The True Story of Tom Dooley

On November 17, 1958, the Kingston Trio scored a number one hit on the Billboard pop chart with their recording of the folk song “Tom Dooley.” The song, asking Mr. Dooley to hang down his head, became one of those songs where everyone knows the chorus.

But the lyrics come out of a true story.

The Real Tom Dula

On May 1, 1868, a Confederate veteran named Tom Dula was hanged for the 1866 stabbing death of Laura Foster. Dula had been Foster’s lover and father of her unborn child.

Some questioned whether Dula was the actual killer. In addition to his affair with Foster, Dula had romantic engagements with two of Foster’s cousins, Anne Foster Melton and Pauline Foster. On the gallows, Dula professed his innocence while conceding he still deserved to be executed. Thus, some came to believe that Melton had killed Laura Foster.

The trial, a retrial, and the execution attracted significant attention. National newspapers covered Dula’s trial, and former North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance represented Dula pro bono. Due to all of the attention, a North Carolina poet named Thomas C. Land wrote a poem about the case called “Tom Dooley.”

The video below provides some of the history behind the song. Check it out.

The Kingston Trio

Historians do not know who created the folk song “Tom Dooley.” But over time various artists recorded versions of “Tom Dooley.” And the Kingston Trio produced the most popular version when they recorded the song in 1958, selling more than six million copies.

In later years, some criticized Kingston Trio performances as a sanitized version of folk music. But many today recognize that the group, despite their clean-cut coordinated outfits, were instrumental in making folk music popular and laid the groundwork for other folk singers to find success.

The Kingston Trio version of “Tom Dooley” is more vague about the details of the real case than earlier versions of the song. But perhaps their decision made the song more universal, leading to its massive sales. Check out their complete version below.

The Legend of Tom Dolley

Finally, there is a 1959 film called The Legend of Tom Dooley, starring Michael Landon. The movie does not attempt to tell the true story about Tom Dula but is based upon the song.

Below is the first part of the movie.

We do know today that innocent people still often end up on death row in our modern system of justice.  But nobody could have predicted that we would still be talking about a nineteenth century North Carolina murder so many years later.

And we can never know the full story of what happened to Laura Palmer, even while we reflect on the folk song about the tragic story.  Yet, that is the story behind the song.


What is your favorite version of “Tom Dooley”? Photo via public domain. Leave your two cents in the comments.

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