Laura disappears (Friday 25th of May and Saturday 26th of May)
The painting to the left depicts Laura Foster on her last ever ride on her fathers horse heading for Bates Place, as Edith F. Carter imagines her. The original picture is in the Tom Dooley Art Museum at Whippoorwill Academy and Village in Ferguson, North Carolina and is reproduced here with permission from the artist.
Thursday evening Laura's father Wilson Foster had gone to bed while Laura stayed up (none of his other children are mentioned during trial, so maybe they had gone to bed as well?). Next morning, he woke up when Laura rose from bed one hour before dawn, and he later testified that she went outside for a moment. (In some versions of the story, Wilson heard Laura talking to someone, presumably Tom Dooley, while she was outside, but he doesn't mention any conversation in his testimony, just Laura leaving the cabin.) He fell asleep again, and when he woke up Laura's bed was empty. When he got outside, he noticed, that his horse had disappeared from the place it used to be tied up (they had no stable). Exactly when Laura left the house is not known, but about 1½ mile from the family's house, near the home of A. P. Scott, she met Betsy Scott, a neighbor. Betsy Scott told in her testimony, that Laura was riding bareback and carried a bundle of clothes in front of her. Betsy and Laura had a short conversation, and asked by Betsy, Laura told her that Tom had come before daybreak, and that she was going to meet him at the "Bate's Place". Betsy Scott also testified, that Laura a few days earlier had told her, that she would run away with Tom Dula. When Betsy asked where Tom was, Laura told her, that he had taken another route to "flank" one "Manda Barnes". There is no Barnes residence shown on James Isbell's map of the area, so we don't know, where this Manda Barnes actually lived. In the 1870 census no Mandy, Manda or Amanda Barnes is mentioned on the Wilkes County side of the county border, but she could have lived in Caldwell County or have moved from the area or gotten married by then.
No one ever talked to Laura after her alledged conversation with Betsy Scott (except maybe her killer). In an article in "The Record of Wilkes" dated June 26th 2002 the paper quotes an interview with Amelia Shepherd. She was the granddaughter of Mary Jane Ballou Witherspoon, a sister of the trial witness Theodocia Witherspoon. According to Mrs. Shepherd, the two sisters had been in the field near their house, and had seen Laura pass them on her horse, that Friday morning, but doesn't seem to have spoken with her at that time. I will get back to this statement in another article, as it may have some significance to the case.
Tom must have left Laura's home some time before her if he actually visited her, and he didn't follow the same road that Laura did, but took a path through the hills. This path was about one mile shorter than the road, so even if Laura was riding a horse, it was supposed during trial, that Tom would have reached the Bates Place before Laura. A little after sunrise (sun arose sometime between 6 and 6.30 AM) he met one Carl Carlton who had his cabin near the path Tom was travelling. They spoke for five minutes, and Tom asked him if the path lead to the Kendall's residence. Carlton confirmed this and Tom continued. Around eight o'clock he met Hezekiah Kendall near his home. Kendall asked him if "he'd been after the girl" which Tom denied. Kendall noticed that Toms pants was wet as from dew. Shortly after breakfast Tom arrived at James Scott's home. Here he spoke with Mrs. Scott (Celia) who offered him breakfast. He declined this offer, but rested on the steps outside the house for a couple of minutes. He told Mrs. Scott that he was looking for her brother, George Washington Anderson. A little later he arrived at Ann Meltons house. Pauline Foster was outside planting corn, and when she went back to the house, to milk the cows, she found Tom there, talking quietly with Ann. Shortly after Tom left the house in direction of Lotty Fosters home. Pauline testified that as she was in the field planting corn, she would have seen Tom if he had come from the direction of Bates place, and she had not seen him. Neither had presumably James Melton who was working in the field with her. At least there is no testimony of him seeing Tom Dooley at all that morning.
Wilson Foster had been trimming the horse's hoofs, but hadn't completed the job, so that one of the hoofs had a distinct mark. He followed the horse tracks down the road from his cabin, passing A. P. Scott's house, where Laura had met Betsy Scott and further on to the Bates Place. Here he lost the tracks in an old field. He returned to James Scott's house, where he had breakfast and told about his missing horse! From there he continued to the Melton place. When he arrived there, Ann was alone and in bed.
What happened later Friday (May 25th)
When Tom Dula left the Melton place, he went down the path to Lotty Foster's house, where he asked for some milk. Lotty gave him half a gallon and he left in direction of his own home. "The boys", meaning her sons, had gone for their work. Nobody knows what Tom did between getting the milk and noon, when his mother found him in bed. Mary Dula had left home shortly after breakfast, and at that time, Tom was not at home. This must have been while he was either visiting Ann Melton or Lotty Foster. When she got back just before dinner (lunch-time) he was in the house though. (In the testimony a lot of people use the word "dinner" for the midday meal, while the evening meal is called supper.) Even if Mary didn't see Tom before noon, it was supposed that he was at home. His sister was at home, and Mary mentions in her testimony, that Eliza never mentioned Tom being away. For some reason Eliza Dula was not questioned during any of the trials so she didn't confirm it herself.
Meanwhile Wilson Foster had left the Melton place after staying there, talking with Ann for about 15 minutes. He visited several houses asking for his daughter but with no luck. Later, about dark, he returned to the Melton home, where he stayed for two or three ours. A few other people were also present, Ann Melton and her younger brother, Thomas Foster, George Washington Anderson and a man called Will Holder. James Melton is not mentioned as being present, and Tom Dooley wasn't there either. The party entertained themselves, probably under influence of a certain amount of liquor, as Thomas Foster burned of Wilson Foster's whiskers as a practical joke. Wilson Foster thought that Laura and Tom Dooley had run of with his horse to get married. According to Pauline, Wilson Foster had said at this occasion, that he didn't care what happened to Laura as long as he got his horse back, and Pauline Foster told him, that she would get his horse back for a quart of liquor, but later, during trial, she claimed, that she had said it "for fun", and Wilson Foster denied his statement about the horse and Laura as well. He also denied saying that he would kill Laura if he found her. Someone must have accused him of saying so, but it does not show in the records who this someone was.
When Wilson Foster left the party, he went to the home of James Melton's brother Francis, who lived close by, and stayed there for the night.
Tom ate his dinner, and stayed at home all afternoon. Around 3PM Mary Dula left the house to tend to her cows. While out she met two Gilberts, Jesse and Carson. According to Jesse Gilbert's later testimony, she told them, that she didn't know where Tom was, but she denied this in her own statement. It was on this occasion that Rufus Horton acted as a character witness in her favor, while he claimed that "Jesse Gilbert was known for lying and stealing". While Mary Dula cooked supper, Tom had gone to the barn and stayed there for awhile, according to her statement. Lotty Foster and her son Thomas, testified though, that they had seen Tom Dooley on the path that led to Ann Meltons home and to the Bates Place. After supper, when it got dark, Tom left home again. He didn't visit Ann Melton at this time, and nobody know where he was. Later he returned to his home, and went to bed, while complaining of chills. His mother heard him moan several times during the night and she rose from bed to look in at him. Tom stayed in bed all night, and didn't leave the house until after breakfast Saturday.
The early search (End May, beginning of June)
After breakfast Saturday, Tom visited the Melton place according to Pauline Foster's testimony. He came to have his shoes fixed by James Melton who did cobbler work besides his farming, carpenting and wagonmaking. At that time he spoke with Ann for a long time and when Pauline told him, that she thought he had run away with Laura Foster, he said that he "had no use for Laura". Tom left but returned in the evening where he entertained on his fiddle until bedtime.
The next morning (Saturday) Wilson Foster left Francos Meltons house and returned to his own home. Here he found his horse. The rope it had been tied with, looked as if the horse had "gnawed through it". Apparently the return of the horse with a broken rope, did not instigate an immediate search for Laura, so probably it was still assumed Saturday, that she had ran away. Nothing much was said about the initial seach in the surviving records, so we don't know exactly, when it was started. J. D. Winkler testified, that a general search was carried out and that he himself had search for seven or eight days and it presumably started some days after Laura's disappearance. It is normally assumed, that the search was carried out by several people from the community together with residents from neighboring commmunities.
We don't know for sure though, who participated, but one the participants was probably James Isbell. In one of his statements he decribes part of the search. Unfortunately it seems as this statement is not placed correctly in the chronology of the case. The statement appears in his testimony right after he mentioned how the body of Laura was later found, but when you read the statement, there is indications, that this part of the search must have taken place quite early in the search: "During the search we discovered a large mudhole near Francis Melton's which we intended to drag but it being late in the evening, put off until the next day. The next day we discovered signs of mud leading off from that direction toward the Yadkin River near Witherspoons. We had not noticed these signs the day before. We dragged the hole,but found nothing." If the search mentioned in this statement, took place after the body of Laura was discovered, there would be no reason to drag a pool, and there was no reason to believe, that signs of mud leading toward the Yadkin River three months after Laura's disappearance, had anything to do with the crime.
Anyway, nothing about Lauras disappearance was discovered through the early seach for her.