther away from the true story. The movie starred Michael Landon as Tom Dooley, Jo Morrow as Laura Foster and Jack Hogan as Charlie Grayson. In Danish the movie was called "Tom Dooley, oprøreren fra Tennessee." or in English "Tom Dooley, The Tennesssee Rebel". Neither Ann Melton nor Pauline Foster or anyone else from the actual case appears in the movie, except from Grayson, and he is called 'Charlie'.  Tom Dooley is from Tennessee, which explains the Danish title. A brief summary of the plot will hopefully demonstrate how far the movie is from the real Dooley case. This review is from TV Guide:

"A very somber western, with Landon in the title role as a Confederate soldier who robs a Union stagecoach along with Pollock and Rust and kills two soldiers, not knowing the war is over. Knowing that they will be tried for murder, they head south, but first Landon gets his northern girl friend, Morrow. They elope and then she's accidentally killed. This leads the authorities to Landon, and he's tried and hanged."

Pollock and Rust are Dee Pollock and Richard Rust who play respectively a guy called "Abel'' and a "country boy". IMDb has this short summary: "Based on a popular song, this is the tale of a Rebel soldier at the close of the Civil War, who is pursued by a carpet-bagger lawman"

If the song and the movie have nothing to do with the story, the opposite is true for the two excellent novels, that  I've mentioned several times in these articles. I find them both interesting and exciting, and a good reading, though not necessarily historically correct. I will not go through them in detail, but I will give a very brief summary and comment on  a few places, where I think the historical parts are not correct. This has nothing to do with the novels' qualities as novels, which are great. Furthermore, I will reveal the two novel's explanations of who killed Laura Foster,so if you plan to read the novels, don't read any further.

"Tom Dooley, The Story Behind the Ballad" by Karen Wheeling Reynolds

Karen Wheeling Reynolds, who is the source of most of what was told in the articles in The Record of Wilkes, has also written, formerly starred in and directed the play "Tom Dooley - A Wilkes County Legend". And she has written the novel "Tom Dooley, The Story Behind the Ballad ". This is pretty much based on the same story as the play. Reynolds relies on a combination of facts and folklore, the novel is apparently for most parts based on the latter, supplemented by a good deal of artistic freedom, to make the story interesting and readable.

None of the main characters except Laura Foster, is particularly sympathetic in the book. Ann Melton and Pauline Foster are directly unsympathetic in my opinion. The book is told from a third party view, and it tell us about Tom's and Ann's relationship before the Civil War and of course, not least after Tom's return to Elkville. Many of the people who were mentioned during the trial appears as characters in the book, while others are completely omitted. Some details have changed like the age of some of the characters. Granville Dula, is described as an older man, with whom Pauline Foster stays for awhile, but in reality he was only 19 in 1866. Celia Scott is referred to as an older or even old woman even though she was only 31. James Isbell and James C. Horton are referred to as "the two old colonels," although Horton was 49 and Isbell was only 28 i 1866 and we are never told, that Isbell was married to Tom's second cousin, the 27 year old Sarah Louise Isbell, born Horton.

The photo to the left shows Forest Edge Amphitheater outside Wilkesboro, where the play Tom Dooley - A Wilkes County Legend is shown every summer.

Anns daughter is called Mary Beth in the novel, while her acutal daughters' names were Martha Jane and Ida. Anns mother Lotty Foster is a prostitute, and it is possible that this was the case, but it was not mentioned during the proceedings. Also a lot of the action takes place around Cowles Store and Calvin Cowles and his wife Martha play significant roles in the novel, even though the family had left Elkville in 1858, 8 years before the murder of Laura Foster, and did not return to town later. And Martha Cowles died in april 1866, two months before the murder took place, so she couldn't have been involved even if the family had returned.

There are also other, more important changes, such as the the issue of the novel following the folklore letting James Melton and Ann get married, while Tom was away at war, even if wedding records show, that they were married in 1859. In the novel James Melton stays home throughout the war, but he actually joined the army almost one year before Tom, was wounded several times and ended up in the same POW camp as Tom Dooley, from where he was released two weeks after Tom's release.

Laura's body is found by colonel James Horton in the novel, but it was actually James Isbell and his father in law, David Horton that found the grave. Both Bob Cummins and Jack Keaton plays important roles in the novel, although they were not even mentioned at all during the proceedings, and maybe never existed at all. They both participate in the search and capture of Tom, along with among others the two colonels and James Melton, although the search party as described during trial only consisted of two men, with the help Colonel James Grayson from Trade, Tennessee.

The novel let Laura's body be found in late July, and after that Tom is arrested, but in reality he was arrested already in mid July, and the body wasn't located until around September 1st. Also according to the novel, Tom was turnes over to Sheriff Wasson and put in prison in Wilkesboro, but William Franklin Wasson was actually the sheriff of Iredell County, and the Wilkes County sheriff was called William Hicks. Wasson was the one who finally executed Tom Dooley though.

Who is the novel's murderer? The murderer is not given away in the novel. Before the murder takes place we are told that Laura was pregnant and that Tom had taken the responsibility on him and promised to run away with her, so they could get married. Ann Melton didn't accept this and wanted to prevent it from happening. The murder is described from Laura's point of view, and as the killer comes from behind and she never sees who it is, and the readers are never told either. Just before the murder, Ann Melton, however, lured Jack Keaton to do something for her, that are not further specified, and this is perhaps an indication that it is Jack who kills Laura to please Ann, but it is also possible that Ann is actually the killer and that it was Keaton, who helped her bury the corpse. Or maybe the killer was Tom? Who did the killing is being left to the reader's imagination.

"The Ballad of Tom Dooley" by Sharyn McCrumb

Sharyn McCrumb has written several novels and won several awards. Also she has, like Reynolds, researched the case, and her book is based more on facts than on folklore, but in the novel, some facts have been changed, possibly to create a more exciting and readable story, even if some of the changed details do not seem to have influence on the plot. The beginning, end and some chapters in between are told by Zebulon Vance, who in later days, thinks back on the case. Except from this the story is told from the view of Pauline Foste.

From the very first time we meet her, she appears as an umsympathetic and bitter woman, not least because of the syphilis that sje has conntradicted. Gradually, as the story evolves she becomes directly malicious. In her own mind she's always the victim of some real or imaginary vexations for which others are to blame not herself. Most of her time shew spends on thinking about revenge for these vexations. She clearly has disturbed personality traits and feel no empathy at all towards others. She is willing to have sex with anyone, if only she can get something out of it. At one point she tells that she can not understand why some girls may prefer one man over the other, as it makes no difference who you have sex with. She obviously finds no pleasure in sex either, but uses it only as a tool. Pauline exploits everybody around her, she plots and manipulates, and she is the novel's villain unconditional and has absolutely no redeeming features. She hates Tom because one time he rejected her and insulted her her after they had sex. She hates  Ann for several reasons, partly because Ann is beautiful and she is not, and partly because of the way Ann treats her, but also other reasons come into play.

Pauline don't actually have anything against Laura Foster, though Laura sometimes annoys Pauline by being in love and expressing it. Pauline don't believe in the concept of love, and refuses to accept that such a thing as love exist. Although she has nothing against Laura, she doesn't refrain from using Laura in her plans for revenge against Tom and Ann, even if she knows that it means that Laura will be killed. Actually Pauline counts on Laura being murdered, and that Ann and Tom will be hanged for it. One man, a freed slave, named John Anderson, who is actually the one, that Laura is in love with and wants to elope with, can save Tom from hanging by telling the truth.  Pauline has sex with John, and afterwards she threatens him that if Tom is not hanged for the murder, she will make sure that he, John, is hanged instead. She will claim that he raped her, an accusation she is sure will lead to his hanging because she is a white woman and he is colored man. Pauline gets pregnant at the occasion and later have John's child.

The novel contains a very realistic description of Tom's stay in the POW camp at Point Lookout (Camp Hammond). Tom, who nortmally doesn't talk about his experiences during the war, get drunk at one time (by the way the same instance where he later insults Pauline) and reveals the story of his imprisonment. Not all the facts are as historical as this desciption.

When Pauline arrives in Elkville and is employed by James Melton, Ann tells her that she has two children, who spends most of their time with their grandmother, Lotty Foster. Actually had Ann one living child, unless she had another that are not recorded in official records. McCrumb lets Tom get a written message from his mother, even though none of them was literate according to census records. Mrs. Dula can of course have persuaded someone else to write the note and hoped that the sheriff or one of his men would read it aloud, to Tom, but it is not probable.

The novel has Pauline visit Laura almost every day, when Ann ask her to find out about Toms relationship with Laura, and also later when she are making plans on how to use Laura to get rid of Ann and Tom. In the trial records only one visit was mentioned though, and that was before Pauline came to work for the Melton family.

At the end of the novel Vance has a conversation with his assistant from trial, Allison, and the two of them talk about how badly Tom's hanging was carried out, as  Tom did not break his neck but was strangled. But this was not unusual. Actually it was the main reason of death by hanging, using the so called "short drop" that was used in Tom's case. The "standard drop" was described until 1866, and it took some years before it became the ordinary way to conduct a hanging, and "the long drop" wasn't invented until 1872. Wikipedia has this description of "the short drop": "The short drop is performed by placing the condemned prisoner on the back of a cart, horse, or other vehicle, with the noose around the neck. The object is then moved away, leaving the person dangling from the rope. The condemned prisoner dies of strangulation, which typically takes between ten and twenty minutes." The same article also explanins why Tom (and others, didn't struggle after the fall was complete: "Prisoners are often reported to have little or no struggle before they go limp, because their jugular vein and carotid arteries are blocked and blood flow to the brain is reduced."

Allison and Vance agrees that "the bad execution" is due to the rule that a sheriff could only hold office for one term of four years. In such a period, the two of them agress, there would be so few executions that the sheriffs  were unable to get routine. They therefore thinks, that the State should hire a professional executioner to take care of all executions in the state. This whole discussion is based on the false assumption, that such a four-year rule existed, which unfortunaltely it did not. Before Wasson, there had been a period when the sheriff of Iredell County typically only held office for two years, but many also served much longer terms, and Wasson had been elected in 1858, ten years before Tom Dooley was hanged, so even if hangings were not an everyday event, he must have carried out some hangings - even though of course death sentences didn't happen every other day. Wasson served until 1874, when he was succeeded by Thomas Watts, who served for ten years, and he was succeeded by John Wykoff who held office for nine. The current sheriff has served 18 years, and he is the only one ever who has served longer than Wasson. A fixed term of four years can not be retrieved at any time in the office of sheriff of Iredell County.

In contrast to the previous novel, this one leaves no doubt that Ann Melton was the killer and jealousy her reason. Pauline, serving as Ann's "spy" in Laura Foster's home, know about the love affaire between Laura and the freed slave, John Anderson, and Laura had told her, that the two of them will run anway together. Laura had been Tom's lover for a short period, but has no lasting feelings for him. Pauline lies about it and tells Ann that Laura will run away from home with Tom Dooley, so the two can marry. Ann believes Pauline, so she kills Laura and later admit to Tom. Tom, who has no feelings for Laura, but really loves Ann, help her to bury the corpse, and thus becomes an accomplice. Even if Ann is not hung, Pauline gets her revenge on her as well, as she claims that "when Tom Dooley was hung, Ann died as well".

In both novels, Ann Melton is the guilty party, whether she committed the murder on her own account or got someone to do it in Reynold's version, or was tricked into doing it in McCrumb's. In McCrumbs novel Tom became an accomplice while he in Reynolds's book was ignorant of what had happened. In both novels he chooses to save Ann with his written a confession, when he reconizes that there is no more hope for himself.

Tom Dooley - A Wilkes county legend, play by Karen Wheeling Reynolds

The play follow close to the novel "Tom Dooley - The Story Behind the ballad", and nothing strange about that, as the author is the same in both cases. Of course there are some differences as one is written to be read, while the other is written to be performed on stage. I watched the play for the first time in the summer of 2014, and it wasw a great expericence, even if I of course, don't find many likenessses between the play and true story J, which can't come as a surprised if you read all these pages. It has most of the errors of the book, whic h I will not repeat. The Cowles family palys an important part of the play, even if they hadn't lived in the area for 8 years, when the murder took place. James Isbell is c ompletely left out of the play, and some of the characters are made much younger than they really were. James, Lauras brother is a boy around 12, and Tomøs sisters Anna and Eliza were played by actresses, 9 and 15t years old, respectively, though in real lifte they were much older than Tom. The olddest, Anna, was almost 40, at the time of the murder, and Eliza was 30. The four Smith-girls of the play was never mentioned during trial and is probably added for aome artistic reason. James Melton is an older man in the play, not just older thanh Ann.

The play was good and so was the actors, and if I ever get back to the area in the summertime, I'lle definately go watch it once more. 


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