Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Ballad of Tom Dooley

Thanks to the Wilkes County, North Carolina Chamber of Commerce for allowing me to publish this history of Tom Dooley. To hear the Kingston Trio's version of the song, check out the link below. I love this song!

Tom Dula, pronounced "Dooley," known far and wide for the ballad, Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley, was a real person. He was born in 1845 in Elkville, North Carolina, now Ferguson, Wilkes County. He was the son of Thomas and Mary Keaton Dula and was known to be handsome, gifted with the fiddle, and a delight to the ladies.

Tom enjoyed the company of the ladies, especially Ann Foster, who later married James Melton. He played for the local square dances and was a very popular young man around the community. When the War Between The States, known as the Civil War, broke out, Tom enlisted at Elkville when he was only 17 years old. As a private [in the Confederacy], he served as regiment musician for four years. Toward the end of the war, he was captured and taken to Point Lookout, Maryland as a prisoner of war.

When he was released he came home and resumed his life here in the valley. He not only resumed his life, but he resumed his relationship with Ann Melton. He was also involved with other ladies, including Ann's cousin, Laura Foster. He and Laura planned to be married and on the morning they eloped, Laura disappeared, only to be found weeks later murdered and buried in a shallow grave. She had been stabbed in the heart.

Tom, knowing that he was the last known person to see her alive, left the village and went to Watauga County and worked on Col. James Grayson's farm. He stayed long enough to earn money for a pair of boots and continued on to Trade, Tenn. Here the posse from Wilkes County found him with the help of Col. Grayson.

He was taken back and placed in the Wilkes County jail.

Col. James Horton, a cousin of Tom's, asked Col. Zebulon Vance, former Governor of North Carolina to defend Tom. The trial was moved to Statesville because of the strong feeling against Tom in Wilkes County. The case was lost and Tom was sentenced to be hanged.

On the gallows, Tom stated, "Gentlemen, do you see this hand? I didn't harm a hair on the girl's head." Tom was hanged and his body brought back to his home overlooking the Yadkin River. Here he was buried under the apple tree. Ann and her cousin, Pauline Foster, were arrested and were successfully defended by Col. Vance and were released. Ann had stated that "there would never be a rope put around this pretty neck!"

The ballad was written by a local poet, Thomas C. Land around the time of the hanging. It was very popular among the mountain people. In 1958, it was revived and made popular worldwide by the Kingston Trio.

The graves of Laura and Ann are visited each year by a large number of tourists. Tom Dula's grave is on private property and is not open to the public. The "Tom Dooley" museum is located in Ferguson, North Carolina at the Whippoorwill Academy and Village and is open to the public. Visit the Old Wilkes Jail, where Tom was held until his trial.

There is an annual presentation of the play "Tom Dooley" by the Wilkes Playmakers. Visit their website at

© Copyright Wilkes Chamber of Commerce, 2000 - 2008. All Rights Reserved.


TheSquareRigger said...

The most recent version of this song has been done by Steve Earle.


BluTopaz said...

where can I read the lyrics ? thanks, JB, Tenn.

Robert A. Waters said...