What really happened?
In all my articles in the category "What really happened", I have assumed that all of the witnesses told the truth, at least as far as they knew it, but can we be certain that they did? I don't think so. I think that at least some of the witnesses lied, or were lied to by others, so what they told in court was what they knew, but still not the truth, because they didn't know the truth. A lot of the witnesses might easily have been suspects themselves, so maybe they had good reason not to tell the truth, or at least not the whole truth.
Today, when a witness is sworn in they have to answer something like: "Do you swear the testimony you are about to provide this court is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?" I suppose in 1866 another wording was used like "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?", but no matter the wording, the oath or affirmation is the same and if you do not tell the truth you commit perjury. And that was just what Tom Dooley stated at the gallows that some of the witnesses against him had done. Why should he say so, if it wasn't true? At that time he had no hope to be saved from the gallows, and therefore no reason to lie about what others had told about him, so I will assume that he was right, and that some of the witnesses actually lied. But who? In the article in New York Herald the day after the execution, you could read:
"His (Tom's) only reference to the murder (in the speech he gave before his execution) was a half explanation of the country and the different roads and paths leading to the scene of the murder, in which his only anxiety was to show that some two or three of the witnesses swore false against him. He mentioned particularly one, James Isbell, who, he alledged, had perjured himself in the case and concluded by saying that had there been no lies sworn against him, he would not had been there (at the gallows)".
Maybe it was not only two or three witnesses that perjured as the paper wrote. There may have been more. We don't know today and James Isbell is the only one named. I will get back to him a little later on. But who were the others? As Tom used his time to talk about the roads leading to the murder site, he may have thought of some of the people, that testified about his movements on the Friday that Laura disappeared, or in the days before and after that Friday. We can't know for sure of course, but let me take a look at the witnesses, that actually talked about Toms whereabouts in their testimonies - and maybe a few other witnesses, that I suspect may have lied in court.
Did the witnesses tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
As mentioned above I don't think they did. The problem here is that I do not know, who lied, and what they lied about. I will start looking at the witnesses that testified anything connected to Tom's whereabouts in the days before and after the killing.
Betsy Scott said she saw Tom three miles from Wilson Foster's House on the Wednesday before the Friday when Laura disappeared. He was on foot. As mentioned before we don't know in what direction from Wilson Foster's house Betsy Scott saw Tom, neither do we know when she saw him. There is no reason to belive that she lied about this, not least because Wilson Foster confirmed that Tom actually visited Laura on that Wednesday. So Betsy may have seen him on his way to or from the visit. Today most writers of the case tend to think that she spotted him, when he was leaving Laura. It would be nice to know if Tom visited anyone else that Wednesday, but that has nothing to do with whether Betsy lied or not. It would also be nice to know more about Betsy Scott. Was she related to any of the other Scott's in the story like James Scott or A. P. Scott? Later stories has that she was doing laundry for people in the area and she would do or say anything for money, and maybe she did, I don't know, but I will get back to that later. According to James Isbell's map she lived next to Wilson Foster but in the 1880 census there is no recording of a Elizabeth or Betsy Scott in Caldwell or Wilkes counties, so maybe she was dead or had moved away. In 1880 there was a 50 year old woman (36 in 1866), Betsy Scott, that lived alone, near Spartanburg, South Carolina that may have been the Betsy Scott in question. This Betsy Scott was born in North Carolina and so was her parents. She was a widow and her occupation was "housekeeping", so as there was no social seurity in those days she must had some source of income, maybe from someone who paid her for something?
Carl Carlton saw Tom early Friday morning of the murder just after sunup on the path between Wilson Foster's house and Bates place. It was later shown by other witnesses that this particular path did not only lead to Bates place. It was also the easiest way to get to several other places from Wilson Foster's home, like to the Dula cabin. We don't know much about Carlton other than that his first name may not have been Carl, but Cal or rather Calvin as he is called in one of the list of witnesses. In 1880 there where no Carl or Calvin Carltons in the area but there were a Calvin Carlton who was 39 at the time of the killing living near Buffalo Creek in Caldwell County. This may very well have been the same Cal Carlton that was a witness at the trial. In 1866 he lived in Caldwell County as well but much closer to Elkville.
Note: Sunrise was at around 6.15 AM in Elkville in late May 1866.
Hezekiah Kendall also saw Tom Friday morning. It was sometime after his rendevouz with Carlton, on the same path, this time between Carlton's place and Kendall's own. Kendall was a little younger (about 2 years) than Tom Dooley and lived in Wilkes County, right where Tom's path crossed Elk Creek. In 1880 he lived on the same sport with his wife, Martha, and 6 children. The oldest was born in 1867 so maybe Kendall was not even married in May 1866. This is important if Hezekiah lied about meeting Tom as he would have nobody to confirm he actually saw him.
Somewhere around this field, Hezekiah Kendall's cabin stood in 1866.
If Hezekiah Kendall and Carl Carlton lied, then what did they lie about? Well maybe about seeing Tom at all, or maybe about when they saw him. They could both have seen him on another occasion as we know Tom visited Laura regularly for about two months. So maybe they just transferred the meeting to the Friday in question. Or maybe they didn't lie but only remembered wrong. What make me suspect that all is not what it seems to be in these two testimonies is the timetable. According to Carlton he met Tom shortly after sunup while Kendall met him around eight AM. According to James Isbell's map the distance from Wilson Foster's home to the Bates place was 5 miles. Carlton lived about one quarter of the way and Kendall about half way between the Foster's and Bates Place. That must mean that the distance between Carlton's and Kendall's was about 1.25 miles - about twice the distance from Kendall's to James Scott's home. And Kendall claims that he met Tom on the path between his house and Carltons, making the distance Tom had travelled between the two meetings maybe not more than a mile. Yet it had taken Tom more than 1½ hour to walk the distance while he only used maybe about 15 minutes to go from Kendall's to the Scott place; a distance of a about half a mile or maybe a little longer. This indicates to me, that the two meetings with Carlton and Kendall didn't take place on the same day, but if they were both wrong or if one of the meetings actually took place on the Friday in question I don't know.
Celia Scott also met Tom on Friday morning. She didn't tell which direction he came from, maybe because she didn't know. She may have been inside the house, when he arrived. Tom stayed a short while then continued in direction of the Melton place. This sounds true enough as we know from Pauline Foster's testimony that Tom arrived at the Melton place a little after breakfast, sometime between eight and nine AM. We know from Mrs Scott's statement, that Tom was looking for Washinton Anderson and as the Andersons were living between the Melton's and Bates Place, he would have left in the same direction if he were going to the Andersons. It's therefore reasonable to believe, that Celia Scott was not included among the person's that Tom thought had comitted perjury. Celia, her husband James and their son James P. had moved to Beaver Creek in Caldwell county in 1880 but still lived in Wilkes County in 1870.
Pauline Foster was the next that stated anything about Tom's whereabouts. As mentioned several times before I can't tell anything about Pauline Foster as she is most elusive. I don't think that she was born Foster though, I think Foster was her married name. This perception is due to the article in New York Herald, mentioned above. "Pauline Foster, the principal witness against both the accused are remarkable for nothing but debasement, and may be dismissed with the statement that she had since married a white man and given birth to a Negro child." The interesting part is not the malicious characterization of Pauline. Though it may be right, it is obvious that the journalist who wrote the article, except from Ann Melton, disliked the people of the lower class in the area. The interesting part of the quoted text is the last part. The article was published in New York Herald on the 2nd of May 1868, the day after Tom's execution. This suggests that "later" is not as stated in some legends "after the execution of Tom", but "later" must refer to to some time after the events took place, but before the execution. Maybe Pauline was married sometime in the fall of 1866. This would mean that she could have been a Foster at the first trial in October 1866 even if she was not, when Laura was killed. And at least she would have been a Foster at the last trial in January 1868 if she was married after the first trial.
Pauline was the key witness that most authors think was the main reason for Tom's conviction and therefore the one that had most influence on Tom getting executed. I don't agree, but did she lie about his whereabouts? I don't think so. She only told that she saw Tom in the house, and that she would have seen him, had he gone in direction of the Bates place. This statement actually speaks in favor of Tom Dooley. She may have lied about other things, but I'll get back to that later.
Lotty Foster testified that she saw Tom coming from the Melton place on Thursday before Laura disappeared. This was when he borrowed her mattock. There is no reason to believe that she lied about this. On Friday she once more saw Dula coming from the Melton place. This was when Tom asked her for milk, and it confirms Pauline's statement, that Tom didn't go to the Bates place Friday morning. But then comes: "I saw him afterwards that day late in the evening going towards the Bates place. He did not speak on that occasion." This means that someone IS lying, as Mary Dula testified, that Tom stayed at home after supper on Friday. So maybe one of the lying witnesses was Lotty Foster.
Thomas Foster's testimony is already quoted so let me just repeat: "I saw him afterwards that day (Thursday) passing along. On the next day, Friday, after breakfast awhile I saw him coming towards James Melton's. He was on Stoney Fork Road before the turning-off place to the Bates place. This was on Friday also. I saw him again on the same day, about sundown, going in the same direction. A quarter of an hour after he passed, I got a horse and went to James Melton's. Dula was not there; Ann Melton was." There are three interesting things in this testimony.
First let me look at the second sentence. Here Thomas Foster testifies that on Friday morning, he saw Tom going in the direction of the Melton place. This confirms my suspicions that he did not come from Wilson Fosters home and passed Carlton and Kendall on his way that Friday, but came from his own home, and was looking for Washington Anderson. Anderson visited the Meltons on the same morning and found Ann Melton in bed. like also Wilson Foster and Tom Dooley did, so maybe Tom was simply visitng the Andersons and their neighbors to locate Washington. Thomas Foster wouldn't know if Tom visited the Andersons or the Scott's before he went to Melton's home, as they lived in the same direction.
According to the witnesses Tom must have been very busy going to the Bates place on that Friday. First Thomas suggested that he went there after breakfast (even if we know that he was at the Melton's not at the Bates place), and later he saw him around sunset, going in the same direction. He reinforces this testimony by telling, that when he got to James Melton's Tom was not there. This suggests to the jury (and readers) that Tom must have gone to the Bates Place even if he may just as easy have gone elsewhere like the Scott's or the Anderson's to visit George Washington, if he actually left his home at all. Then late in the evening Tom went in direction of Bates place again according to Lotty, but Thomas couldn't confirm that, as at that time he was busy entertaining Wilson Foster and others at Ann and James home. Here then is another possible liar as Tom, still according to his mothers testimony, only went to their own barn - and that was before supper.
Note: Sunset was around 8.30 PM in late May 1866 and supper probably was eaten well before that time as dinner was eaten around noon.
The last interesting thing in Thomas Foster's statement is this: "I got a horse and went to James Melton's". There is no indication that Lotty Foster owned a horse, and even less that she owned horses in plural. So where did Thomas Foster get "a horse?" Not "our horse" or "the horse" but "a horse". Wheeling Reynolds suggests in The Story Behind the Ballad" that he borrrowed it from one of the men, that was always visiting Lotty Foster, but nowhere in the trial record is there any indication that she had any visitors that specific Friday evening.
Why should Lotty and Thomas lie? The only reason I can think of is that they may have believed that Ann killed Laura Foster and wanted to protect her.
Nobody else said anything about Tom's whereabouts in their testimonies, but of course someome might have in testimonies, that no longer exist. But did anybody lie about other things though?
The witness that in my opinion damaged Tom's case most was Betsy Scott. She explained that she had met Laura Foster that Friday morning, when Laura was going to Bates place.Then she continued: "I asked Laura if Mr. Dula had come. She said yes, he came just before day. I asked where he was. She said he had gone around to flank Manda Barnes'. I said if it was me, I would have been further on the road by this time. She said she had started as soon as she could. I asked where she expected to meet him. She said at the Bates place." This testimony was not confirmed by anyone else. Therefore this is the only knowledge we have of Tom visiting Laura in the morning, and Laura confirming she was meeting him at Bates place. If this testimony had not been given, nobody would have had any idea that Tom had visisted Laura in the morgning or that Laura was meeting him at Bates place, and if my above theory of Carlton and Kendall lying or remembering wrong about the day, then there was no reason to believe that Tom actually went to see Laura on that Friday morning. Notice also, that Betsy Scott only said "Mr. Dula", not "Thomas Dula". This means that if Tom somehow could provide an alibi, she could always argue, that Laura must have meant another of the many Mr. Dulas in or around Elkville. Tom of course, would not know whether Betsy Scott actually met with Laura and what she said, so Betsy can not have been among the ones, he accused of perjury.
The key witness was of course Pauline Foster and maybe she lied. She may very well have done so, but if you look into her testimony nothing of what she said was actually incriminating Tom, ecxept for her references to his whispering conversations with Ann Melton. And these were only suspicious because the prosecution wanted them to be suspicious. The two of them were lovers, and maybe they just talked about "lover's stuff" and didn't want Ann's husband or Pauline to hear. Besides that Pauline actually only incriminated Ann Melton - and herself. So any lies here have probably more been told to remove suspicion from herself, more than to blame the killing on Tom. This is mainly why I don't understand why so many writers of ther case think that Pauline Foster's testimony was the main reason that Tom got convicted. Unless of course, the jury convicted him mainly because of his relationship with several women at the same time among which at least one was married.
It is worth noting, that Pauline had already been arrested twice in the matter, so there must have been some strong suspicions against her already. Even if we hear of Pauline being arrested only one time, James Isbell confirms, that she was actually arrested twice: "Pauline Foster was arrested and while in jail, gave substantially the same statement which she made here today". This refers to the last arrest after which she was released and showed the search party where the grave was. Later he stated: "I think it was about five or six weeks after the disappearance of Laura Foster, before Pauline Foster left for Watagua. She was arrested twice." Also J. W. Winklers testimony, see below, indicates that Pauline was arrested and examined befored a magistrate in a store in Elkville, probably in Cowles Store (or what used to be Cowles Store). The magistrate in question was probably Justice of Peace Pickins Carter, who had issued the arrest warrant for Tom Dooley and others. This first arrest is confirmed by Dr. George Carter: "I have heard Pauline Foster examined heretofore; I also heard her evidence on this trial... I observed no conflict in her evidence upon the two occasions." This is actually what leads me to believe, that Ann Pauline Foster (who was not mentioned in the arrest warrant, was actually one and the same as the Ann Pauline Dula, who was mentioned in the warrant, but of whom we hear no more. Below I'll get back to something else Pauline may have lied about.
J. W. Winkler suggested when questioned by the prosecution, that Tom didn't take part in the searches for Laura (indicating that he knew that something had happened to Laura), but later when he was cross-examined, he admitted that Tom was in jail when most of the searches was conducted, effectively preventing him from taking part. Later Winkler was recalled for the defense, and he stated" I was present when Pauline Foster was examined at a store in Elkville before a magistrate about this matter. After her examination, she remarked to a person there present. 'I would swear a lie anytime for Tom Dula, wouldn't you, George." I suppose the George in question was Tom's friend, George Washington Anderson, but that is not really important. What is important though is that Pauline would swear a lie for Tom, not against him. She may even have tried to protect him in her testimony, but that is not clear from the surviving parts.
The drawing to the left depicts J. W. Winkler telling Wilson Foster. that Laura's body has been found as Edith F. Carter imagined the situation. The original drawing 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.
The final witness that maybe told a lie was Jesse Gilbert. At least another witness, Rufus Dula Horton, wealthy landowner, testified that Gilbert's character was "bad for stealing and lying". We don't know much about Gilbert, but he was probably related to the other Gilberts in the area, like Louisa Gilbert who later married James Melton and Martha Gilbert, who also testified in the case. Only two Jesse (or rather Jessey) Gilberts existed in 1880. They were father and son, the father being 88 at the time and living with his 40 year old son and his family near Franklin, Tennessee. They were both born in North Carolina, so the younger of them could very well be the Jesse Gilbert, that lived in Elkville and was 26 in 1866. The same Jesse Gilbert that served with Tom in Company K of the 42nd North Carolina regiment during the war. His mother may have been the Martha who also testified, but we don't know that for sure and she had probably passed away in 1880.
On the Friday where the murder took place, Jesse Gilbert was out walking with a Carson Gilbert, probably a brother. There is no trace of Carson Gilbert in any census records, neither in 1870 or 1880 and he was not on any of the lists of witnesses at the trials, so maybe Carson died between the murder and trial. Or his first name may have been something else, like with Carson Dula, who's first name actually was William. Jesse Gilbert testified: "I saw Mary Dula on that Friday evening as Carson and myself went by Lotty Foster's House." As Mary Dula did herself testify that she met Jesse and Carson Gilbert in the afternoon of that Friday, near Lotty Foster's we must believe that it was in the afternoon, not in the evening that the meeting took place, because later she went home to make supper. Jesse continued after an objection from the defense that was overruled by the judge: "Carson called to Mrs. Dula and asked her where her son Tom was. She replied that she did not know; she hadn't seen him that day. He was gone to the muster, she expected." Here we have a witness, that claims that Mary Dula did not know if Tom was at home or not, Friday afternoon". Jesse Gilbert concludes his testimony with an information, that is completely out of context, and I don't know why the judge found it important enough to send to the Supreme Court: "This was about 3:00 PM (afternoon, not evening). We walked thirteen miles that evening by dark after seeing her." It was right after this testimony that Rufus D. Horton gave his testimony of Jesse Gilbert's character - or lack of same.
Jesse Gilbert's testimony was countered by Mary Dula herself (at least somewhat). "I did not say in the presence of Carson Gilbert or others that Friday that I did not know where my son Thomas was." This is a clear countering, but unfortunately she weakens it in her follow up: "I met them on the afternoon of that day near Lotty Foster's on the path between her house and mine. I had walked out to look after my cows. In reply to an inquiry made of me I told them 'I did not know where Thomas was unless he had gone to the muster.' I did that at his request as he said he was too unwell to go to the muster and did not want to be bothered by people making inquiries." So on one hand she testified that she did not say she didn't know where Tom was and then in the next sentence, she admitted having said it, at Tom's request. Her last statement could interpreted as "If he is not home, and not gone to the muster, I don't know where he is". This could explain the apparent contradiction in her two statements. And it was right after this testimony that Rufus D. Horton testified that Mary Dula's character "was good for truth and honesty; he had never heard it doubted, that she was honest." This must mean, that there was more to her testimony, than the contradictionary statements, that has survived to this day.
Now why should anybody lie in court. I see three main reasons. To protect themselves, to protect someone else or because someone made them (paid them to) lie. When I look at the above mentioned witnesses I find some possible liers in all three categories
To protect herself Pauline Foster may have lied, but in the event that she did, her lies did not incriminate Tom Dooley much. Some later rumors know, that she did lie for money at other occasions, but if she did so in this case, it still didn't incriminate Tom and therefore did not lead him to be convicted. She may of course have done so, in no longer existing testimonies, but in that case it is strange, that these were not forwarded to the supreme court. The only other person likey to have lied to protect herself was Ann Melton and she never testified. Of course there could be others, that lied to protect themselves, but in that case, they were never suspected in the case.
I have already mentioned two that may have lied to protect someone else, namely Lotty and Thomas Foster. The person they would protect would be their daughter/sister, Ann Melton. This is only reasonable to assume if they actually believed that Ann had something to do with Laura's murder, and they may very well have believed that. They could of course have lied to protect themselves as well, if they were in any way involved in the murder. If Ann did kill Laura Foster, her mother and brother could very well be the ones that helped her bury the body, not Tom Dooley. In such case they would want to protect, not only Ann but themselves as well.
Betsy Scott, Hezekiah Kendall and Carl Carlton had nobody to protect and they were not suspects themselves. We must believe thus believe that they had no personal reason to lie. Betsy Scott was in later stories know as "a woman, that would do anything for money, and maybe she did. She could have lied about meeting Laura Foster or at least about what Laura had told her about who she was going to meet and/or where. But most likely the first part was true and she actually met Laura as Wilson Foster confirmed that he followed the horse tracks to Bates place, even if Wilson Foster himself did not meet Betsy Scott along the road that Friday morning when he was tracking Laura, less than an hour after she alledgedly met Betsy. So maybe Tom didn't visit Laura at all Friday morning. In spite of later legends this visit was not confirmed by Wilson Foster. He just testified that: "About an hour before daybreak she (Laura) got up, went outside and stayed a few minutes. When she came back in, she went to the closet and he thought she opened it. He then thought she went to bed again. When he awoke afterwards, he found Laura was not in her bed. This was about daybreak. He looked out and found his mare gone from the tree where she was usually tied up at night, since there was no stable." There is not mentioned anything about a meeting and a conversation outside the Foster cabin the morning before Laura left home.
I have already considered Kendall and Carlton. They could have remembered wrong, so that their meetings with Tom took place on different days and not on the day Laura disappeared. But they could also have remembered wrong "by choice"; maybe because someone wanted them to remember wrong - or plainly lie about Tom even being on the path passing their homes. For some reason I can't explain I believe that Kendall was telling the truth but may have remembered wrong, while my feeling is that Carl Carlton may have lied. One thing in particular in his statement seems strange. He stated: "He (Tom) stopped in my yard and after a few words with me started off, asking as he left if the path led to Kendall's." Why should Tom ask that? He lived in the neighborhood and had visited Laura several times and probably others in Caldwell County as well, so he must have known where Hezekiah Kendall lived and wouldn't have had to ask, if it wasn't the first time he used the path. So maybe Carlton was lying about seeing Tom and added a comment from an earlier dialog to spice up things. But why should Carlton lie about meeting Tom? Well maybe because he already knew that Kendall remembered (wrongly) to have seen Tom that Friday. Calrton (or the person who paid him) could then have decided to make it more reasonable to believe that Tom came from Wilson Foster's place.
But why should any of the three lie to get Tom convicted? Because someone made them do it. Maybe by offering them money, maybe by offering them something else. Apparently both Betsy Scott and Carl Carlton left the area after the trial and established themselves elsewhere. Maybe someone helped them finding another place to live just to get them out of the way, so they couldn't later talk about their knowledge to anyone who would care. This is of course pure speculation but I don't think it is too far out.
But who then paid them and or helped them to leave the area? It must have been someone with the means to pay, and influence as well, and that points to someone from the upper class. It could be one of the wealthy Dulas, Scotts, Hortons, Jones' or Carters but one man is more interesting than others, because of the part he took in the case.
Did James Isbell kill Laura Foster or had her killed?
A ridiculous question or is it? I have to return to my policeman friend mentioned in previous articles, who also told me, that besides from the family, the person or persons discovering the body of a murder victim is always under heavy suspicion until he or she can be excluded from the case. In this case James Isbell discovered the body together with his father in law, David Horton (74 years old) not colonel James Horton as Karen Wheeling Reynolds claims in Tom Dooley - The Story Behind the Ballad. Reynolds even makes James Horton the main responsible person in the search for Laura Foster, which he was not. Neither was it J. W. Winkler as Sharyn McCrumb claims in her novel. Winkler said in his own statement: "I searched seven or eight days myself", meaning that in the three months search he only participated 7 or 8 days in all.
There actually was a colonel James Horton (rather James C. Horton). He was the son of General William Horton and Mildred Dula. She was the daughter of Captain William Dula and a cousin of Tom Dooleys father, so colonel James Horton was Tom's second cousin but there were 27 years between them as Tom was born in 1844 and James Horton was born in 1817. James was a nephew of David Horton, the man whose horse actually acted scared at some point of the search, leading to the discovery of Laura's grave. This made him a 1st cousin of Sarah Dula, James Isbell's wife. James Horton was an older brother of Rufus Dula Horton, the man who testified in favor of Mary Dula's honesty at the trial. There were other James Hortons but none of these were colonels.
In one passage in Reynolds' novel, James Horton and James Isbell are riding up to Cowles Store in Elkville, and they are referred to as "the two old colonels". Maybe you could call the 49 year old Horton "an old colonel" but that didn't apply to James Isbell as he was only 28 in 1866. He was married to Sarah Louise Horton (Louise Sarah in the 1880 census, daughter of David Horton and in 1866 they had four chlidren.
James was a rather wealthy landowner. He lived in King's Creek just across the Caldwell county line from Elkville, near nowadays Grandin. He was a descendant of Benjamin Howard, one of the really large plantation owners in the end of the 18th century. Howard's farm was actually called "the largest and best in Happy Valley". Unfortunately Howard had sold his plantation to General William Horton and it was in the 1860'es owned by the above mentioned Rufus D. Horton. James Isbell's grandfather or maybe great grandfather had also owned a large plantation in King's Creek but he got in debt and the plantation was sold when he died to cover this debt. James Isbell lived on around 200 acres, that he had inherited through his mother.
James Isbell was called Colonel Isbell, a title he achieved in the local militia before the civil war. When the war broke out, he got a commission as Second Lieutenant in the Rough and Ready Guards of the 22nd North Carolina Infantry. I May 1862 he was promoted first to First Lieutenant and later same month to captain. In October 1862 he was elected to the North Carolina Legislature and left the army. The 22nd North Carolina Regiment later became part of Scales Brigade in Pender's Division, Hill's Corps. The first commanding officer was colonel (later brigadier) J. J. Pettigrew. Company A (The rough and ready's) were alle recruited in Caldwell County and first under command of captain W. Jones. Later captain Jones was replaced by another captain Jones, namely captain Thomas Jones and in 1862 June he was replaced by newly promoted captain James Isbell. In the beginning of the war the regiment was supporting gun batteries in Evanston, Virginia after a short stay in Richmond. The batteries were involved in engagements with Union gunboats on the Potomac, but beside from that, the regiment saw little battle in the first year of the war. In March 1862 the regiment was moved to Fredericksburg and fought in the battle at Seven Pines in May and June 1862. The regiment lost a lot of men in that battle. Later the regiment participated in the Seven Days Battle and in August it participated in the battle of Cedar Mountain. Later they fought at Harper's Ferry and at Sharpsburg (Antietam). Soon after this battle Isbell left the army. He returned to King's Creek and even if he had only reached a captains rank in the army, he became known under his old militia title.
Why now suspect, that James Isbell had anything at all to do with Laura's murder? Actually there are several reasons but they are all very circumstantial, I'll admit. As mentioned above, James Isbelll lived in King's Creek close to German's Hill, where Laura Foster lived. Some even think that the Fosters lived on Isbell land as tennant farmers. This may have been the case, but the Isbell plantation was a bit south of the river, where Laura and her father lived north of the river. Actually they lived closer to Welborn German's home, so maybe they lived on his land. Some also claims that Laura (and/or her father) worked for James Isbell, and that may have been the case as well. The reason this is rather important is to figure out why James Isbell became so involved in the search for Laura's body and the later prosecution of Tom Dooley. As far as I can see, there is no obvious reason that Isbell, a man from the definate upper class should be so involved in pursuing the disappearance of a woman from the definate lower class, if they didn't know each other. Of course they may have know each other anyway as they lived less than ten miles apart, but there would normally be no reason to believe, that they were anyway close.
Even so Isbell was the (or at least one of the) driving force(s) in the search for Laura, and he participated himself in several of the searches. He was participating in the search as late as when the rope was found one month after Laura's disappearance, and he was again participating, when the body was found months later. His taking part in the first searches seems reasonable as a lot of men from three different counties did the same. A young woman from his neighborhood had disappeared, a woman whose father (or herself) maybe worked for him and it would be natural if he was interested in the case. But why did he keep it up in later searches? He had a rather large plantation to run and he was the Justice of Peace in King's Creek, so he was probably busy taking care of his own community as well. And one month after Laura's disappearance when the rope was found, he ought to have been busy elsewhere. Then at the beginning of September, Pauline Foster was arrested and brought to the jail in Wilkesboro. Here she told the sheriff that she knew where Laura was buried and promised to lead a search party to the spot - or at least almost there. Pauline was taken to Elkville to point out the location of Laura's grave, and once more James Isbell, became part of the search party even if he lived more than 21 miles from Wilkesboro and more than 10 miles from Elkville. Someone must have told him, that something was going on, but who was that someone? Sheriff Hix in Wilkesboro or one of his men? Someone in Elkville? But who in Elkville could know, what Pauline would tell in jail in Wilkesboro? Maybe someone who had told her what to say, or maybe the word had spread, when she was taken back to Elkville, getting Isbell to drop whatever he was doing, get hold of his father-in-law who had his own farm to run, and participate in the search. And why drag his father-in-law into it at all? He must have known, that David Horton could not search by foot and would have to ride across difficult terrain in order to search up the ridge. But maybe wanted a horse present, and he knew that involving David Horton inthee search would provide- a horse. Even John Foster West (The Ballad of Tom Dooley) wonders why a man like James Isbell spent so much of his time at this search. His only conclusion though, is that it must have been because they were both citizens of Caldwell County. Personally I find this hard to believe though!
In the end it was James Isbell and his father-in-law that found the grave. Apparently they were alone at the time, as Colonel Isbell stated in his testimony: "I was at the grave at the time of the discovery. My father-in-law was with me." And later "My companion's horse snorted", indicating that he had just one companion. The following is a longer part of Isbell's statement:
"In consequence of the disclosure made by her (Pauline letting the authorities know, that she knew where the body was buried), she was taken out of jail. We went with her to the ridge, came to the log, saw where the dirt had been removed. This was the spot where she stated she stopped following Ann Melton. After half an hours search we found the grave seventyfive yards from this place. The earth had been carried away and the sod replaced. It escaped our observation until my companion's horse snorted and gave signs of smelling something. We then searched narrowly about the spot and by probing the ground discovered the grave. After taking out the earth, I saw prints of what appeared to have been a mattock in the hard side of the grave."
This is actually all we know about how the grave was found. To me it sounds like James Isbell and David Horton were alone until they had removed the earth, but maybe they called on help as soon as they discovered that there was a grave. Isbell is the only witness, that mentions the mattock prints. There may have been more people there, but J. W. Winkler who did take part in the search that day wasn't at the grave. In his testimony he states: "I knew Laura Foster. I saw the dead body...I was never at the grave, but I knew the ridge where it was found." Of course this is not confirmation that nobody accompanied Isbell and his father-in-law, but at least some of the search party only saw the corpse later on, when it had been moved from the grave. Dr. Carter was there though, only not until he was called to the place: "I saw and examined the dead body of a female, at the spot where it was found....The body was lying on its right side face up. The hole in which it lay was two and half feet deep, very narrow and not long enough for the body. The legs were drawn up." No mention of any mattock prints in this testimony that is the only one, beside Isbell's that describe the grave at all.
Later at his testimony, in response to cross-examination, Isbell admitted: "I have assisted in employing counsel for the prosecution. I have no feeling of enmity against the accused. I am influenced solely by consideration of public good." This sounds to good to be true and John Foster West (and I) wonder's if it really is the truth. We have no knowledge of James Isbell, neither before or after, having the same feeling of consideration for the public good. So I think that there is reason to believe, that Isbell wanted Tom to be convicted.
In his final speech at the gallows Tom even accused Isbell for having perjured himself at the trial. How he could have done that avoid our eyes today unles he said something, that is not known in what remains of the testimonies. In his first testimony he simply stated that the map used as Exibit A in the trial was drawn by him and was a faithful representaton of the locations, and that he was well acquainted with the neighborhood. He also stated that Wilson Foster lived in Caldwell County and that Tom Dooly and the Meltons lived in Wilkes County and that Elk Creek served as the county line. Not much to commit perjury about here! In his next testimony he told the above mentioned story of how the grave was found and how the body was dressed. He also told about previous searches, like when the rope was found and the supposed place of murder was discovered near Bates Place. He adds something about muddy footprints being discovered near Francis Melton's place, but it's not sure if this was during preliminary search or after the body was found. The only thing he adds is that Laura Foster was the only female that had disappeared from the neighborhood and that Tom Dooley was the only person that had left the area. We know of course, that Pauline Foster also disappeared but she returned later. Again there is nothing much to commit perjury about in this statement. Unless of course it was about how the grave was found, but that is unlikely, as more people were present at the search even if they were actually not present at the gravesite at the time of the discovery, and as Tom was not, he would have no idea if James lied in court. Therefore we have to believe that there must have been further testimonies from Isbell, that does not exist today. What he may have told in such is impossible to say, but as Tom singled Isbell out just before he was hanged, we must believe that it must have been something very incriminating to Tom. If this is the case, we must accept at least that it was not only "for the consideration of public good", that Isbell did what he did.
But then, why did Isbell go to all that trouble to find Laura's body, and then get Tom convicted for the murder? We simply don't know today, and everything is left to speculation. I can think of a couple of reasons though. One of course is that James Isbell lied when he said that he "had no enmity against the accused" (Tom), and that he maybe wanted to get rid of him. Most books and other sources about the matter, tend to believe that Isbell and Tom did not know each other before Laura disappeared (or they don't go into the matter at all). Maybe they didn't know each other well, but at least they must have known of each other's existence, as James Isbell's wife (see the article Supporting Cast) was Tom's second cousin and according to Foster West also James himself was a second cousin of Tom's. So maybe they knew each other better than what is known from the trial records? And maybe James had something against Tom, or maybe he wanted revenge. But for what? One thing would be obvious. James's wife was about Tom's age, and Tom was a ladies man. If he could walk to German's Hill, then maybe he could also walk to King's Creek to visit his cousin? If he did, and James found out, there would be a good reason for James to want to get rid of Tom, and what better way than have him hanged for murder?
But if James just wanted Tom arrested and hanged for the murder, then someone must still have killed Laura Foster. I have already ruled out Tom himself, Ann and Pauline and left only someone that was not suspected like Wilson Foster. Maybe Wilson Foster did kill his daughter, and for some reason told James Isbell, who used this knowledge to his own advantage. This last part is of course based on pure spekulation, as will the next part be.
If James himself killed Laura Foster or had her killed, then why did he do it? Again we don't know, but most people today think that Laura was quite attractive - and rather easy "to get in contact with", so maybe James had an affair with her. It was not unheard of even then that a married man had an affair with the hired help. If this was the case and Isbell was infected with syphilis, he would have much more reason to kill Laura than Tom had, as he 1) was married and had children, 2) belonged to the upper class where such a disease could be fatal in more ways than one. The Isbells were neighbor's to Dr. Carter, so maybe James talked the medic into treating him? Because of the doctor's confidentiallity rule he couldn't tell anyone and belonging to the same class as James Isbell and maybe even being friends with him he may not even have wanted to, if he could. If James was infected with syphilis he must have been one of the patients where the disease either not developed into the third stage or did so very late - or maybe he was one of the about 80 percent, that survived third stage syphilis as he was alive at least in 1910 when he last appeared in the census records.
Let me get back to Pauline Foster. When she was arrested she told a story of how Ann had taken her to the grave site: "On one occasion after Dula was in jail on this charge, at the instance of Ann Melton, I started with her from the house of James Melton. We went by Lotty Foster's, crossed the Reedy Branch, went through and old field onto a ridge up to a log. Here Ann Melton picked up an apron full of leaves and placed them on a place by the log that appeared to have been rooted about. The place where we stopped was hundred yards or a little more from the grave as it was afterwards discovered. We where going in that direction when I became frightened and refused to proceed." In his own testimony James Isbell stated: "We went with her (Pauline) to the ridge, came to the log, saw where dirt had been removed. This was the spot where she stated she stopped following Ann Melton. After half an hours search we found the grave seventy-five yards from this place." What if this was a lie? What if Ann never took Pauline to the gravesite? If she did I see no reason that Pauline should have been afraid to walk the final 100 yards to the actual gravesite. But maybe she was never there. Maybe someone who knew where the body was buried told her so. If he told Pauline that he knew a way she could save her self and maybe earn some money to help her with further treatment of her disease, I think she would have agreed. For some reason this person could not explain the exact position of the grave (even though he of course knew himself), but he could explain the way to the log and this is why Pauline wasn't able to show the search party any further. Maybe the person in question was James Isbell who apparently had some influence in Wilkes County as well as in Caldwell where he lived and maybe in Iredell as well. If he knew where the body was buried it would have been easy for him, to get his father-in-law's horse to snort at the right moment.
Also Isbell would have the means of getting someone to do the actual killing and/or pay off witnesses. If was responsible for Laura's murder, he would have an interest in blaming it on someone else, like Tom Dooley, and he would also have an interest in getting Tom convicted.
In the articles in The Records of Wilkes (Internet edition) from 2001 leading up to the request to the Governor of North Carolina to have Tom acquitted of the murder it is hinted that the judge of the first trial, Ralph P. Buxton wrote a letter to the judge in the second trial William M. Shipp asking him to leave out certain testimonies in order to ensure, that Tom was convicted. I have never seen such a letter, but if it did actually exist the it is very strange. Why should a judge do that. Except maybe for his own sake. If Tom was convicted, it would seem that no mistakes were made in the trial Buxton presided. For some reason there was only 5 testimonies for the defense (and rather short testimonies at that) among the ones Buxton sent to the Supreme Court but about 20 for the prosecution. So maybe, just maybe Buxon wanted Tom convicted. But why should judge Buxton have any interest in getting Tom convicted and executed? None as far as I can see. Unless of course someone influenced him to do so. And could this someone have been James Isbell, Justice of Peace in King's Creek, Member of the State Legislature and rather wealthy.
The next speculation is also not founded on anything but my own imagination. There has always been some mystery of what made Zebulon Vance become Tom's defense attorney. Some say he did it because Tom was a war hero, but that is not likely. There were many other war heros accused of crimes, that he didn't defend. Sharyn McCrumb thinks the court ordered him to do it pro bono, but the court couldn't do that and if they just asked him why select a newly established lawyer from Charlotte, when there were many other local lawyers with more experience, even if they had not been governors. And why would Vance accept? Karen Wheeling Reynolds thinks that he was lured into it by colonel James C. Horton and store owner Calvin Cowles, both friends of his. They tricked him by making him believe that Tom served in hs old regiment, by there was no reason for them to do so. Horton was not mentioned once during trial and even though he appeared as a witness, his testimony was not important enough to be sent to the Supreme Court. Cowles was not even living in Elkville anymore when the Dula case took place. According to Historical sketches of Wilkes County, he left Elkville in 1858 and moved to Wilkesboro. Some speculate that Vance's reason was purely political. The members of the prosecution were former political rivals and I think that politics may have played some part in this, but but definately not the only part. I have spoken with a descendant of Zebulon Vance and she told me that the family story goes, that he took the case because he owed someone a favor and that this favor was called in by asking him tgo defend Tom Dooley. Unfortunately my source didn't know who the favor was owed to, but what if this someone was actually James Isbell? He had been an officer as well as Zebulon Vance even if different regiments. They had both left the Confederate Army to go into politics Vance to become Governor of North Carolina and Isbell to become a member of the legislature. So he could have helped Vance somewhere along the way. And as Vance was a newly started lawyer with no income he could have paid him to take the case.
But why should Isbell want to get Tom a good lawyer? Maybe to get him convicted! If he could talk Vance into taking the case, Tom would have what seemed like very good representation, and if Isbell could talk Vance into not to be too good in the defense in the same time as he (Isbell) ensured a strong prosecution as well as one or two paid of witnesses, he could ensure that Tom was not acquitted. And even if Vance apparently did his best, there still are some things that he might have done more about in his defense, like the discrepansies of the date of the murder, and more. I will get back to that in a later article.
We know that Tom confessed to the murder the day before the execution. In writing! But he kept it a secret until he was dead and even at the gallows he still denied having anything to do with the murder. Strange? I think so. According to the New York Herald article, Tom Dooley had a good supper the evening before his execution. Previously he had received a note from his mother, urging him to tell truth, so that she would be satisfied about his guilt or innocense, but he wouldn't admit anything. Later he spoke and laughed with the jailor who was about to leave him, when he discovered that Tom shackles was loose. It interesting to know that Tom was shackled even if he was in a locked cell, and also the guards had been reinforced during his trial, so he was apparently considered a desperate and dangerous man. A court order had been made when Tom was transferred to Iredell County jail in Statesville, ordering a heavy reinforcement of the guard: "It appears to the satisfaction of the Court that the insecurity of the jail of said county requires an additional guard for the safe keeping of the prisoner Thomas Dula in said prison. It is therefore ordered by the Court that a guard of eight men be allowed the sheriff of said county for the safe keeping of the prisoner Thomas Dula." Apparently sheriff William Wasson (or someone else with influence) was afraid that Tom might escape. We know from a page of Sheriff Wasson's notebook from October 1867, that Tom was not the only prisoner in the jail. There also was William Sheffrey, arrested for horse stealing, John Mayo, arrested for stealing, Joe Black, arrested for stealing, and Pallosan, a black freedman, that had escaped from jail on the very same day as Wasson wrote the entry in his notebook. Pallosan was 22, a bit younger than Tom Dooley and he escaped "by using force over the jailor". So the extra guards must have been very focused on Tom, or they may have been sent home at this time, since they didn't help the jailor when he was attacked.
Anyway Tom told the jailor that the shackle had been loose for over a month. The jailor replaced the shackles and left Tom alone.
The newspaper article continues: "Being last left for the night by the jailor, he requested that Mr. Allison, one of his counsel being sent for, and while charging him with the strictest injunctions to secrecy while he was living, handed him the following written in a rude manner with a pencil: '- Statement of Thomas C. Dula - I declare that I am the only person that had any hand in the murder of Laura Foster. - April 30th 1868.' Beside this he had written a lengthy statement of his life but without reference to the murder, which was intended as an exhortation to young men to live virtuously, and not to be let astray in paths of vice as he was. There was nothing remarkable in this document though it covered fifteen pages."
There is a couple of quite interesting things in this part of the article. First and foremost, how did Tom learn to write enough to be able to write not only the confession, but also a 15 page statement of his life? Not many of the lower class people in and around Elkville knew how to read and/or write. This is stated in he census records. James and Ann Melton could neither read nor write in 1870. Lotty Foster and her children could not read nor write. James and Celia Scott could neither read nor write and even some of the upper class people was illiterates. Anna Dula, married to Thomas M. Dula, one of the wealthy landowners, could read but not write. Another wealthy landowner, William Dula could only read, and his wife Sarah could neither read nor write and I could keep on with lots and lots of names. As goes for Tom Dooley he could not even write his own name when he was released from the POW camp in June 1865, but had to sign his Oath of Allegience with an "x". In 1866 when Zebulon Vance asked for a change of venue, Tom once again signed the affidavit with an "x". This means that Tom, while in prison should have learned to read and write so well, that he was able to write down the story of his life. This simply doesn't sound possible as he was not allowed much contact with the "outer world". And as Ann in the next cell was illiterate too, he couldn't have learned it from her. If it had only been the confession, someone could have shown him how to write it. But not with a 15 page statement. So maybe someone did him a favor and wrote it down for him?
Unfortunately the statement of Tom's life has disappeared and we don't know what was in it. But if the newspaper article was right and Tom was a reckless desperado, why then warn other young men "not to do what he had done"* as sung in the old song, "The House of the Rising Sun"? There is no reason to believe that a man so "reckless and demoralized and a man of whom the people in in his vicinity had a terror" as the paper described him, should write anything like that. And if that was what he meant, why didn't he mention it at all in his final speech. To me it sounds more like someone trying to use Tom's life and death, to incite young men to lead a righteous life. And I don't think that someone was Tom Dooley.
* Almost. The original quote is: "Now tell my baby sister, not to do what I have done. But shun that house in New Orleans, they call the Rising Sun".
Secondly I ask myself why Tom should confess at all, no matter if he killed Laura or not, or especially if he didn't kill her like I believe? The only reasons I can see, is if he actually thought that Ann Melton killed her, and wanted to save her from the gallows. If he really loved her, it would be "the right thing to do" in the eyes of a gentleman. And even if Tom was not a gentleman, he may have loved Ann so much that he would save her anyway. If he on the other hand didn't believe she did it, there was no obvious reason for him to confess. Unless someone paid him to do it. Not with money of course as that was not important. But maybe someone persuaded him to confess and in return promised to take care of his mother and sister, when he was dead?
Another interesting thing is the wording of the confession itself. It would have been much easier just to write: I killed Laura Foster and Ann Melton did not help me" or "Ann Melton had nothing to do with Laura Foster's murder, I did it alone" or something like that. When Tom was executed, the only other person accused was Ann Melton, Toms long-time lover, so why not focus on getting her of the hook if he so wanted? Why wasn't he more specific? In stead the confession is written as a general pardon or "Get out of Jail Free Card" to be used by anyone who could later be accused of the murder, like maybe James Isbell! If somebody ever would suspect he had something to do with the murder, he was already acquitted by Tom's confession. And by the way, if Tom could write, why didn't he sign the confession? And why was he so intent on keeping the confession a secret until he was dead? It could not have mattered much, and might have eased the burden of his mother and family if they had known the truth before he died. And apparently it didn't last long before Mr. Allison showed the confession to someone, because the paper could quote it the day after the execution. Therefore Allison must have shown it to the reporter right after Tom was declared dead. Why not wait until he could show it to Zebulon Vance, the leading defense attorney? He had probably long since returned to Charlotte, which would be a good reason for Tom to send for Allison, a local based lawyer in stead, but Vance probably would be present for the execution. If not Allison still ought to have shown him the confession before anyone else.
But why did Tom send for Allison at all if he hadn't written the confession or the life story? Maybe he didn't. We only have the newspapers word for that, and the journalist must have gotten this information from Allison himself. So maybe it was Allison that looked up Tom, not the other way round, so he could later explain, how he got the confession. To cut it short I don't think Tom wrote the confession or even knew about it. That was why Allison had to keep it a secret until Tom was dead, so that he could not object to the confession, when it was published. Now why should Allison produce a false confession, no matter if he wrote it himself or not? Allison was a captain of the 2nd North Carolina Cavalry during the Civil War, so he probably never met neither Vance nor Isbell during the war, as 2nd Infantry didn't participate in any of the battles in the beginning of the war that the two infantry regiments did. He may have got to know them later though, when Isbell was elected to the legislature and Vance became governor, so maybe Allison just wrote the confession (or received an already written one) and published it when he was certain that nobody could protest.
Ann's alledged confession
Later legends know that after Tom's death Ann confessed to the murder. So many legends that this has now become part of the "truth". How and to whom she confessed though is not quite clear.
A obviously legendary story tells that after Tom's death, Ann Melton married sheriff Bob Grayson and at her death bed she told him someihing so horryfying, that he left the county and settled in Tennessee. We know of course that this story can't be true as Ann was married to James Melton from 1859 to her death in the beginning or middle of the 1870es, so she didn't marry anyone after Tom's death. But there are other stories of the confession.
According to Ralph Rinzler, famous folksinger and musician Doc Watson's great grandmother Betsy Triplett Watson (a relative of Lotty Foster maybe?) was present at Ann Melton's death bed. Here Ann had told her: "If I knew I would never get well again, there is something I would tell you about Tom's hanging." Ann also told Betsy that she could see the flames of Hell at the foot of her bed. Why Betsy Watson was called to Ann's death bed we don't know. Doc Watson tells that they were neighbors and they may have been, but no Watson home is shown on James Isbell's map and in 1880 they lived in Stony Fork in Watauga County about ten miles noth of Elkville, but of course the family can have lived much closer six or seven years before. Unfortunately the rest of Doc Watson's story is very far from what really happened, but the confession may be true anyway. Only it didn't tgell anything about Ann committing the murder, only that she knew something about his hanging, that she didn't want to tell unles she was sure to die. This indicates to me that she was afraid of something. She didn't had to fear being put to trial again, because of the deoble jeopardy clause in the 5th Amendment to the Constitution, she could not be tried twice for the same crime, once acquitted, so she must have feared something else. But what? I will get bac to that below.
According to UNCTV.org Ann confessed something to Dr. Carter under a pledge of confidentiality. As Dr. Carter kept his promise, we don't know what she confessed, but from that day on, Dr. Carter maintained that Tom was innocent. Another story has, that Dr. Carter at a later date, had told his son, also a physician, that during her syphilis treatments, Ann Melton had told him something, that would have saved Tom Dooley from the gallows, but that he could never tell anyone what it was.
According to Daniel Barefoot in "Haints of the Hills" Ann died in 1873 and before her death she sendt for Dr. Carter (not Betsy Watson). He confirmed that she was about to die. Then she requested that James Melton was send in alone. Here she confessed to him, "but exactly what it was she confided in James, will never be known, for both husband and wife took it to their graves". Barefoot continues though: "Rumor was that she said to him, what she had said in the past to a few ladies in the neighborhood - that she had killed Laura and allowed Tom to die for the crime." So even if Barefoot acknowledges that nobody knows what was said between the two, all the same he suggests what it was.
If we disregard the first version, that included the non-existing Bob Grayson, that leaves us with three different stories. And these stories exists in several versions, that differs a bit from each other, or combine the stories above. Some of the versions even add more knowledge of what Ann actually said. A problem arises, if we look at the three stories quoted here. In none of them did Ann actually confess anything. Not in one of them did she say "It was me that killed Laura Foster, not Tom Dooley." She only told "something" and no matter who she told it to, Dr. Carter or her husband, kept it a secret. Only Betsy Watson told others what Ann had said, and that was actually nothing. Ann just told Mrs. Watson that she knew something about Tom's hanging. And that could be anything. Maybe she knew that Tom was innocent, but she might as well have known that he survived the hanging and later escaped! Or that the sheriff didn't wash his hands, or that Tom's mother was present. There is no reason to believe, that she would have confessed to the murder. If she really was afraid to tell, because se may have survived, it must be something that could be damaging to someone else, not herself. And not just a simple someone, but someone that had the power to hurt her or maybe her daughters or other family, should she have survived.
This explanation could be used for the third version as well, and explain why James Melton also kept it a secret after Ann's death. And Barefoot's own suggestion of what she might have said could be right of course, but it could just as well be absolutely wrong. If Ann told Dr. Carter anything under a doctor patient privilege he could have told after her death, what she had confided in him. Provided of course that it only concerned herself. If it concerned a third party he could not, so we have to accept, that she just didn't confess to the crime. But maybe she told him, who actually killed Laura Foster and let Tom take the blame. If this was someone of the lower class in the hills above Elkville, I'm sure Ann would have told someone else as well. So I think it may have involved one or more persons from the upper class near the river. Like maybe James Isbell. Maybe Ann discovered something after Laura's disappearance, and maybe she confronted the person, she found out about. She probably wouldn't have restrained herself if a little extortion was possible, and she could have ensured that her daughters got a better life than herself, or of course that she herself got a better life. Or she may simply have been threatened never to tell what she knew. Or maybe she wanted the doctor to tell, but he didn't dare. The possibilities are legio and they are all based on the dubious fact, that Ann actually had something to confess, which we will never know if she had.