Over the weekend, the Wilkes Playmakers opened their season at the new Forest Edge Community Amphitheater, formerly Fort Hamby Community Amphitheater. Forest Edge is a state-of-the art, 900 seat facility with a complete professional sound and lighting system. It is designed to offer the community and region superior accommodations and setting for outdoor concerts, theater productions, reunions, festivals, corporate functions, and arts and environmental education and training. (For more information and for a schedule of Summer on the Lake events, please visit the Friends of W. Kerr Scott Lake website).
People nationwide have been fascinated and intrigued with the Tom Dooley story for over a century. The murder of Laura Foster in the Elkville community, now known as Ferguson, in North Carolina was one of the nation’s first highly publicized crimes of passion. Tom Dooley hanged for the crime but many questions were left unanswered.
Over 200 pieces of testimony were recorded in the two years that Tom was on trial. Most of the testimony is conflicting and everyone was convinced that his or her side of the story was the right one. Governor Zebulon B. Vance came to Wilkes County to defend this Confederate war hero. A reporter from the New York Herald penned articles that gripped the nation and left them wanting more. Governor Vance lost the case and Tom was hanged in Statesville, NC in May of 1868. His last words were “Gentlemen, do you see this hand? I never harmed a hair on Laura Foster’s head”.
The Kingston Trio catapulted Tom Dooley to fame again in the 1960’s with the song “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley”. Visitors still travel from far and wide to visit the graves and tour the countryside where the story took place. Tom Dula’s gravestone is on private property on the Tom Dula road in Ferguson, NC. Unfortunately, visitors have chipped away the marker for souvenirs and the access road has been closed. In Elkville, (now Ferguson) descendants still have different opinions on what really happened. Wilkes Playmakers held a story-telling session at the Whippoorwill Academy in Ferguson while the script was being developed. Karen Wheeling Reynolds, an Elkville native and author of the play, used these different opinions and stories to develop her intriguing script for the play.
“This script is a mixture of fact and folklore”, said Mrs. Reynolds. “These stories have been handed down from generation to generation. I’m proud to be a part of their preservation”. She should be. Calvin and Martha Cowles, the storekeeper and his wife in the script, are her great- great- great grandparents.
Anne Melton was Tom’s childhood sweetheart. Many in the community believe that she killed Laura Foster and persuaded Tom to help her bury the body. Anne was said to be a beauty, with coal black hair and milk white skin. She married James Melton while Tom was away at war. When Tom returned, he took up with Laura Foster. Citizens of Elkville are divided on this next issue. Some say he loved Laura. Some say he used Laura to get back at Anne. Whatever the case, Tom was known for being a ladies man. He was handsome and charming. Most folks will tell you that he was a good fiddle player too...always laughing and playing at local get-togethers.
Perline Foster, Anne’s cousin from Watauga County, was brought in to work for Anne after she married the wealthy James Melton. Perline was rumored to also be in love with Tom and may have played a part in the crime. Her testimony in the trial was instrumental in sending Tom to the gallows. Many believe that her testimony was false and that she acted out of jealousy and hatred towards Anne and rejection from Tom.
Tom is buried on a small hill out on the Tom Dooley road in Ferguson. Laura’s grave is in Caldwell County in a beautiful pasture at the bottom of German Hill. Anne rests out on Gladys Fork road between Ferguson and Darby not far from where the murder took place. Their graves, like their past lives, form a lover’s triangle. “Tom Dooley; A Wilkes County Legend” fills in many of the gaps for serious Tom Dooley fans.
(The above information was taken from the Friends of the Lake and Playmakers websites.)
Your library offers a number of titles of interest to Tom Dooley: A Wilkes County Legend visitors, including:
Lift Up Your Head, Tom Dooley: The True Story of the Appalachian Murder That Inspired One of America's Most Popular Ballads by John Foster West. When Laura Foster, a young & attractive woman, disappeared from her home in Happy Valley in the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina in the spring of 1866, residents of the area assumed that Tom Dula (pronounced Dooley in the hill country), a young Civil War veteran, had something to do with it. He was known to be Laura's lover, as well as the lover of many other young women in the area. Months before Laura's body was found, stabbed through the heart, in a shallow grave near the Yadkin River, Dula was seized held in jail. His trial unveiled a sordid story of sexual immorality, resentment, jealousy and bitterness; Dula was convicted & hanged before a huge crowd in Statesville, an event that drew national attention. The story lived on, with time becoming entwined with myth and legend, because it inspired a ballad that was sung throughout the mountains. Nearly a century after the murder that inspired it, that ballad became a major national hit for a popular folk singing group called the Kingston Trio. Novelist John Foster West grew up in Happy Valley hearing the stories about Tom Dula. His search for the truth behind them led to this book. Foster also penned another volume with similar information entitled The Ballad of Tom Dula: The Documented Story Behind the Murder of Laura Foster and the Trials and Execution of Tom Dula. Don't miss Karen Reynolds' novel Tom Dooley: A Wilkes County Legend and Thomas W. Ferguson's Tom Dooley as well.
For more on Tom Dooley, plan a trip to the Tom Dooley Art Museum at Whippoorwill Academy.
Tom Dooley is not the only notorious criminal in Wilkes County history. Bandit Otto Wood offered a fascinating story in his life history, recorded while he was in prison for the murder of a Greensboro man. Otto Wood inspired his own ballad, Otto Wood: The Bandit, recorded in 1931 by the Carolina Buddies. The text of his autobiography in the North Wilkesboro News is on display in the genealogy room of the library. Also on display at the library is the original ball and chain worn by Otto Wood during his incarceration.
Other works of interest include:
The Mystery of Beautiful Nell Cropsey by Bland Simpson. As compelling as fiction, The Mystery of Beautiful Nell Cropsey tells the dramatic story of the disappearance of nineteen-year-old Nell Cropsey from her riverside home in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, in November 1901. Bloodhounds, detectives, divers, and even a psychic were brought in to search for her, and the case immediately became a national sensation. Bland Simpson, who first heard the tale as an Elizabeth City schoolboy, weaves this true story into a colorful nonfiction account, told in three first-person voices: Nell's sister Ollie; famous newspaper editor W. O. Saunders, who covered the case as a young reporter; and Jim Wilcox, Nell's beau, who was implicated in the case. Nell and Jim's romance, her disappearance, the great search, the trials, and their aftermath are artfully reconstructed from interviews, court records, and newspaper accounts. From the book Word spread like that into the swamps where the slaves had run, where convicts had run--mightn't Nell Cropsey run there too? Back deep toward the lake at the heart of the great Swamp, where the ghost of an Indian girl searched each night for her lost lover, by firefly lamp, gliding in her white canoe. And word spread far beyond those low tidelands, as the dailies in the big Eastern cities of Baltimore and Philadelphia and New York played up the mystery til Nell Cropsey and Jim Wilcox were the talk of the nation and the booming little river port Elizabeth City was suddenly on the map.
Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy B. Tyson. In this outstanding personal history, Tyson, a professor of African-American studies who's white, unflinchingly examines the civil rights struggle in the South. The book focuses on the murder of a young black man, Henry Marrow, in 1970, a tragedy that dramatically widened the racial gap in the author's hometown of Oxford, N.C. Tyson portrays the killing and its aftermath from multiple perspectives, including that of his contemporary, 10-year-old self; his progressive Methodist pastor father, who strove to lead his parishioners to overcome their prejudices; members of the disempowered black community; one of the killers; and his older self, who comes to Oxford with a historian's eye. He also artfully interweaves the history of race relations in the South, carefully and convincingly rejecting less complex and self-serving versions ("violence and nonviolence were both more ethically complicated-and more tightly intertwined-than they appeared in most media accounts and history books"). A gifted writer, he celebrates a number of inspirational unsung heroes, ranging from his father to a respected elderly schoolteacher who spoke out at a crucial point to quash a white congregation's rebellion over an invitation to a black minister. Tyson's avoidance of stereotypes and simple answers brings a shameful recent era in our country's history to vivid life. This book deserves the largest possible audience.
Until He Is Dead: Capital Punishment in Western North Carolina History by Tom Rusher. Rusher is a former District Attorney who was elected to serve the counties of Watauga, Avery, Mitchell, Yancey and Madison for twenty years. During his career as a prosecutor, Rusher developed a hobby studying and collecting information, legends and lore about death penalty cases in the mountain counties and “Until He Is Dead” is a result of that long-standing hobby. He covers several trials in western North Carolina including the trial of the infamous Potter cousins. Boone and Clarence, of Pottertown in Watauga County and the Avery County trial of Reid Coffey’s murderer, whose sentence was first commuted and then paroled through political pressure on the Governor of North Carolina.
Deadly Greed: The McEachern Murders in Hamlet, North Carolina by Clark Cox. Deadly Greed, a true crime story, recalls the murders to Maceo and Vela McEachern of Hamlet, North Carolina in 1991. The African-American family lived in Rockingham County and their murders made headlines and shocked the community. No one expected murders could happen there. Through hard work, Maceo and Vela McEachern became financially and socially prominent. Their situation was unusual for African-Americans in that place and time. Cox, a former journalist, tells the story of the crime, the trial, and the eventual fate of the murder (and those surrounding him). The story is told in short chapters using the clear, precise language of journalism.
Unholy Covenant: A True Story of Murder in North Carolina by Lynn Chandler-Willis. Radiant in her white satin wedding gown, Patricia Blakley was living a dream come true. At last, she was marrying the man she loved, Ted Kimble-a fellow Christian and son of a local preacher. But little did she realize her new husband had a dark side. Shock waves rocked the small, North Carolina town of Pleasant Garden when Patricia's charred body was discovered inside the Kimble's burned-out home. Soon family and friends learned an even worse truth-Patricia had died from a bullet wound to the head. Now, in Unholy Covenant, North Carolina journalist Lynn Chandler-Willis uncovers the story behind the crime. Taking readers from the crime scene to the courtroom, she delivers a passionate account of a crime that forever changed the lives of many in the small North Carolina community.
Other similar titles include:
- Before He Wakes: A True Story of Money, Marriage, Sex, and Murder
- Bitter Blood: A True Story of Southern Family Pride, Madness, and Multiple Murder
- Blood Games: A True Account of Family Murder
- Cruel Doubt
- Fatal Vision
- Preacher's Girl: The Life and Crimes of Blanche Taylor Moore
Too much gore for your taste? Try Darin Strauss's Chang and Eng. This fictionalized account is based on the life of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese twins. For more information about Chang and Eng, visit this link:
Chang and Eng.