The sensational case attracted attention from newspapers across the South and as far away as New York City.
Dula had no money to hire an attorney, but former Gov. Zebulon B. Vance agreed to represent him free of charge. Why Vance saw fit to involve himself in the case is unclear. It may be that he genuinely believed Dula was innocent. More likely he thought that defending a former Confederate solider in such a high-profile case might be politically beneficial.
Dula was convicted. Vance filed an appeal and won his client a new trial. Again Dula was convicted, and on May 1, 1869, was hanged. As he stood at the gallows facing his death, he is reported to have said, "Gentlemen, do you see this hand? I didn't harm a hair on the girl's head."
Despite the verdict of not one but two juries, many people in the community believed Dula was innocent. They argued that he had sacrificed his own life to protect the real murderer, an insanely jealous Ann Melton. It was even claimed that Ann on her deathbed confessed to the murder, saying she had convinced Dula, who still loved her, to help her conceal the body.
Little wonder that this story of star-crossed lovers had become the stuff of legend and song.
In a number of her previous books, Sharyn McCrumb has proved adept at taking fragments of history and legend and weaving them into a compelling fictional narrative. And that's what she has done again with "The Ballad of Tom Dooley."
McCrumb visited the sites where the story unfolded, studied the legal evidence and talked with historians and folklore experts. As a result, she came to her own conclusion about who murdered Laura Foster and has turned her findings into a highly readable retelling of the story. In the process, she has again demonstrated why she is one of today's finest Southern writers.
James E. Casto, a retired Huntington newspaperman, frequently reviews books for the Sunday Gazette-Mail.