The Legend of Tom Dula

The Legend of Tom Dula

Programtom dula
A little over 130 years ago in a small rural North Carolina town in Wilkes County, a young girl of meager means left home to meet her fiancé in the woods. She had hidden her special dress under her house clothes and had packed her belongings in a trundle bag, ready for her new life. She sat in the woods and waited for her beloved, and someone met her there--someone who hated her enough to kill her and drag her to a small grave that the person had dug the evening before. A few months later, her fiancé was captured and tried for the crime. After one appeal, he was condemned for her murder and hanged.

The story of Tom Dula and his unfortunate fiancée Laura Foster made the headlines in 1866, from as far away as New York. The Civil War had ended and the Reconstruction of the South had begun, but not without bitter feelings on both sides. So a murder of a poor, uneducated girl by an equally poor boy sparked a legend in the South and a headline story in the North. Some time after Tom Dula was executed, someone wrote a ballad, put it to music, and the legend of Tom Dula was born.

The song and the story of Tom Dula were passed down through so many people over the years that truth was lost. From romantics to folk singers, hundreds of people have surmised what happened on May 25, 1866. But no one is alive to tell the real story. The tale became a folk legend in the South, and the song passed from one generation to the other, each person proud to be part of the tradition of the Tom Dula story. Then one evening, after the Kingston Trio sang their new song, "The Ballad of Tom Dooley," Tom Dula's story was nationally immortalized.

The Legend of Tom Dula shares the history of the song and some ideas about the story from some people who can trace their roots back to the Happy Valley clan and others who have spent their lives fascinated with this obscure murder. Besides sharing some of the hearsay from the testimony and some opinions about who really committed the deed, the program sheds light on Frank Proffitt's involvement in the song, how the Kingston Trio discovered it, and how Frank finally received credit for the Kingston Trio's version of the song.

The Storythe story
What really happened on the night of Friday, May 25, 1866 in the quiet Happy Valley? Who really killed Laura Foster? Because so many folk tales have been spun about the story, no one will know. But this section will give you a chance to preview some of the characters and the "facts" in the case and vote for the murderer yourself. After you've watched "The Legend of Tom Dula" and read through the cast of suspects and looked at some of the more unknown facts or stories (because no one knows which anymore), you can take a vote for who you believe murdered Laura Foster? Tom alone? Tom and an accomplice? Or is Tom completely innocent? You decide.

Other Details in the Case

  • After you read the description of the suspects and characters of the story, and watch The Legend of Tom Dula, read these Other Players. NOTE that these are not necessarily facts in the case; they are simply bits of testimony or ideas promoted by others.
  • Pauline said she got syphilis in Watauga County.
  • Tom Dula began to visit Laura Foster regularly in the middle of March 1866 but may have had relations with her before that.
  • Ann Melton told Pauline that Laura had given Tom the "pock," and he gave it to her. She also said her husband had it and she was going to "fool him and have her revenge too."
  • Tom told Dr. Carter he had caught syphilis from Laura Foster.
  • A neighbor visited the Meltons on Thursday night and found Ann absent.
  • Ann returned Friday morning with her dress and shoes wet.
  • Ann was at home Friday night, as proven by the testimony of a neighbor.
  • A neighbor saw Tom Friday morning and noticed his pants were wet.
  • Tom returned to the Meltons' Monday night, weeping.
  • The area around Laura's heart was so decomposed by the time the body was found that Dr. Carter could not tell whether the knife had entered the body straight, missing the heart, or at a downward angle, penetrating the heart.

The Song
In 1958, a new song called "Tom Dooley" meant a national hit for the Kingston Trio. For Frank Noah Proffitt, it meant that part of his heritage had suddenly been launched into national fame. Born to Wiley Proffitt and Rebecca Creed Proffitt on June 1, 1913, in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee, Frank moved to and grew up in Pick Britches, now known as Mountain Dale, at the foot of Stone Mountain in Watauga County. He learned how to make banjos and dulcimers from his father.

Wiley Proffitt was not the only family member who taught young Frank folk songs and instrument-making. Frank learned traditional folk songs from his aunt, Nancy Prather, and from his father-in-law, Nathan Hicks, who also made dulcimers. His grandmother, Adeline Perdue, who lived in Wilkes County during the Tom Dula trial, taught Frank "Tom Dula." According to family legend, she saw Tom riding in a coffin, and as he strolled down the street to his hanging, he sang a song--the same song she taught her grandchildren.

As a family man, Frank made his living growing tobacco and strawberries and making instruments as his father and father-in-law had done. One day in 1937 a couple from New York named Warner visited them to buy one of Nathan Hicks' dulcimers. The man, Frank Warner, was particularly interested in learning Appalachian folk songs, and Nathan sang some of the ones he knew. The next year, when Frank Proffitt was visiting his father-in-law, Frank and Anne Warner returned, and Proffitt sang "Tom Dula" for them.

"His eyes sparkled as I sing Tom Dooley to him and told him of my Grandmaw Proffitt knowing Tom and Laura.I walked on air for days after they left," Frank said about Frank Warner's visit.
The Warners used one of the first battery operated recorders to capture the songs Frank sang for them.

What happened after that visit sparked the eventual recording that made the Kingston Trio famous.

Surprised that others were interested in the folk songs he had grown up with, Frank Proffitt decided to try to collect as many songs as he could. He sent a book of songs to Warner, who modified several of them and performed them himself.

Shortly after that, in 1947, Warner shared "Tom Dula" with Alan Lomax, a professor at New York University, who published it in his collection titled "Folk Songs USA."
In 1958, the Kingston Trio heard the song almost by accident, adapted it, and added it to their stage act. They renamed the song "Tom Dooley" and recorded it for their album that year. Frank Proffitt heard the

Kingston Trio perform the song on the Ed Sullivan show and was completely surprised.

Eventually Proffitt and Warner filed a joint lawsuit for legal claim to "Tom Dooley." Three years later, they began receiving royalties.

Frank Proffitt agreed to accompany Warner to performances in the early 1960s. Proffitt received numerous invitations to perform around the country, with Warner's encouragement. He also participated in workshops in Chicago and at a camp in Massachussetts.

In 1962 Folkways Records and Service Corp. recorded him, and Folk-Legacy Records, Inc. released Frank Proffitt, of Reese, North Carolina as their first album.

Even with the hundreds of invitations and the travel, Frank Proffitt's first priority was always his farmwork. In fact, he eventually refused to sing for free. In fact, he sang the songs for people not out of a motive for personal gain, but to give tribute to the people who had taught him the songs. He said the songs helped him remember his older family members and even picture them.

Frank never let his fame prompt him to move out of Watauga County. On November 1, 1965, he drove his wife, Bessie to a hospital in Charlotte for surgery and returned home. Later that evening, he died, at age 52.

The Kingston Trio's rendition of the song made the legend of Tom Dula a national fascination. Because Frank Proffitt sang the song for the Warners, and the Warners gave it to Alan Lomax, the Kingston Trio launched an old country folk ballad about a century-old murder in a small, rural county into immortality.

Lynip, Amaris O. "Proffitt Sang the Legend of Tom Dooley." The Democrat.


Tom Dula Museum
The "Tom Dooley Art Museum" is housed in the loft of the Whipporrwill Academy. The museum has an exhibit 45 paintings and drawings by Edith F. Carter on the life of Tom Dooley (Dula) who was convicted and hanged for the murder of his girlfriend, Laura Foster.
Edith Ferguson's Tom Dula Exhibit

David Holt's Tom Dula page
David shares some of what he's learned about the Tom Dula mystery.

The Kingston Trio Web site
Their latest and older hits, with links to buy albums.