Sometimes when a player plays, a player pays.
In North Carolina in 1866, Tom Dooley and his lover Laura Foster supposedly planned to elope. On the morning of May 25, she packed a small bag and sneaked away on her horse in the pre-dawn hours. She wasn’t seen alive again.
Tom fled a few days later, after the whispers began. Some months hence, Laura’s body was discovered in a shallow grave, stabbed once in the heart.
Those are the facts. But here’s where it gets messy.
Apparently, Tom was quite the ladies’ man. Prior to Laura, he was hot and heavy with Anne Melton. They may or may not have still been an item when he may or may not have gotten Laura pregnant. Either way, Anne had some powerful strong feelings for Dooley. (The three aforementioned—along with Anne’s cousin Pauline—were all treated for venereal disease around the same time. Evidently, there wasn’t enough to keep people busy in rural North Carolina.)
There were many suspects available since Laura, too, had a reputation for throwing her legs in the air and waving them like she just didn’t care. But when the police issued arrest warrants, only two names made the final list: Tom and Anne.
Anne was taken into custody immediately. During her trial, cousin Pauline testified that Anne had led her to Laura’s grave to check that it was still well hidden and undisturbed, and Pauline later led the police to the site. That’s strike one. Also, a posse member testified that Anne’s handkerchief was found in the grave. That’s strike two. Not looking so good for Anne. But strike three never came.
Tom was tracked down in Tennessee with the help of James Grayson, who turned him in to the authorities. There was no evidence against Dooley, so it’s unclear upon what basis he was convicted, other than hearsay and conjecture. He always maintained his innocence, but on the night before his execution he privately wrote out a statement saying he had acted alone. With no hope for himself, he could still save Anne. In public, however, moments before his death on the gallows, he swore to God he had nothing to do with Laura’s murder.
Few accounts nowadays agree on anything, except that Tom Dooley probably didn’t kill Laura Foster. At least, not by himself. He may have conspired with Anne Melton, or she may have acted alone in a fit of jealousy. Or it may have been a third party. Any which way, he took the fall for his former lover. Rumors swirled for years in North Carolina about Tom’s innocence and how he likely prevented Anne from dancing at the end of a noose.
90 years after Dooley swung, a folk group known as The Kingston Trio recorded their version of “Tom Dooley”—countless variations of which had been written and passed around since the day of Tom’s death—for their debut record. The song wasn’t even supposed to be a single but when DJs started playing the album track, demand became overwhelming. Capitol released a 45 and it proceeded to sell 6 million copies. The song was so big, it not only went to #1 on the pop chart, it topped the R&B chart, as well, and won the first ever Grammy for Best Country & Western song. (A folk category was created the following year, primarily due to the success of “Tom Dooley.”) The Trio went on to phenomenal success and inspired a folk-boom in the US that lasted even past the arrival of The Beatles.
Haters always gonna hate. But is this a song about the crime of the century? Or the tale of a lover’s ultimate sacrifice?