What really happened?
In my first article about this subject, I suggested that maybe Laura was not killed at all. But even if she was, we are not sure who killed her. Already before Tom was convicted rumors arose, that he was not alone about the murder and stories about how Ann Melton had helped developed into Ann being the actual killer, and Tom just an accomplish in burying the body. In this article I will look at the possibility of either Ann Melton or Pauline Foster or the two of them together did the evil deed.
Did Ann Melton kill Laura Foster?
Even at the time of the murder a lot of locals suspected that Ann did it, and if you ask someone in the area today, or just someone who has read about the case, most are likely to answer "Yes' she did". The UNC-TV (University of North Carolina) Folkways page on the Internet tells their version of the story as it was shown on their television channel some years ago. On this homepage they used to have a poll where everyone could "vote" for the real killer. This poll has been removed sometime in summer or autumn 2012. On January 14th, 2012 451 votes had been given and 312 of these (69.1 %) pointed at Ann Melton as the killer. 13.5 % pointed at Tom and 11.9 % pointed at Pauline Foster. The rest was divided between Dr. Carter, Zebulon Vance, James Melton and James Isbell. If the majority is right, then Ann did actually kill Laura.
If she did, we have to ask ourself why and how did she do it. And I don't think of how the actual killing was comitted as we know that Laura was stabbed to death. Så let me repeat the process that I used on Tom Dooley and look at motive, means and opportunity, only this time I will start with the means.
Ann had a knife, we know that as it was stated during trial in Pauline Foster's testimony. We also know that she hid it under her pillow at a later date and that Tom Dooley picked it up the day he left Elkville for Watauga County. So she had in her possession a knife, that may have been the murder weapon. We don't know if she owned it, or just kept if for Tom, or if she had found it somewhere or otherwise gotten her hands on it. She knew that Tom had been skelping the path between the Dula cabin and her mothers place, so she know he had access to a mattock. We can therefore imagine, that she could have "borrowed" it from Tom with or without his knowledge. This would give her the means to dig the grave.
The photo on the left, shows the hillside, where Lauras grave was found. Would Ann or Pauline be able to carry the bosy around a mile from the place of the murder, and then drag it up this hill to the place of burial?
On the other hand she was known for being extremely lazy. She made Pauline Foster do, not just the field work she was paid to do, but also all the work around the house. Nothing seems to suggest that she even took care of her daughter (at that time 4 or 5 years old) as she was never mentioned during trial for even being in the house. So why should a woman who absolutely dislikes any physical work suddenly start digging a grave? Unless of course the killing wasn't planned for, at when she discovered that Laura was dead, she simply had to get rid of the body.
Also you have to ask if she had the means to transport the body from the place of the murder to the grave site, more than a mile away through rough terrain. She could definately not have carried the body herself; modern experiments have shown that even for a strong man, it wouldn't have been an easy task. She coulds of course have tied the body to the horse, and have the horse carry the body. But pulling a horse with a dead body over its back across thickly wooded hillsides with an undergrowth of laurel would have been almost impossible. She might of course have taken a chance and used the roads and paths at night, hoping that nobody would see her, but it must have been very late a night then, as we know that a lot of people were visiting her cabin on Friday night, and that at some time would have had to go to their own homes. Of course the contemporary rumors could be right, and Ann killed Laura and then requested Tom's help with the burial, and that may have been the case only the same question arise, except for the means of carrying Laura to the grave, where Tom would have been helpful.
Did Ann had the opportunity to kill Laura? No more than Tom did - or maybe even less. Pauline Foster testifed, that on Friday morning Ann returned from her alledged drinking party with Tom Dooley and her mother one hour before sunrise, took of her wet shoes and clothes and went to bed. At that time Laura hadn't left her own home yet so Ann could not have killed her then. When Tom Dooley arrived later, she was still in bed and she was still in bed at lunchtime, when Pauline Foster returned from the field where she had been working with James Melton. When Pauline left the house again Ann was still in bed. Later she got up, and she probably joined the party that gathered at her home Friday night. At least she was at home, and stayed at home until Pauline Foster and Ann's brother Thomas went to bed late after midnight. Pauline was at the Melton home or in the fields outside, and she testifed that Ann never left house. And Pauline didn't go to bed with Thomas Foster on this occation but shared a bed with Ann, so you have to suppose that she would have woken up, if Ann had left the cabin during the night. On the other hand Pauline Foster (in an uidentified transcript from the case) stated that Ann had told her, that "she'd done what she said", meaning that she had killed Laura Foster. She had told this on Saurday or Sunday after the murder. So we have to conclude, that if Laura Foster was killed at any time on the Friday she disappeared, Ann Melton didn't kill her.
But of course Laura may have waited hidden at Bates place until sometime Saturday, when Ann then could have killed her. Likely? No, but of course possible.
Did Ann Melton have a motive to kill Laura Foster? Some apparently think that she killed Laura because Laura had infected Tom Dooley with syphilis, and that Tom on his side had infected her. This sounds strange as she knew that Pauline Foster suffered from the disease and that Tom had had sex with Pauline, så why did she think he got the disease from Laura? Maybe Tom thought so himself, as the prosecution supposed, and told Ann, but still she knew that Pauline also was ill. So why nok kill them both? Or why not kill Tom as he was the direct reason for her own illness.
Jealousy could be the motive. If Ann thought that Tom had fallen in love with Laura Foster, she might have gotten so jealous as to kill Laura. Unfortunately nothing that was said at the trail indicates that Tom was in love with Laura. Of course he didn't have to be. It was enough if Ann though he was. In the novel "The Ballad of Tom Dooley" by Sharyn McCrumb the author let Pauline Foster trick her cousin Ann into believing that Laura was eloping with Tom in order for them to get married, while she actually was eloping with a former slave, John Anderson. This could be the case, but it sounds strange to me, that Laura would travel miles in the opposite direction of where the two of them were heading in order to meeet her lover. It would have been very much more easy for him to have come to her, or for them to meet somewhere near her home. So no, I do not think Ann had any real motive for killing Laura Foster - who maybe even may have been her best friend. JHealousy was the only reason for Ann to murder Laura Foster claims anotrher novel, "Tom Dooley - The story behind the ballad" by Karen Wheeling Reynolds, (descendant of the owners of Cowles Store in Elkville and author of the play "Tom Dooley, A Wilkes County Legend" that has been pewrfroemed each summer since 2001 in Wilkesboro).
Did Ann Pauline Foster kill Laura Foster?
The two of them knew each other before Pauline came to live with the Meltons. Pauline testified that she had seen Laura Foster on the 1st of March, and she only came to the Meltons about one wseek later. At another time Laura send her a message via Mrs. James Scott Pauline met a negro boy near the road, who brought her the message. Why this information about the mesage was so important that it was send to the Supreme Court I do not know, but it was. There is nothing in the testimonies that tell what the message was, and Pauline claimed that she never saw Laura again before the body was discovered six month later.
As Pauline was already infected with syphilis, when she got to Elkville, the disease can't have been her motive. Neither can jealousy as Tom was much more involved with Ann Melton than Laura Foster, so if she wanted Tom for herself, she killed the wrong girl. As she worked in the fields with James Melton all day Friday from early morning to around 3 PM, she would not have had the opportunity to kill Laura until later the same day, and at that time she was busy partying with the guests in the Melton home, among them Willson Foster, Laura's father and Thomas Foster, Ann's brother. Saturday she was once again working til fields with James Melton.
Of course there may have been a conspiracy between Ann and Pauline, so that Pauline testified falsely about what time Ann returned Friday morning and about her being home and in bed all day. But in that case James Melton must have been in on too, as he probably went to his home to have lunch as well as Pauline, and if not he worked in the fields all day, and would have noticed if his wife left the house. But maybe his was so much under foot, that he didn't tell about Ann leaving the house? His behaviour when Tom visisted Ann seems to point in such a direction. So Ann may have left the house and Pauline and James lied for her. Or maybe they all went to Bates place to take care of the killing or the burial of the body. I think tough that someone would have noticed if one or more of them had gone to Bates place during daytime as there was quite a few houses in the neighborhood.
There are later stories going around telling, that on her deathbed Ann Melton supposedly confessed to the murder. Unfortunately we do not know if these stories are correct. There is also stories about her telling Doctor Carter a secret about the murder, while he was trwating her syphilis, after Tom's execution. Even more unfortunately he was a man of his word, and never reveiled the secret. I have read two different versions of Ann's last words. One: "If I knew I was never gonna get well, there is something I would tell about Tom's hanging." And two: "I know something that would have saved Tom from the gallows". In neither of these statements does Ann admit that she killed Laura, only that she wsould have had something to say. Unfortunetely she never actually said what it was, or if she did, the ones she told managed to keep the secret.