Yet Another Story About Tom Dula & More From Wilkes Community College

A black-and-white photograph of Wilson C. Daniels. He is wearing a Confederate Soldier uniform and holding a long sword.
Wilson C. Daniel, c. 1863, who served in the 42nd Regiment (like Tom Dula).
A portrait of Margaret Ann Wesson Tesh. She is in a dark dress belted at the waist. Gold leaf has been added to embellish her necklace.
Margaret Ann Wesson Tesh, 1868. An example of what white women might have looked like in the Reconstruction era.

We’ve got another batch of audio materials available thanks to our partner, Wilkes Community College. This set of 16 interviews and oral histories was originally recorded on reel-to-reel tapes, and they span from 1959 to 1979.

One of the recordings in this batch is a retelling of the legend of Tom Dula, popularized in 1959 by The Kingston Trio in their version of the folk song “Tom Dooley.” The general outline of the story is that Dula, upon returning home to Wilkes county after serving in the army of the Confederacy, had a relationship with at least two women, Laura (or Laurie) Foster and Ann Melton. It is suspected that this relationship triangle went bad and that Dula murdered Foster. He then attempted to flee into Tennessee. However, he was arrested and returned to North Carolina, where he was found guilty both by a jury in Iredell county and later by the North Carolina Supreme Court. He was sentenced to death in Statesville and hanged on May 1, 1868, which became the basis for the song.

The version of the story told in this recording (perhaps by Tom Ferguson, though the tape is unclear), also made in 1959, leans more into pastoral genre than other popular accounts. The speaker devotes a great deal of time to describing the home of Dula and his mother, which he says many in the area remember. He describes a lean-to on the side of the house (which he guesses was built around 1850) where Tom Dula stayed. He also describes the house as sitting among “a profusion of honeysuckle and roses.”

However, this account deserves a little bit of scrutiny, since it tends to romanticize and draw from the speaker’s imagination. The storyteller describes Dula as a musician who carried a violin around his neck and who only participated in the Civil War insofar as to entertain his fellow soldiers, though we know he was a member of the 42nd Regiment of the North Carolina Infantry. He also asserts that Dula was handsome and popular with the ladies, which, of course, makes it impossible that he was a “scoundrel” (Ferguson is not a Jane Austen fan, I take it).

A black-and-white photograph of Zebulon B. Vance. He is sitting in a suit and bowtie and he has a large mustache.
Zebulon B. Vance c. 1875 (courtesy of the Library of Congress).

In addition to asserting Dula’s innocence, this version of the story describes Foster as an “innocent” girl with a talent for weaving, though author John Foster West asserts that Dula, Foster, and Melton were all infected with syphilis. Sadly, little is recorded about either Foster or Melton, and—perhaps tragically—Foster’s portrait now hangs beside Dula’s in the Tom Dooley Museum.

One final surprising detail about this story is that Dula was represented by none other than former North Carolina Governor and U.S. Senator Zebulon Baird Vance. Though biographer Clement Dowd mentions that Vance did not always prepare well for his cases, the storyteller in this version lauds Vance for coming to Dula’s rescue and attributes the two convictions to the “carpetbaggers” who made up the jury.

You can listen to Ferguson’s full account of the Dula legend here, and you can explore all of the audio recordings in this batch here. You can also explore all of our digital sound clips in our North Carolina Sights and Sounds collection. To see more materials from Wilkes Community College, you can visit their partner page and their website.

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