If you grew up in the Appalachians of western North Carolina, chances are you’ve heard the tale of Tom Dooley at least once. You may even have heard the song made famous by the likes of Frank Proffitt, the New Lost City Ramblers, and Doc Watson: hang down your head, Tom Dooley…hang down your head and cry… a sordid tale of love, betrayal, and murder set in the years following the Civil War. But fact often proves more shocking than the tale. Author Sharyn McCrumb, after spending hours consulting the legal evidence, trial transcripts, and speaking with experts, determined that something didn’t add up. The answers she found in her lengthy research hint at a dark, Brontë-like pentagon of individuals trapped by disease, starvation, racial boundaries, and the after-effects of armed conflict.
Zebulon Baird Vance, the educated sometime-Governor of North Carolina, represented Tom Dooley during his trial for murder. In McCrumb’s telling, he is convinced that Dooley is innocent. While his narrative reflects on the aftermath, the voice of servant-girl Pauline Foster recounts the tale from its origin. Survival during the war meant Pauline had to sell her body to passing soldiers for food, but she escaped death. Unfortunately, she didn’t emerge entirely unscathed. Infected with syphilis, she makes her way from her home county of Watauga to neighboring Wilkes, in hopes of staying with one of her cousins there while seeing a doctor. She chooses her wealthy relation Ann Melton, who allows her room and board in exchange for servant work. Ann is narcissistic and spoiled, and the sociopathic Pauline quickly determines that she will bring suffering to her cousin’s door, no matter the consequences for others. When Pauline realizes the depth of love between the married Ann and Tom Dooley, a former Confederate soldier and Ann’s childhood sweetheart, she hatches a terrible plan for revenge that inflicts tragedy across the entirety of Wilkes County. Expertly researched and written, history and fiction lovers alike will find this a fascinating read.
Click here for a clip of “Tom Dooley” as sung by Doc Watson, and here for a clip as sung by Frank Proffitt, both courtesy of the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill. The songs, and many others, are available on CD and vinyl in the Southern Folklife Collection, which like the North Carolina Collection, is located in Wilson Library. While you’re here, check the UNC-Chapel Hill Library catalog for the availability of The Ballad of Tom Dooley.