Book Review: “The Tom Dooley Files”

The Tom Dooley Files: My Search for the Truth Behind the Legend

By Charlotte Corbin Barnes

©2016 Barnes and Barnes Video Productions, Inc.

By the summer of 1865, the American Civil War was finally coming to an end. Confederate soldiers imprisoned at places such as Point Lookout were finally being paroled and allowed to return to their homes. For many of these soldiers, they simply wanted to return to the life they knew before the war and live out the rest of their lives in peace. But for Thomas C. Dula (aka “Tom Dooley”), a veteran of the 42nd North Carolina Infantry, those dreams of a peaceful life would not come to be. Within a year of returning home, he found himself the main suspect in the murder of a young girl named Laura Foster, and on the run from authorities. He would eventually be arrested in Tennessee and stand trial twice for the murder. Despite having nothing but circumstantial evidence against him, he was ultimately found guilty of the crime, and sentenced to be hanged. On May 1st, 1868, he was hung in Statesville for a crime that he swore he was innocent of until the very end. To this day, the events surrounding Tom Dula and the murder of Laura Foster remain a subject of North Carolina folklore and legend. The story would receive worldwide fame in 1958, when the Kingston Trio released their version of the folk ballad “Tom Dooley,” which became a worldwide hit for the group, and ushered in the folk music revival.

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One of those introduced to the story through that folk hit was Charlotte Corbin Barnes. Bedridden for months due to illness, and fearing she may die, she identified with the song’s main figure, believing that he was innocent of the murder. In the mid-1980s, after she and her husband Bill had relocated to North Carolina and started a video production company, she would discover that the story behind the folk ballad was indeed true, starting her on a thirty-year journey to discover the truth behind the tale. Mrs. Barnes chronicles her journey, and the info that she’s uncovered, in her first published work, The Tom Dooley Files: My Search for the Truth Behind the Legend, published in 2016. The book is already being described as the “Tom Dooley Bible,” and received the 2017 Book of the Year Award from the North Carolina Society of Historians.

The book tells two separate, yet fascinating, stories: Charlotte Barnes’ life and journey into researching the Tom Dooley story, and the story of Thomas C. Dula and the events surrounding his arrest, trial, and execution. Both stories are told simultaneously, but the narrative never become confusing. Instead, the reader joins Mrs. Barnes on her journey, as she attempts to uncover all the facts surrounding the Tom Dula case and discover for certain what happened in May of 1866. Through her fascinating narrative, Mrs. Barnes introduces us to the three main players in the story: Tom, the philandering ex-Confederate; Laura Foster, a pretty girl who became one of Tom’s many loves, and the tragic victim of the circumstances, and; Ann Foster Melton, a cousin of Laura’s, who despite being married to another man, also vies for the affections of Tom. As the story unfolds, jealousy, sexual immorality (culminating in all three apparently contracting syphilis), and anger lead to the tragic murder of Laura, and Tom is soon after implicated in the crime. Throughout the book’s 500 pages, this story is built upon, as more and more information come to light about the events surrounding this tragic affair.

As part of her research, Mrs. Barnes and her husband conducted several video interviews with descendants of the key players in the story, historians, and others who kept the stories and folk tales going throughout the centuries, all of which would be amassed in a documentary about the story. All these interviews are presented in their entirety in this book, giving us many different variations on the stories, and how legend and history became intermixed over the years. Although a number of these stories aren’t entirely based on fact, it is fascinating to see how legend and folklore mixed into the story over the years, and how the stories are still as potent and dramatic today as they were in 150 years since the story took place. To have these interviews preserved here is a testament to the enduring legacy of the Tom Dooley story in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina.

In addition to these interviews, Mrs. Barnes also uses The Tom Dooley Files to showcase the many primary documents unearthed through her research. Going through hundreds of books, newspaper and magazine articles, genealogical records, state records and censuses, and the existing trial records and testimonies, Mrs. Barnes amasses a plethora of documentation, shedding light on the story in greater detail than any work has done before. The writer also sheds light on the political situation in North Carolina between 1866 and 1868, as the events of reconstruction may have played a hand in how the trial played out. One of the aspects covered is how former Confederate Governor of North Carolina, Zebulon B. Vance, went from being held prisoner, to ultimately being allowed to resume practicing law, and ultimately taking on the case of Tom Dula and Ann Foster Melton (Who was tried as an accessory in the murder). It is an element of the story that has never really been detailed before but is done so here with great success!

Another fascinating element of this book is Mrs. Barnes’ account of her encounters with others who wrote about the story. Among those other writers she dealt with was John Foster West, a historian from Appalachian State, who published the book The Ballad of Tom Dula in 1970. Unfortunately, Mr. West never endeared himself to the people of the area where the story took place, practically calling those who kept the story alive through oral histories liars. Still, Mrs. Barnes interviewed Mr. West for her research, and shared some of the information she collected, which Mr. West would later use for a second book on the subject, Lift Up Your Head, Tom Dooley, published in 1993. The story of her interactions with, and reactions to, John Foster West provide some of the book’s most entertaining elements, actually adding a level of humor to the proceedings.

But the book’s greatest strength, outside of the amazing collection of interviews and information presented, is the story of Mrs. Barnes’ relationship with Edith Ferguson Carter. It was an article about Mrs. Carter creating a Tom Dooley Museum in the area in 1986 that led her to start her own journey. The book chronicles how Charlotte and Edith first corresponded, and how their shared fascination with the Tom Dooley story led to a friendship that would last until Mrs. Carter’s untimely death in 2014. That friendship shines through poignantly in The Tom Dooley Files, as Mrs. Carter helps the author in her research, and encourages her to write this book on the subject. The chronicle of Mrs. Carter’s funeral, and how her life impacted all around her in positive ways, is the book’s most touching moment, leaving those who didn’t know her feeling the importance of this woman, and her impact on the area.

With The Tom Dooley Files, Charlotte Corbin Barnes has written a book that works both as a historical narrative, and as an autobiography, telling of her many years of research into the story, and the new evidence that she uncovered during that work. Despite the many different story elements that are presented, the narrative never falters, or becomes confusing, keeping the reader fascinated through the book’s nearly 500 pages. If you have a fascination with the Tom Dooley story, or are just looking for something great to read, then The Tom Dooley Files is a book that you’ll find more than worth the time put into it.

Grade: 9/10 (A-)

ADDENDUM: Charlotte Corbin Barnes is currently at work on a historical fiction novel entitled DOOLEY!, which chronicles the story from the perspective of the newspaper reporter who covers the hanging. With this work, Mrs. Barnes will rely on the plethora of information she’s collected on the story, to tell what she believes happened during that fateful Spring of 1866, and in the years that followed.

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