A Pox on Tom Dooley

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Hang down your head, Tom Dooley

Hang down your head and cry

Hang down your head, Tom Dooley

Poor boy, you’re bound to die

In the American murder ballad “Tom Dooley,” Tom’s hanging head takes on a different connotation when you discover the syphilitic motive.

Tom Dula was born in 1844. He lived in Elk Creek, NC. The local accent would have pronounced his name “Dooley,” like a gyrating “hooley hoop.” He fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. As a testament to the dialect, when he was released from a POW camp and had to pledge allegiance to the newly reunited states, the document listed him as Dooley but he also wrote in Dula.

Life in Elk Creek was full of drama. The starring family in this soap opera was the Fosters. Lotty Foster had five illegitimate children. Lotty found Tom in bed with her daughter Anne when Tom was twelve and Anne was fourteen. Anne married James Melton when she was fifteen. Lotty once again found Tom and Anne in bed, shortly after the wedding.

The relationship continued and grew in complexity. There were three beds in James Melton’s one room cabin. James often slept alone; Anne and Tom often shared a bed. The third bed went to Anne’s cousin Pauline Foster who came to town on March 1, 1866. She also brought syphilis.

Anne had another cousin in town, Laura Foster. Laura lived in a cabin with her father Wilson Foster. The month that Pauline moved in, Wilson Foster found Tom in bed with Laura. To no surprise, Tom was also sleeping with Pauline.

At the end of the month, Tom paid a visit to Dr. George Carter. Carter diagnosed the chancre on Tom’s penis as syphilis. Carter also already diagnosed Pauline, but didn’t spread the word. Tom thought that he caught it from Laura Foster. Pauline had only been in town for a month. Who would have known? Tom, Anne, Laura and Pauline all wound up with syphilis. James Melton probably wasn’t left out of the pox party.

On May 24, 1866, Tom went to James Melton’s house where Pauline gave him alum for the sores in his mouth. His next errand was to borrow a digging tool called a mattock from Lotty Foster. Tom and Anne took off in the mid-afternoon and were not seen until the next day. Laura Foster went missing.

Laura’s body was found three months later, in a shallow grave 250 yards from where Tom was seen practice swinging the mattock in May. Laura’s left breast was slit and she had been stabbed between the third and fourth ribs. In October 1866, Tom Dula was charged with murdering Laura Foster and sentenced to hang. Anne Foster was charged with encouraging him to commit murder and harboring him in the time afterward.

Before he was strung up on the gallows, Tom left a note to exonerate Anne. “Statement of Thomas C. Dula. I declare that I am the only person that had any hand in the murder of Laura Foster. April 30, 1868.” Tom Dula was hanged on May 1, 1868. Despite his sexploits, there is no evidence of how he was hung.

More information on Tom Dooley can be found in Unprepared to Die: America’s Greatest Murder Ballads and the True Crime Stories That Inspired Them by Paul Slade (Soundcheck Books, 2015).


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