Tom Dooley: The Full Story
November 23, 2010 10:37 AM   Subscribe

Tom Dooley: The Full Story
In 1958, The Kingston Trio scored a massive global hit with an 1860s folk song about Tom Dula’s killing of Laura Foster. I’ve just posted a 25,000-word essay on the song describing Tom’s return from the Civil War to his North Carolina home, the many women he slept with there and his role in spreading the syphilis that ultimately led to Laura’s murder. Tom hanged for it in the end, but many still insist he was not the true killer. I also examine the song’s continuing development by artists like Doc Watson, Steve Earle and Greg Brown, and recount my own visit to the story’s key sites in September this year.
posted by Paul Slade (6 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

Wow...this is just fantastic. I've long admired the John Henry page from Present at the Creation, and just love when some common bit of culture is broken down and contextualized. Great site, glad to learn of it! Thanks.
posted by Miko at 9:52 AM on November 24, 2010

This was very interesting! I didn't think I'd make it through all 25,000 words but I did and thoroughly enjoyed them as well. Great job in spinning the story out and tying the threads of modern singers and old murderers together so well.
posted by librarylis at 12:16 PM on November 29, 2010

Fascinating, thanks.

Re the gap between Laura's front teeth - made me wonder whether this was made up or emphasised based on the folkore connecting this with lust (as in the Wife of Bath).

Also, in your side bar you have "grizzly" - should be "grisly".
posted by paduasoy at 1:51 PM on December 5, 2010

True. Despite my reference to "grizzly murders" no actual bears were involved.

I'll correct it next chance I get, paduasoy, and thanks very much for pointing it out.
posted by Paul Slade at 3:42 PM on December 5, 2010

Returning to the point about the teeth (which I forgot to address earlier), my own dictionary of folklore says people with gaps between their front teeth "are widely thought to be lucky [...] Although in Scotland, it is thought such people are prone to lechery".

There's mixed evidence regarding the facts of Laura's own teeth in the 1866 trial summary which I mention in my piece. Wilson Foster, Laura's father, is quoted as telling the court he knew Laura's corpse "by the teeth and by the shape of the face", but does not specify which feature of her teeth he found so distinctive.

Later in the same summary, Pauline Foster testifies: "Her teeth were large and there was a large open space between them." But JW Winkler says: "Laura's teeth were large. I don't think there was any space between them."

Make of that what you will. Fact or folklore, though, the link between Laura's teeth and symbols of lechery is a pleasing one, and I'm glad to have it pointed out. She certainly wasn't lucky, though, was she?
posted by Paul Slade at 12:58 PM on December 6, 2010

I've always loved that Trio song and this has been so informative. Thank you so much!
posted by Cheminatrix at 11:47 PM on December 8, 2010

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