My own theory of the case: The murder of Laura
But who killed Laura Foster then
? Was it her father or was it James Isbell? I'm
almost certain that Wilson Foster was the murderer, and that
James Isbell just seized the opportunity to "get at" Tom Dooley, when
arose. Aat least to begin with
Isbell may even have been convinced that Tom was actually the
Wilson Foster survived the trial by several years. In 1880, he lived with his son James Thomas and his family in King's Creek.
James was head of household and beside his father members of the household were
James' wife, Mary, and
four grandchildren. If Wilson actually killed his daughter, I can see two
possibilities. One is that it happened as an accident in an attempt to get the
horse from her when he found her after she had escaped, the other that it was
deliberate. If it was an accident, he must have panicked, because otherwise
there was no reason to hide the body. He must have been certain that he would
not have been believed, if he claimed, that he killed Laura by accident. If it
was deliberate, we have to look at possible the motives. He may of
course have been so angry about the theft of the horse that it has caused him
kill his daughter. Testimonies from the trial suggests that getting the horse
back mattered more than getting his daughter back. But there may have been
another reason though. If Wilson had a sexual relation with his daughter (as an
adult - and she may even have been a willing partner), she may have wanted to bring the relationship to
an end, whether it was forced or voluntary, and this may have caused her to run
away from home. When she was overtaken by her father, she may have threatened to disclose the relationship, which led him to kill her.
Personally I think that an
accidental killing is the more likely reason. A single stab wound in the chest
does not point at premeditation, more to something that may have happened during
a fight for the horse. If Wilson had an affair with his oldest daughter in a one
room house, with at least four more children being at home, at least the oldest,
James, must have known, and why then should he let his father stay with his
family in his old age? But if Wilson was the guilty party, how then did Tom
Dooley, Ann Melton, Pauline Foster and James Isbell get in the picture?
In the beginning, right after Laura's disappearance,
nobody suspected that Tom (or anyone else for that matter) had killed her. A few (we know
for a fact that Pauline Foster aired the
possibility), thought that he might have ran away with her, but even when it turned
out that he was still in the area, while she was gone (the same day she disappeared),
he wasn't suspected of foul play, as it was still believed that
Laura had run away if not with Tom, then with someone else. Only some time after
the disappearance a rumour
spread that Laura had been killed, and that Tom had killed her. Such a rumor must have started
somewhere. Tom had no reason to start the rumor himself, whether he was guilty or not.
Neither Ann Melton nor Pauline Foster had any reason to make Tom a suspect in a
Wilson Foster could possibly have had an interest to divert suspicion from
himself, but for him it must have been better if people continued to
believe that Laura had left home with a lover. Then no murder would
have taken place, and there would be no reason to suspect neither him, nor
If we assume that my speculation about Tom and Louisa Isbell is true, James Isbell however
could have be interested in getting people to believe that
Tom Dooley had something to do with Laura's disappearance. He probably didn't even
suggest that Tom killed her, but just that her disappearance was
linked to her broken relationship with Tom. From there the gossip would add
plenty of details without further interference. We know that the rumor, that Tom
had killed Laura was brought forward by members of the large Hendricks family
but we do not know which branch of this large family,
told the story. There lived some Hendricks' in Wilkes County, but
there also lived many in Caldwell County, even in King's Creek, where Isbell had
his farm. Maybe Isbell "mentioned something to his Hendricks neighbors, and
they told it to others and so on. Tom apparently also had quite a few broken relationships in
the area, maybe even some of his former girlfriends helped to spread gossip about the lover who
had abandoned them.
Wilson Foster would presumably have welcomed the rumors that Tom was the
guilty party with great pleasure, as suspicions were not directed at himself. He
have helped to spread the rumors when it dawned on him that people no longer
believed that Laura had run away, but that she had been murdered, and he would
have wanted people to suspect someone else but himself. He knew that Tom and Laura had
had an affair, so that Tom could be the murderer, was not quite as unlikely as a
In court Wilson told about two
times Tom visited Laura, almost two months after their otherwise short-lived affair
had come to an end, namely Sunday 20th of May and Wednesday 23rd
of May. The visit on Sunday was not
confirmed by anyone else and the only confirmation of the visit on Wednesday was
Betsys Scott's claim to have seen Tom three miles from the Foster family
home and closer to his own home. Not the best proof of a visit, so perhaps these two visits
in late May were invented by Wilson to make Tom look even more guilty, by implying that he had come to
persuade Laura to run away from home so he could kill her. Maybe it was even Wilson, who persuaded his neighbor, Betsy to tell
the court about her seeing Tom Dooley on Wendnesday and about her conversation with Laura on Friday morning. I can
almost hear the conversation between Wilson and Betsy, as it could have taken place shortly before
Wilson: "Betsy, you told me you had met Laura the morning she disappeared, right?"
Betsy: "Well yes, I met her down at Angeline Scott's house on the
road to Elkville, when I was going out to do some laundry at the Hortons."
Wilson: "What did you talk about?"
Betsy: "Nothing much really. She just told me, that she had gotten
tired of taking care of you and the young ones, and wanted to enjoy life for
a bit, as she was already 23
and was not married yet."
Wilson "The rumors do say that it was the young smart aleck, Tom Dula, Mary Dulas
son, who murdered her. Do you also believe so?
Betsy: "As they arrested both him and Lotty Fosters
snobbish slut, Ann, it must be true.
Wilson: "Yes, I also think it's Dula. He had started seeing Laura again.
Didn't you see him Wednesday before Laura disappeared? He visited Laura that
Wednesday while I worked, but he was still there when I got home.
And he also came on Sunday."
Betsy: "Do you think they were lovers again?"
Wilson: "Nope. I think he came to persuade her to run away with him so he could
lure her somewhere and kill her."
Betsy: "But why would he do that?"
Wilson: "Because he's a bad boy who always get into trouble with women, and now
he was ill and felt that Laura had infected him and he wanted revenge."
Betsy: "Yes, you may be right. He has had affairs with both the
Melton chick and her cousin, Pauline who lives with them. He has also beeen
lying with young Caroline Barnes. And you know I do laundry for
Colonel James Isbell, the justice of peace down in King's
Creek? Once I heard a rumor from the servants, that Dula had also slept with the
Wilson: "There you see. I'm sure it's him, but I think
unfortunately that he escapes justice, because there are no witnesses to him
visiting Laura other than me, and it
is probably not enough. Didn't you hear Laura say anything like she were going
to meet Dula at some
Betsy: "Maybe I did hear something like it. It is important to get justice for Laura and the
murderer must not go free, but where would they meet? "
Wilson: "I do not know. A desolate place. And somewhere close to
Dula's home. How aabout the old shop place, Bates Place. It is desolate and not too far from Dulas home."
Betsy: "And why didn't he just accompany Laura from your place?"
Wilson: "Can't you just say that it was to avoid being seen
Betsy: "Maybe I can. He probably wouldn't be to keen being seen by
Manly Barnes, after what he did to Manly's daughter. And Manly lives along the
road between here and Elkville. But what if I say so, and he was
somewhere else that morning, and have witnesses to it?"
Wilson: "Just tell that she said she was going to meet Dula. If he can prove he was somewhere else, you
can always say that Laura must have meant another Dula. There is enough of the
bastards around here. It might for example, be that cousin of his, Granville who
been arrested once, or maybe his drinking mate Carson McGuire. And Tom can not prove
he was anywhere else, as I am certain that it was he who killed her "
Betsy: "Fair enough, but what's in it for me?"
Wilson: "You know that I have no money so I can't pay you, but I can put
in a good word for you with Mr. German if you want a job with him. And since we are
both alone maybe we could help each other in other ways as well - if you would
be interested. And the main thing is of course to get Laura's murderer hanged.
At least it is to me."
Betsy: "I will do what I can. I can even tell
Colonel Isbell about me meeting Tom Wednesday. He is not to keen on him I would think, if
Tom really slept with his wife. Lets discuss my payment later."
This conversation reflects what I think may have passed and what could have
persuaded Betsy Scott
to commit perjury about what Laura told her that morning, if they met at all.
But if Laura were not to meet
Tom, why then did she stay at the Bates Place, so her father could catch up with
her? Maybe she would just hide for a while because it was so late in the day that the roads
became too crowded, and she thus risked meeting too many who might tell her
father. Of course it is also possible that she was going to meet someone other
than Tom, for example the former slave, John Anderson, like Sharyn McCrumb
recounts in her novel, and who was also mentioned during the trial in connection
with the interrogation of George Washington Anderson's younger sister, Eliza.
Maybe he was seeing white girl, but Laura, not Eliza. But as Laura apparently
had several lovers it could acutally be anyone.
photo to the left, shows the Isbell family
gravesite at Grandin Baptist Church Cemetery. Some of the Isbell children er
buried here, nut it's uncertain whether James and Sarah are buried here as well.
Let me return my attention to Isbell. He was one of the engineers behind the continuing search for Laura, so
he must have thought that she was dead, though at the time by no means it was nothing but a rumor.
He was also one of the two people who were present when the grave was finally found, and
with him was only his father in law, David Horton, who could have had a similar interest in
getting Tom into trouble. It was his daughter, Tom had an affair with.
Was it a coincidence that it was exactly those two that found Laura? According
Isbells testimony the answer is yes, it was a coincidence that they were the
ones that seartched the particular area. But it was no coincidence that the
grave was found. It was because of Pauline Foster. According to Pauline's testimony Ann had shown
her the place where the body was buried, or at least a nearby location. When
Pauline was arrested after returning to Elkville after her visit to Watauga
County and Tennessee, she decided suddenly to reveal everything she knew, and it
led, ultimately to the discovery of the grave and the corpse.
Unfortunately, there was no one who confirmed Pauline's interpretation of the
case. It was just taken at face value, because the body was found near the
place where Pauline had explained that Ann had told her that Tom had buried it! This story is not necessarily true though. There is no doubt that Pauline had a somewhat strained
relationship with her cousin and employer, especially in the period from Laura
disappeared and until the body was found. So like Isbell could see and advantage
in involving Tom in the case, Pauline may have seen a advantage in involving Ann. But if
Tom nor Ann murdered Laura, they didn't bury the body either. And if they did not,
how did Ann know where it was buried, so she could show Pauline? Again, I must
point at the fact that the
only person who told that Ann knew something about the burial place was Pauline Foster. No
one else knew anything about this story. From his arrest to his execution Tom denied
to have anything to do with Laura's death, and he refused to involve others.
This has usually been interpreted as if he would protect Ann Melton, but it
need not be the reason, or certainly not the whole reason.
If Tom didn't commit murder, and didn't know who had done it, there would be
no reason for him to involve others - and probably no chance either. If he had actually
spent the night between Thursday and Friday getting very drunk with Ann and her
mother, he would know for sure that Ann could not have been involved in digging
any grave on the night between Thursday and Friday, and several witnesses
confirmed the that she was home all day Friday, and that she even spent most of the day
in bed. Tom would therefore not have had any reason to implicate Ann in anything. Pauline
explained on one occasion that Ann on Saturday had "boasted" that she had
out" the night between Friday and Saturday and had killed Laura, but again we
have only the testimony of Pauline, and it was not confirmed by others, and it
would have meant that Laura waited almost 24 hours for whoever she was going to
I will certainly not exclude that Ann may have known where the body was buried,
but let me get back to this in a little while.
If neither Ann nor Tom was involved in burying Laura, how then could Pauline now
where the body was buried so she could show it to the search team? Here are
several possibilities. The grave was on a hillside about halfway between Lotty
Foster's house and Tom Dooleys house but some way from the path between the two
houses. From the Melton house where Pauline lived, to the grave
were only about 800 yards as the crow flies. Pauline was responsible for the
family's cows that walked around freely. At that time cows roamed free, while the
cultivated land was fenced in, so the cows could really go wherever they wanted.
Usually, they came back to be milked and fed, but it happened that they did not. In that case, you had to
go out to look for them.
We know from her own testimony, that at one time, Mary Dula went out to look for
her cows. It would
have been Pauline's task in the Melton home, and possibly she stumbled over the
grave at such an occasion, when she was out looking for the cows. This occasion could have been anytime between Laura's disappearance and Pauline's
arrest and maybe she didn't actually connected her discovery with Laura's
disappearance at first, but only thought about it after her return from Watauga. Why
involve Ann? As I have mentioned, the relationship between the two was not good,
and she may simply have wanted to scare Ann.
Pauline may also have received her information in some other way. I have in
an earlier article
suggested the possibility that
someone (like James Isbell) had instructed her on what to tell, not just in
court, but even after her arrest. It would however require that James Isbell (or
knew where the body was buried. In the same article I was airing a theory that
Isbell was indeed the murderer, and therefore knew where he had buried Laura.
This theory is not very likely though, so if Wilson Foster was the murderer,
how would Isbell know where the body was buried, so that he might instruct
Pauline? Wilson can of course have confided in him, but why should he? The
probability of Isbell knowing the location of the grave if he was not himself involved
in the murder, is non-existent.
Two possibilities are left as far as I see it. One is that Wilson Foster
revealed to Pauline that he had killed his daughter and buried the body.
Pauline knew Laura well and visited her in her home even before she moved to Elkville,
so maybe she kept coming to the Foster home after Laura disappeared, as the
other Foster children were her relatives as well. At such visits, Wilson, perhaps drunk,
could have exposed the truth, which Pauline later was able to exploit. Why she did not reveal
her knowledge when Tom was arrested, is not to say, but one reason could be jealousy.
Tom went to bed with her and maybe she was in love with him and was angry with him
because he preferred the married cousin, rather than herself, who at the
time was still unmarried.* Just as she may have had reasons to to involve Ann,
she may also have had reasons for not wanting to help Tom. Here it is important
to note that nowhere in the existing testimonies did she actually involve or
accuse Tom of being involved in the murder. Rather, she made some
statements that implied that he had nothing to do with it - so maybe he just
needed to be scared as well, and it got out oif hand. This possibility though does not explain one of the few of Pauline
testimonies, that was actually confirmed by others, namely, the quarrel between
her and Ann in front of Celia Scott, where they both mutually accused each other
to be either guilty or at least to "know something.
* And maybe was his cousin and had known him as long as Ann or even longer.
Dula was born in Wilkes County about 1845, but as I have said,
parts of this county were separated from Wilkes in 1849 to form the Watauga County. If she
originally lived in one of the parts that were separated, she could have stayed
where she was and still "come from Watauga", when she came to Elkville.
The final possibility may however, explain the quarrel. It is actually very
simple. It was to Ann Melton, not Pauline Foster, that Wilson Foster had revealed what happened. Also Ann was related
to Laura, and we know that Laura visisted the Meltons, so probably Wilson did as
well. We know from the trial records that at least he vvisited Friday morning when Laura disappeared,
and this was hardly the first time he was in the house. In the evening he
returned and we know that those present at that occasion drank heavily and Laura and her disappearance
was discussed. It was also at
that occasion that Wilson in his drunkenness declared that he was indifferent to
Laura, if only he got his horse back, and that Pauline in her drunkenness declared that she could get
the horse back for a quart of liquor.
Wether both Pauline and Ann heard Wilson talk about what happened to Laura is
not clear, but it is possible that it was only Ann, as Pauline was busy
entertaining Thomas Foster at the time. Ann may not have believed what she
heard at first, since everybody thought that Laura had just ran away. But as rumors began to
emerge, she may have been curious to see if the story was true. She can of course
also in her drunkenness have forgotten it again, and only have come to think of
it at a later date. She may then have invited Pauline to go out to see whether
there was indeed a grave, where Wilson had come to reveal that there would be, and
Pauline went gladly at first, but got cold feet and stopped some way before the
grave, while Ann continued alone, as Pauline explained in her testimony. That
would mean that the story that Pauline told that it was Ann who had shown her to
the grave, was at least partly true. She doesn't say anything in her testimony about how Ann knew where
the grave was, so she might as well have known from Wilson
Foster, as from her own participation in the burial.
Again, you may ask yourself why Ann did not come forward with this knowledge,
when Tom first ran away and later was arrested and imprisoned? Firstly, she did
not know for sure at that time if Wilson's disclosure was correct. She only
learned that for sure when she visited the grave. At that time, Tom Dooley was already in custody and had
been for a while. She may therefore have been afraid even to get herself in
if someone wanted to know why she had not volunteered this knowledge earlier. She would not have had any evidence against Wilson in addition to her knowledge of the grave, but this knowledge was actually used against
Tom, so she may have been afraid that it could be used against herself as well.
If Pauline told the truth about Ann's remarks when walking to the grave, namely that Ann would cut the
body into pieces and dig it into the cabbage patch or feed it to the pigs, she may just
have wanted to destroy the corpse in order to save Tom, hoping that if no body
was found, the case would "go away by itself" and Tom would be released. This
assumes of course that Ann wanted to save Tom.
It is also possible that she did not. She wasn't exactly a saint, at least not when it came to sexual relationships,
but even so she may
very well have been furious that Tom had both had affairs with to Pauline, Caroline
Barnes, Laura, and perhaps several others, and that he had even infected her
with syphilis, so she may have taken the opportunity to punish him. She might have
anticipated that he would have to spend some time in jail, but then being set
free, and when it dawned on her that it was not to be the case, it was too late
for her to do
anything about it .
Finally there is the possibility that she did not reveal what she knew because she was
afraid of even being accused of murder herself, what she ended up being anyway. By the
time she was imprisoned, she could not disclose that she knew things about the
murder, since it could be interpreted as if she herself had helped, and that a
claim to have heard about it from Wilson Foster only was a bad excuse. Therefore,
she was forced to deny everything. However, she was even more in trouble than
she had imagined, as she was actually accused of conspiring with Tom Dooley
about the murder of Laura. Even though the prosecutor withdrew the charge of conspiracy
to commit murder, she was still charged as an accomplice, and had no real
defense, since she could no longer give a reasonable and believable explanation
of her knowledge of the location of the gravesite. Also a
conviction as an accomplice to murder would lead to a death sentence and
execution, and although times were different back then, women were also
sentenced to death and executed. On the 12th of July 1833 Frances Warner
had became the first woman in North Carolina so be hanged. She was hanged for murdering
her husband eighteen months earlier, and this execution took place in Morganton
in Burke County just 75 miles west of Statesville, and only 50 miles from Elkville, so this execution must have been an issue in the area when
Anns was arrested and charged*. It was not more than 30 years ago, so
many could probably remember, or had at least heard about the case.
* This case is also almost as interesting as the case of Tom Dooley, for
although Frances Warner confessed to killing - not murder - there was also made songs
about the case and many legends arose in the wake of the execution.
If it is true that Ann knew where the grave was because Wilson or someone else had
told her, but that she could not use that knowledge at the
time when she wanted to, it can explain three things, that are otherwise difficult
to understand. Two of which are (more or less) confirmed while the third is
known only from legends. First and foremost, it can explain the quarrel between
Pauline and Ann, and not least the statements made on that occasion. Pauline had
apparently repeatedly in drunkenness alleged that she and Tom Dooley had killed
Laura Foster, which had made the authorities interested in her as a suspect. Even after Tom's arrest, she continued her drunken talk and
now Ann has apparently gotten tired of it, and therefore argued that Pauline was about
to send Tom (and maybe themselves) to the gallows with her drunken hogwash. Pauline's answer, that Ann was just as guilty as herself,
can then be viewed in
light of Pauline knowing that besides herself also Ann knew the truth, but had not come
forward with her knowledge. The guilt which they discussed was therefore not, as otherwise it is
interpreted, the guilt in Laura's death, but that they were the reason that Tom Dooley was
in jail, accused of the crime and now risked a death sentence.
The second thing which can be explained by Anns knowledge of the matter is the
legendary statement on her deathbed that she knew something about the matter that
could have saved Tom from the gallows - or however it is quoted. When Ann died,
several years had passed since Tom was executed, so she could neither help him,
nor hurt him by telling the truth. But someone else would maybe punish her if
she did. Those who could be threats against her, was probably first and foremost, Wilson
Foster, who at the time of Ann's death must have been about 60 years old, but
also his children might want to take revenge if she had their father put in
prison or hanged. Perhaps also some of Tom's relatives - and he had many might
be interested in punishing her.
Finally, there is of course the possibility that James Isbell would be furious -
and he had power. Even if he had acted in good faith, and actually believed that
Tom was the murderer, it would not look good if a wealthy man from the upper
class, planter, politician and magistrate had persecuted an innocent man and
helped to secure his execution.*
* At this time, long after Tom's execution, Isbell would probably have known
with certainty that Tom was innocent. He may therefore have threatened or bribed
Ann not to reveal what she knew, so he would not lose face. If Isbell had
pursued Tom, even though he was innocent, and this actually became known to Dr.
Carter, it can also explain why the doctor didn't tell
it to anyone, it was not to embarrass his neighbor.
The last fact that the theory can explain, is not directly derived from the question of
whether Ann knew the location of the grave from Wilson Foster or not, but has a certain
coherence. That is the question of Tom's confession. If we momentarily ignore
the possibility that the entire confession was a forgery, and just think that
Tom maybe did not write it, but instead dictated it to the defense's
assistant, there is an explanation. Tom knew that he himself was not the murderer,
and he had no idea who it was. He had not implicated any other throughout the
case. Now, if Mr. Allison had explained to him that there was nothing more to do
for Tom himself, which he certainly knew after two appeals, and that Ann Melton
really was at great risk of being convicted of complicity, and become hanged
unless he, Tom, took all the blame, there's a good chance that Tom would have confessed.
First, he was probably still in love with Ann, and secondly, he was equally
convinced of her innocence as he was on his own. When he insisted on his confession
not being made public until after the execution, it may have been be because he still hoped for a
pardon by the Governor, which if course he didn't get. Allison could therefore give
the note to Vance, who could use
it in his defense of Ann Melton, who ended up being acquitted. It still not
explains though why Allison told a journalist of the confession unles it was to
influence a coming jury. This may also explain, why Tom told his sister, that he
had made peace with God - he had saved a soul even if he could not save his own.
On the other hand the theory does not explain all the other witnesses who testified
against Tom, not least about his actions and whereabouts in the time just before
Laura's disappearance. Why should all these witnesses suddenly testify against
Tom? Although there were rumors that he had murdered Laura, there was no reason
to perjure against him. But in fact nobody testified against Tom, not even the
witnessses of the prosecution! They testified
largely about ordinary things, things that Tom Dooley certainly did almost every day,
not only this Thursday, Friday and Saturday. They did that with two exceptions,
not to cast suspicion on Tom, but because they had actually seen it. It was
the prosecutor who turned these everyday events into something suspicious, like
witnesses, told that Tom came to visit Ann Friday morning, but he did
so almost at a daily basis. That the two of them were talking in low voices, but
that is not strange considering, that they were lovers, and her husband was at
home. That Tom had gone in the direction of Anns house,
and had crossed the road that led to Bates Place, but he so did whenever he walked
from his own home to the Melton place. That he ordered the liquor from his cousin, but it
was certainly not the first time he had done it. That he borrowed a mattock by
Lotty Foster, but the road was actually repaired. That he went into the barn in
the afternoon, but he has probably done so many afternoons. That he and Ann claimed
sat outside and drank liquor all night, but they have certainly done so many spring
and summer nights and so forth. So nothing special, had the prosecution not made it into something sinister. The only witnesses who I believe was lying, Carl Carlton,
and his lie was to move his meeting with Tom on the path at his farm a few
months. And of course Betsy Scott. And it might have been Wilson, who lived not far from
both of them that made them do so.
If my theory holds, it leaves open the question of why Zebulon Vance took on the
case, as it was hardly James Isbell, who persuaded him to implement a poor
defense. Then I must return to the story that someone persuaded Vance to do the best
he could. He did, but that this just was not good enough because of the
prosecutions ability to make daily doings look criminal. This person may of
course have been Colonel James C. Horton, as legend would know, and as Karen
Wheeling Reynolds states in hers novel, but it might as well have been anyone
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