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In 1862 Thomas C. Dula enlisted in Company K of the 42nd Regiment, North Carolina Troops. At the war’s close, Dula returned home to Wilkes County, where he resumed a liaison with Ann Melton, a relationship he had begun in 1859 at the age of fourteen. Ann’s husband James seems to have overlooked her indiscretions. In 1866 Dula began an affair with Laura Foster from whom he caught syphilis. He then passed the disease to Ann.
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In May, 1866 Laura Foster disappeared. Her pregnant body was found in a shallow grave; her death was the result of a stab wound in the chest. Dula, who had fled to Tennessee, was returned to North Carolina to face charges. The trial, in the fall of 1866, was shifted to Statesville in order to insure an impartial hearing. Dula, though defended by ex-governor Zebulon B. Vance, was convicted. That ruling, initially overturned, was upheld on appeal, and on May 1, 1868, Dula was hanged in Statesville. By that time the case had drawn wide attention. A series of reports appeared in the New York Herald. Dula was buried in the family cemetery near Elkville. Many in the community to this day defend Dula, arguing that he took the fall for Ann Melton.
One of those defenders was Doc Watson of nearby Deep Gap, whose grandmother claimed to have heard Melton’s deathbed confession. Watson interpreted the traditional folk ballad “The Legend of Tom Dooley.” The best-known version of that song was a bestseller for the Kingston Trio in 1958. Members of the group in fact visited Dula’s grave on a concert swing through the state. The story also have been the subject of a 1959 film with Michael Landon in the lead role and of an outdoor drama produced in North Wilkesboro in the 1970s.
John Foster West, The Ballad of Tom Dula (1971)
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, III, 119-120—sketch by Thornton W. Mitchell
Thomas Dula Collection, North Carolina State Archives
Heritage of Wilkes County (1982)
Homer Keever, Iredell: Piedmont County (1976)
North Wilkesboro Journal-Patriot, January 16, 1986
Statesville Record & Landmark, May 12, 1985
North Carolina State Archives website: