The North Carolina Visitor Center




Story of Tom Dooley

The Story of Tom Dooley

This is the story of a young confederate soldier, Tom Dooley, who returned to his home in Happy Valley on the Yadkin River in Wilkes County, North Carolina after the Civil War. Tom survived many battles but his claim to fame was his love of music. While in the army camp, it was Tom who would be found sitting around singing songs and picking his banjo.

Before the war, Tom, a happy-go-lucky young man, was very popular with the young ladies. Two of these young ladies were Laura Foster and her cousin Ann Foster. The girls were noted for their popularity and were well sought after by the local swains. They turned a lot of heads. Both girls became infatuated with Tom Dooley. He managed his time to be with both.

By the time the war was over, Ann's infatuation had come to an end and she married James Milton. On Tom Dooley's return Laura thought, with Ann married she would have a clear field with Tom. But Ann's love for Tom quickly returned when she saw the dashing young soldier and would have none of cousin Laura getting ahead of her. She thought with Laura out of the way she and Tom would get back together and she would marry him. Laura had many suitors. Among them was a schoolteacher, Bob Grayson who was "smitten" with her and wanted her for his wife.

Bob Grayson

Tom made arrangements with Laura to run away and get married. In the night she took what clothes she could carry on horseback and left home for her rendezvous with Tom.

She disappeared. Laura was eighteen at the time. Her family searched for her, but to no avail. As time went on, the people suspected she had run away with Tom Dooley. More search parties were formed and about three weeks after Laura disappeard, her horse returned, guant and with a broken halter. The searchers found where the horse had been tied to a tree. The soil was disturbed with horse tracks. After more search, some people thought Laura's body had been disposed of in the Yadkin River.

Some time later, Ann got into an argument with her sister, Perline Foster. Ann was deeply critical of her sister. Perline warned Ann that she better be careful or she would tell what she knew about Laura. Ann answered that Perline was just as guilty as she was. The authorities became suspicious of the two girls and began to question them. Perline became scared and broke down. She said Tom Dooley had killed Laura, that Ann took her to the site of the grave. Perline directed the search party to the place of burial. The search party spread out over the entire area. James Melton, James Isbell, David Horton and Bob Grayson were in the search party. James Isbell's horse shied from an area with loose dirt. The crowd started digging and found the body of Laura Foster. Her legs had been broken and what appeared to be a stab wound was found in her breast. Also found was the small bag of Laura's clothing. There was no doubt, it was Laura.

Laura's body was taken to the nearest town, funeral arrangements were made and she was buried on a high hill known ever since as "Laura Foster Hill".

The investigation began. One of the men, Bob Grayson, said he had found a handkerchief in the grave that belonged to Ann Melton. The authorities compiled information that led them to arrest Ann Melton and Tom Dooley, which finally resulted in the hanging of Tom Dooley. Several members of the search party fled the country. Anyone who was ever associated with Laura, was under suspicion. Not to be denied, Bob Grayson continued the search for the murderer of Laura, the girl he had hopes of marrying.

Then weeks after Laura's body had been found, a bunch of riders rode into town. Grayson was in the lead. Next came Tom Dooley with his hands shackled behind his back. Next was Jack Keaton with his hands tied. Following with guns at the ready were Ben Ferguson and Jack Adkins.

A crowd had gathered. Grayson told them that Tom Dooley had murdered Laura and Keaton and Ann Foster had helped him. That he had faked extradition papers and arrested them illegally. Tom Dooley, nonchalant as ever, asked that he be un-shackeled and proceeded to play a little tune on his banjo. The two prisoners were taken to Wilksboro and incarcerated by A. T. Ferguson. Jack Keaton furnished a plausible alibi and was later released. Ann Foster was quickly arrested. She and Tom were bound over for trial.

The local attorney, named Vance, agreed to defend Tom. Vance was able to negotiate a change of venue because the local people were up in arms against Tom. The trial began in Statesville, a distance of about thirty miles from Wilksboro with Judge Ralph Burton presiding. Evidence was produced that Tom Dooley and Ann Foster were having an affair. Feelings was running high even in Statesville. Then a witness, Betsy Scott was brought into court by Bob Grayson. She swore that she had talked to Laura Foster the day before she disappeared and Laura told her she was going to meet Tom Dooley. Try as he may, Vance could not get her to change her testimony. From the very beginning Tom insisted that he was not guilty, but he would say nothing against or about his relationship with others. The attorney tried in every way possible to draw him out, but Tom remained mute throughout the trial.

It was on the first day of May, 1866, that Tom Dooley rode through the streets of Statesville in a wagon. He sat on the top of his coffin on that bright and shiny day with his banjo on his knee, joking with the throng of people walking along. He picked his favorite ballad on the old banjo, laughing as the wagon neared the gallows. When the rope was placed around his neck, he joked with Sheriff W. E. Watson, "I would have washed my neck if I had known you were using such a nice clean new rope".

Asked in seriousness if he had any last words to say, Tom held his right hand and replied, "gentlemen, do you see this hand? Do you see it tremble? Do you see it shake? I never hurt a hair on the girl's head". The trap door was dropped.

Tom was buried in a cemetery in Happy Valley by the side of the old North Wilkesboro Road near Elksville, North Carolina. Near where Big Elkin Creek meets the Yadkin River a few miles northeast of Roaring River where the Parks brothers, John and Thomas settled.

Vance also defended Ann Melton. She was finally found not guilty, but the stigma followed her everywhere she went. She seemed not to care and continued to flirt and exploit others. Until the final requiem a few years later when she was killed by a wagon overturning. Some people believed she was a witch or the devil lived within her.

Gillam Bannon Grayson, Col. Grayson nephew from Laurel Bloomery, along with Henry Whittier went to Memphis to record the Ballad of Tom Dooley for Victor Records on October 1, 1929. It became popular in the late 1950s when the Kingston Trio re-released the song.This ballad tells the story.

Dula's last name was pronounced "Dooley," leading to some confusion in spelling over the years. (The pronunciation of a final "a" like "y" is an old feature in Appalachian speech, as in the term "Grand Ole Opry").

The doleful ballad was probably first sung shortly after the execution and is still commonly sung in North Carolina.

In the documentary Appalachian Journey (1991), Alan Lomax describes Frank Proffitt as the "original source" for the song. It is unclear exactly what Lomax means by this but, since it seems that the song predates Frank Proffitt's early version, it is likely that Lomax means that Proffitt's version is the one that has become most well known to us because the Kingston Trio derived their interpretation from Proffitt's. Certainly, there is an earlier known recording by Grayson and Whitter made in 1929, approximately ten years before Proffitt cut his own recording of the song.

GB Grayson and Henry Whitter sang together for only three years during the late '20s and early '30s, but they had a tremendous effect on country music; even contemporary performers continue to cover their songs, which include "Handsome Molly" (recorded by Dylan), "Cluck Old Hen," "Tom Dooley," "Rose Conley" and "Lee Highway Blues (Going Down the Lee Highway)."

Fiddler/singer Gilliam Banmon Grayson was born in Ashe Country, NC. As a young man, he made his living as a minstrel, traveling through mountain towns playing at fairs and dances. He eventually settled near the Tennessee-Virginia border, where he played with such noted musicians as Clarence Tom Ashley and Doc Walsh. An excellent fiddler, Grayson was also an exceptional singer, and after teaming up with Whitter frequently sang lead vocals on their recordings.

Guitarist/singer Henry Whitter was born in Fries, Virginia; while not an exceptional musician or singer, he was devoted to promoting old-time music and was able to arrange many recording sessions. Whitter and Grayson met at a fiddlers' convention in Mountain City, Tennessee in 1927. They teamed up, and by autumn of that year, Whitter had gotten them two record deals. They recorded eight songs for the Gennet label and six for Victor, among them the classic "Handsome Molly," which sold over 50,000 copies. In total, the two recorded 40 songs in three years. Grayson was killed in an auto accident in August, 1930 while hitchhiking; Whitter was devastated, but continued performing and occasionally recording until his 1941 death from diabetes.

Source: Merlin in Rags -

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***  Editor's Note: We at the Appalachian Visitor Center were friends of the late Frank Proffitt, Jr.  Frank explained the origins of the song as being written by his grandmother, who overheard Tom Dula singing to himself the basis of the chorus as he sat atop his coffin on his way to be hanged.  He also said that his grandmother remembered hearing Tom sing the song from his jail cell as people had gathered from the town outside the jail during the trial. ***