What really happened?

In my last article, I suggested that maybe Laura was not killed at all. But even if she was, we are not sure who killed her. At the time most people, or at least those people who mattered most, namely the two juries, was convinced that Laura was killed, and Tom Dooley was the murderer. Later rumours arose, some claiming that Tom was not alone about the murder, and that Ann Melton was his accomplice. Others thought that Ann did the actual killing, and Tom just helped her bury the body. In this article I will look at the possibility of Tom Dooley being the murderer, alone or with one or more accomplices.

Did Tom Dooley kill Laura Foster?

As mentioned above, the two juries thought that he did, and that was what mattered most to him. But actually we can't be certain that these juries were correct. All readers of crime novels, know, that modern days crime investigators typically looks for motive, means and opportunity when they are trying to solve a murder case. That is not all they look for of course, but I will get back to that later. That these three issues actually are important, I have had confirmed by one of my "murder investigator" friends (a Danish policeman with more than 25 years of expericence in investigating serious crimes like murder). So let me me have a look at Tom's motive, means and opportunity.

Tom's motive
The prosecution was convinced that Tom's motive was revenge. Revenge for Laura having infected him with syphilis. In articles about the case, it is often stated, that Tom had threatened to kill Laura, when he discovered, that she had given him the disease. But actually he never said anything of the kind (as far as we know today). The only thing we do know, is that he had said to Rufus Dula Hall, probably on Sunday May 13th that "he would put them through (kill) who diseased him." At that time Tom probably didn't know who had infected him, as he didn't mention any names, and spoke in the plural sense.

Tom's motive could of course still be revenge, if he later discovered that he was infected by Laura, but why should he think that exactly she was responsible? He had relations with several other woman all of which could have given him the disease. Most likely Pauline Foster who had the disease before even moving to Elkville. If we remove any unknowns from the equation, what most likely happened was that Tom got his infection from Pauline and gave it to Laura and Ann, the latter giving it to her husband James. Unfortunately we can't remove the unknowns from the equation, as all parties were known to have multiple lovers. Therefore all of them could have been infected by someone else, not each other, and in this case Tom might very well have gotten the disease from Laura Foster, but he couldn't actually know for sure.

Tom Dooley

The drawing to the left depicts Tom, around 16 years old, as Edith F. Carter imagines him. The original drawing 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.

Fortunate for the prosecution is, that it doesn't matter what Tom knew or didn't knew. What matters is what he thought, and we don't know that today. But could he have had other motives? When a man kills a woman or vice versa jealousy could always be the motive. We know from temporary sources that all three of the women involved had other lovers beside from Tom. Ann was known for having slept with travellers during the civil war, and James Isbell stated in his testimony that "it was generally reported, that Ann Melton indulged in illicit intercourse with others beside the prisoner". Pauline admitted having been infected with syphilis before coming to Elkville, and during her stay here, she at least had sex with George Washington Anderson and Thomas Foster (younger brother of Ann Melton and around 17 at the time of the murder). Maybe she had sex with more men besides Tom Dooley, but these are the ones that she names herself. We don't know any names for Laura Foster's lovers, but she was known in the area as "a girl with round heels" and it was stated that she was frail, and indicating a moral fragility. Tom himself had sex with all three girls and maybe with Caroline Barnes as well (and maybe even the unknown but inteersting Mandy Barnes - if these two are not one and the same).

So Tom may have had reason to be jealous, but it is not likely, as he appeared to be much more interested in Ann Melton than in Laura Foster and apparently he had no problem with having sex with all of the girls at the same time, so I think we can rule out jealousy on his account.

Money was definately not the reason for the murder as none of the involved were rich. Probably Tom was the more wealthy of them as he should inherit the land his lived on, and even if most of it was wooded hillsides, it was worth something. According to John Foster West the 1860 census estimated the value of Mary Dula's land to 195 dollars. This doesn't sound as much today, but remember that Pauline should work the whole summer for just 21 dollars. West calculates the value to mean, that Mary Dula owned a tract of land of around 4,000 acres. (1,618 hectares). Maybe this calculation is wrong, and her farm were smaller, but it is evident that it was one of the biggest in the mointains, and much bigger that James Isbell's 200 acres near King's Creek in Caldwell County. His was of course fertile soil in the valley and therefore worth much more, but just the same. I think I can say for certain, that money was no reason for Tom to kill Laura.

One final motive have been brought up.  If Laura actually was pregnant as some later legends "know" and Tom were bound to marry her, he might have thought that this would tie him up and prevent him from seeing other women. But first of all it has never been confirmed whether Laura was pregnant or not. And if was not mentioned at all during trial, not even by Doctor Carter who had treated her syphilis, and who examined her body when it was found. But even if she was pregnant, there was no reason for Tom to kill her. The area was almost "crawling" with single mothers and mothers who had children with other men than their husbands. So much that after the trial, the New Herald wrote that: "it is a wise child, that knows its father." Ann Melton's mother was never married (as far as is known today) and she got at least 6 children, maybe more, and supposedly none of them had the same father. Louisa Gilbert, who was married to James Melton after Ann's death had at least one child out of wedlock. And it was not just among the poor mountain people that his happened. Captain William Dula, brother of Tom's grandfather Bennett and the wealthiest landowner in Happy Valley at one time, had four children with Theodosia McMulland before they finally married and had two more children. William and Bennett's sister Judith had at least one child before she was married to Thomas Hall and her daughter, also called Judith had three or maybe as many as five children before she was married, and her future husband was not the father of any of these children. So in my opinion there was no reason for Tom to kill Laura just because she was pregnant.

The only motive that will work is the disease and I find that rather doubtful.

Tom's means
Lara Foster was stabbed to death. Not with several stab wounds as claimed by
The True Story of Tom Dooley but by one single stab to her chest. Dr. Carter testified during trail, that the knife had cut through her body between her third and fourth ribs. The body was in such a state of decomposition when it was found, that he was not able to tell whether the knife had hit the heart or not. So no doubt about Laura being killed.

Paul Slade states on his homepage, planetslade.com, that Tom most probably was the killer, as most murders in America is comitted by men. His statistics are from 1999, but I agree that this has probaly not changed much since 1866. Even at that time most killers were men. In 1999 23% of all murders had a male perpetrator and a female victim, while only 2.5 % of all murderes had a female perpetrastor ad a female victim (PlanetSlade.com). There is of cause still a chance that the murder was comitted by a woman, but most likely it was a man. That doesn't necessarily mean that it was Tom Dooley though. On the other hand, another statistic from Bureau of Justice tells us, that women kill their boyfriends with a knife twice as often as boyfriends kill their girlfriends with a knife. Men apparently prefers guns, blunt instruments or pure force as means to kill their girlfriends, while women use an almost equal number of of guns and knifes when killing their boyfriends. I don't think that has changed much since 1866 either.

If Tom owned a knife, it was probably a knife like the one, showed in the photo left. The photo shows a type of knife that was in common use among the confederate soldiers during the Civil War. It was one of the types of knives, that was called a bowieknife, even if it was considerably smaller, than the knife made famous by Colonel James Bowie himself.

Anyway, I suppose Tom did own a knife. Probably most men did at the time and a lot of women too, or at least had access to knifes. No knife of Tom's were mentioned during trial though. The only knife mentioned belonged to Ann Melton, according to key witness Pauline Foster, and she testified that Ann had hid the knife under the head of her bed, where Tom had picked it up the day he left for Tennessee. But this happened more than a month after Laura's disappearence. But for now lets just accept that Tom had access to a knife, so he had the means. No murder weapon was ever found.

Laura's body was found in a shallow grave, about 400 yards from the Dula cabin. James Isbell testified, that when he and his father-in-law, found the grave and it was opened, he saw signs of a mattock on the sides of the grave, and we know that Tom had borrowed a mattock from Lotty Foster the day before Laura disappeared, so he also had the means for digging the grave.

Tom's opportunity
Laura left her home around 6 or 6.30 AM, and travelled by horse a distance of 6 miles to Bates place. Around one mile from home, she met Betsy Scott and had a conversation with her, which may have taken 5 or 10 minutes, then she continued.  Even on a slow horse and teking it easy she must have arrived at Bates place no later than 7.30, and most likely before that. At the same time Tom was supposedly walking another, shorter route (only about 5 miles) through rather rough terrain. In spite of that it was thought that he would have arrived to Bates place prior to Laura. But I don't think so.

It was testified by Carl Carlton that he met with Tom Dooley on the path near Calton's home (about one third of the way between the Foster home and Bates place) a little after sunup (sun arose around 6.20 or 6.30) and Tom may have met Carlton around 6.45. About one hour later Tom was still travelling in the same direction, now about halfway between the Foster home and Bates place, when he met Hezekiah Kendall. He spoke a few words with both Carlton and Kendall but continued on to James Scott's place, where he arrived a little after breakfast. He then continued to the Melton home, where he arrived between eight and nine and stayed for a while. Pauline Foster said in her testimony that she would have seen Tom going from Melton's cabin to Bates place. Tom simply didn't have the time to go the Bates Place and kill Laura and hide her body early that morning.

From Meltons home he went to Lotty Foster's cabin and asked for some milk, which he got and Lotty saw him leaving with the milk in direction of his own home. The next thing we know about his whereabouts that day is that when his mother retuned to the cabin around noon, she found him on his bed, where he stayed till before supper time. Between his visit to Lotty Foster's cabin and noon, he could have gone to the Bates place and killed Laura. But in that case he would have had to leave the body or carry it to the grave in broad daylight, which would have meant either going by the road and thereby passing several houses, or carrying the body over the ridges, through dense wood and thickets of laurel. Mrs. Dula thought, that if Tom had left house before noon, his sister who was at home, would have mentioned it to her, but she didn't. For some reason, Eliza Dula never testifed at any of the trials, neither for the defense nor for the prosecution.

Tom could of course have hidden the body near the place of the murder and then had come later to bring it to the grave. It has even been suggested that he came at night togther with Ann Melton and carried Lauras body to the grave, where it was buried. It must have been late though, because Ann was still at home when Pauline Foster and Ann's brother Thomas went to bed rather late that Friday evening. Tom himself left his house for about an hour just before supper to go to the barn, he told his mother, but Thomas Foster claims he saw him going in direction of the Bates place before he himself took a horse and rode to his sisters home. Tom was back at his mother's cabin in time for supper though, so he didn't have time to go to the Bates place and kill or even just bury her. And later, when Ann may have left her home, Tom was back in his, as testified by his mother, and he stayed in all night, she knew because he was having chills, and she looked into him during the night. 

If Tom killed Laura in the morning and buried her at night, the body would have developed rigor mortis, and he would not have been able to bend her legs under her, as she was found when the grave was found, months later. John Foster West suggest, that Tom met with Laura in the morning, and talked her into, maybe under influence of alcohol, to wait for him till nightfall. Then he went there in the early evening and killed her, carried her to the grave and buried her, before returning to his mothers cabin for supper. But why should Laura have accepted to wait for him in the first place, if they were running away? She might just as well have insisted on leaving immediately.

In my opinion Tom didn't have a good motive, and neither did he have the best opportunity to kill Laura, but sure, he could have done it. But there is one more thing that speaks against him being the cold-blooded killer that he was made to at the trial.  The prosecution suggested that Tom and Ann had spend the night between Thursday and Friday digging the grave with the mattock, that Tom had buried from Ann's mother.  Ann claimed that the two of them had been busy all night emptying the canteen of liquor, that Carson Dula had brought Tom and that her mother had been with them. For some reason Lotty Foster was never asked if she actually spent the night with Tom and Ann. But if they were busy digging the grave, they didn't do a very good job. The grave was shallow and too short. Even in rough terrain they should have been able to dig a more suitable grave. To me this looks more like a hole, dug in a hurry - probably after the murder.

So no, I don't think Tom Fooley actually killed Laura Foster. But why then did he admit it and if he knew who did, why didn't he save himself by telling the truth? I will get back that in later articles.

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