The story of Tom Dula (pronounced Dooley) may be one of the most famous murder mysteries in North Carolina history. That’s due in large part to the folk song “Tom Dooley” made popular in the 1960s by the group The Kingston Trio. But the song glosses over a few aspects of the real historical case and, even with all the facts that we can find in the archival records in our collections, there are still many things that we don’t know about what happened on that day in 1866.
If you don’t know the story, it goes like this:
A woman named Laura Foster disappeared in Iredell County, N.C. on May 25, 1866. One of the last people to see her alive saw her riding a horse and carrying a bundle of clothes in her lap. When asked, Laura replied that a man who she fancied, Tom Dula, had come to see her and that she was on her way to meet him. She was found in a shallow grave in September of that same year, stabbed near the heart. Tom Dula left the county a few weeks after Laura Foster disappeared, but he was tracked down in Tennessee on July 11, 1866 and was eventually charged with her murder. During the court case, several witnesses testified that Dula was having a relationship with Ann Foster Melton and that both he and Melton had been acting suspiciously during the days before and after Foster’s disappearance.
Dula was found guilty of Laura Foster’s murder and sentenced to be hung on February 14, 1868. He was eventually executed on May 1, 1868, but the question remains: did he do it? Or, perhaps a better question: did he do it alone?
A few years ago one of our summer interns, Carrie Misenheimer, created a Educational Resources website which featured the story of Tom Dula and Laura Foster. The students side of the website includes a brief description of the case, a map of the paths Tom and Laura allegedly traveled on the day of Laura’s disappearance, a summary of the main players in the case and their relationships to each other, and several documents from the court case. The teachers side includes lesson plans and additional background on the court case.