Margaret Reynolds - Letters concerning Margaret Reynolds and Tom Dula
Letters Within Series
Margaret Caroline Reynolds, called Maggie by her family, was born 29 September 1846 in Mocksville, North Carolina. Her parents were Reuben Reynolds and Laura C. Sanford; it is believed that Laura Sanford Reynolds died subsequent to April 1848 and prior to August 1850, when Margaret would have been two or three years old. Margaret was married in 1870 to Andrew Carson Cowles, a farmer, businessman, and a state legislator.
Maggie Reynolds was a first cousin of Margaret Isabella Reynolds, known as Bell, who authored one letter in the Archive. The "Bell" letter also mentions the execution of Tom Dula.
THE "TOM DULA" LETTER
The Margaret Reynolds letter was originally grouped with the Cowles family letters since Andrew Carson Cowles, a congressman and senator in the North Carolina Legislature during Reconstruction, was Margaret’s husband. Indeed, Margaret writes with displeasure that the North Carolina Constitution has likely been ratified, a process in which her husband and the Cowles family were actively, if not agreeably, involved. To place her letter with the rest of the Cowles family letters would have been a logical placement had the letter not contained the name–“Tom Dula”--otherwise known by most baby boomers as “Tom Dooley,” as in “Hang down your head, Tom Dooley.” Tom, who is the principal character about whom Miss Reynolds writes, and who is to shortly make a rather rapid descent through the trap door of the Statesville gallows, is none other than Tom Dula, the real-life character of whom the Kingston Trio sang in their 1950s hit. As it turns out it is a true story, perhaps glorified in song, but nonetheless it was an actual murder that took place on Friday, 25 May 1866 in Wilkes County, North Carolina. In fact, the following article written by Doug McClung and published in Graham County’s newspaper, the Graham Star, is an account of the events surrounding the case.
THE STORY OF TOM DULA AND LAURA FOSTER
As published in the Graham Star
Graham County, North Carolina
“The story of Tom Dooley might well have faded into the pages of history and been forgotten had it not been for the ballad that became a major hit for the Kingston Trio on Capitol Records. The ballad had been recorded earlier in the 1950’s. Many people are familiar with the song which starts with “Hang down your head Tom Dooley, hang down your head and cry.” Many may have thought it was just a song, but it actually happened in northwestern North Carolina in Wilkes County. Tom Dooley was actually Tom Dula. Dula was pronounced “Dooley” in the ballad as it is often by mountain people.
Early on the morning of May 25, 1866, Laura Foster was awakened by Tom Dula at her bedroom window. Tom and Laura had been intimate lovers since their mid-teens. This was no secret to the community. They were both 21 years of age at this time. After a brief conversation, Tom left and Laura dressed, got a change of clothes, and left on her father’s horse, not taking time to saddle it. (For a map see image 1) Following a road along the Yadkin River, Laura met Betsy Scott who did the washing for the people in the community. Laura told Betsy that she was supposed to meet Tom at the Bates place, and that they were going to be married. There were rumors that Laura was pregnant at the time. It was the last time that anyone other than her killer or killers would see Laura Foster alive. The Bates place Laura referred to was six miles from her home. Laura lived in Caldwell County, but the Bates place was in Wilkes County. It had once been a blacksmith shop, but was now abandoned and overgrown with weeds and bushes.
The third part of the so-called “love triangle” was Ann Foster Melton, a cousin of Laura Foster. Ann and Tom were also intimate lovers and Ann was fiercely jealous of Laura as she had let it be known on several occasions. On the day before Laura left home, Tom had gone to Ann’s parents to borrow a mattock. Later that day, Ann got a quart of bootleg whiskey. That afternoon, she and Tom left and were gone all that night. Ann was seen later the next morning wearing wet clothing as if she had been outside overnight.
Later that day, Laura’s father, Wilson Foster, came to the Melton’s home looking for her. The next day, the horse that Laura had ridden showed up at home, part of a chewed tether line still attached to it, indicating that the horse had been tied up so long that it had chewed the line in order to free itself.
A month went by with no clue as to the whereabouts of Laura Foster. Suspicions began to brew that Tom Dula had something to do with her disappearance, so much so, that he decided to flee to Tennessee. Tom left, changed his last name to Hall, and went to work on the James Grayson farm at Trade, Tennessee.
In late June, although no body had been found, Pickens Carlton, a Justice of the Peace in Elkville (See image 2), issued an arrest warrant for Tom Dula. Two Wilkes County deputies, Jack Adkins and Ben Ferguson, went to the Grayson farm to pick Tom up. Tom had left shortly before the deputies arrived, so Grayson accompanied them in their pursuit. They overtook Tom at Pandora in the Doe Valley community, nine miles from Mountain City on a road leading to Johnson City, Tennessee. Tom surrendered without incident and was taken to the jail in Wilkesboro, N.C.
In early August, Ann Foster Melton approached her Cousin Pauline Foster weeping and concerned that Tom might be hanged. Ann told Pauline “I want to show you Laura’s grave. They have just about quit looking for her.” She spoke about digging up the body and reburying it in the garden or cutting it into pieces and disposing of them. They then went from her home past a relative’s house, then down a hill, across Stony Fork Road and across Reedy Branch. From there, they climbed up what is now called Laura Foster Ridge. Pauline refused to go on up to the grave which Ann said was between some trees and laurel bushes.
Near the end of August, after having made many remarks in public about knowing where Laura Foster was buried, Pauline was picked up for questioning. She told authorities of the visit to the woods with her cousin Ann, and agreed to take them to the area.
Horse Led Searchers to Grave
On September 1, searchers spread out and began combing the woods in the area Pauline Foster led them to. After the search had been in progress for some time, one of the searcher’s horses shied away from a certain spot. After probing in what appeared to be a mound of soft earth, the body of a woman that appeared to be Laura Foster was found in the grave a little over two feet deep. A bundle of extra clothing was lying on the body. Further examination was conducted by Dr. George Carter at the site. Dr. Carter found that there was a cut place in the dead woman’s dress over her left breast. Further examination revealed a deep stab wound between the third and fourth ribs. Dr. Carter identified the woman as Laura Foster.
Tom Dula was defended in court by former North Carolina Governor Zebulon D. Vance. Vance was successful in getting the trial moved to Statesville. Tom was eventually found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. Tom had written and signed a statement that he alone had killed Laura Foster, stabbing her in the chest with a six inch bowie knife, and dragging her body to a grave he had dug earlier. On May 1, 1868, Tom Dula was hung on gallows in Statesville, not “in some lonesome valley from a white oak tree” as in the ballad. Tom had ridden to the gallows on a cart with his own coffin. The hanging did not instantly break Tom’s neck as was supposed to happen. Instead, according to witnesses, it took a good ten minutes for him to choke to death.
Ann Foster Melton was tried in a later term of court as an accomplice in the murder of Laura Foster, and was acquitted, even though she had been held in jail for two years. Apparently, Ann Melton took any knowledge of Laura Foster’s murder with her to her own grave. Stories persist that she confessed on her deathbed and spoke of seeing black cats climbing the walls, and hearing the flesh of condemned souls frying in hell. She died in the mid 1870’s.
Laura Foster is buried near Highway 268 close to Ferguson in Wilkes County. Her headstone reads, "Laura Foster Murdered in May 1865 (it should read 1866), Tom Dula Hanged for Crime." Tom Dula is buried on Tom Dula Road (Highway 1134), across the Yadkin River from Ferguson. His headstone reads: Tom Dula Hanged for The Murder of Laura Foster. Ann Melton, although found not guilty, was thought by many to have helped kill and bury Laura Foster. Ann is buried near Old Stony Fork Road now called Gladys’s Fork Road (N.C. Highway 1159).”
By Marshall McClung
Graham Star Correspondent
I would like to thank Jerry Dagenhart for the pictures he provided me of his great grand uncle, Pickens Carlton, a Justice of the Peace in Elkville who issued the arrest warrant for Dula. He also provided a copy of the map that was used in the courtroom during Dula’s trial.
Anyone interested in this letter are encouraged to look at the correspondence of Andrew Cowles and Bell Reynolds.
Margaret Reynolds was the daughter of Reuben Reynolds (b. about 1813) and Laura C. Sanford (b. 2 August 1827). Margaret’s mother was never enumerated in any of the federal censuses as living in the same household as Reuben and Margaret; therefore, it is likely that she died prior to 1850. It is known that Laura and Reuben had a second child, Hugh Sanford Reynolds born 28 April 1848 and who died 9 June 1848, so she was living as of 28 April 1848. What is known is that Reuben and Margaret are living, absent Margaret’s mother, in the household of Hugh Reynolds< Reuben's brother, in the 1850 Census, and that Laura never appears in any subsequent census. To complicate the matter more, Margaret and her husband, Andrew Cowles, are believed to be first cousins, once removed, both descendants of Josiah Cowles. They were married 8 June 1870.
Andrew Carson Cowles was born 12 January 1833 in Hamptonville, North Carolina and died 5 January 1881. Margaret and Andrew had three children: Carrie Bell Cowles (b. 5 May 1871), Reuben Cowles (b. 31 March 1873), Hugh Cowles (b. 17 January 1875).
THE KENNEDY LETTER
This is a letter of sympathy written by Margaret's cousin written shortly after the death of Margaret's daughter, Carrie Bell.
Reuben, 35, and Margaret, 4, are enumerated in the 1850 Census as living in Iredell County and in the household of Hugh Reynolds, 40. Also listed is Jane, 41, who is presumed to be Jane Reid Watts, wife of Hugh Reynolds. Other children listed are Margaret, 15, presumed to be Hugh and Jane’s daughter, Margaret Isabella Reynolds (b. 27 June 1835), who would later marry, Col. Absalom K. Simonton, a civil war soldier killed at the battle of Seven Pines, Virginia. Also living in the household is Amos B. Sanford (18 June 1798, d. 9 July 1873), Margaret’s maternal grandfather.
Reuben, 45, and Margaret 13, are listed in the 1860 Census as living in Iredell County. There are no other members of the household. Reuben’s occupation is farmer.
H. Reynolds, male, 61, and Jane Reynolds, 62, are listed in the 1870 Census in Iredell County and living with J. Simonton, female, 35, and R. Reynolds, male, R. Reynolds, male, 57. H. Reynolds is designated the head of the household and thus, it would seem that this is clearly Hugh and Reuben. (Margaret and Andrew were married in June of 1870; but as of this writing, they have not been located in the 1870 Census). Hugh’s real estate value is noted as $16, 000 and personal value $12,000. Also enumerated with the household is a worker, Dempy Marchison, male, 21, black, and a cook, Milley Bailey, female, 55, black.
A. C. Cowles, 47, Margaret C. Cowles, 32, Carrie B. Cowles, 9, Reuben R. Cowles, 7, Hugh R. Cowles 5, and Mandy Carson 33 are enumerated in the 1880 Census and listed in one household in Iredell County.
(Also listed the 1880 Census in Iredell County is Jane R. Reynolds. She is noted as a widow and the head of household. Living with her is her daughter Margaret Isabella Reynolds Simonton. This seems to secure the date of Hugh Reynolds’ death as prior to June 5, 1880.)
(The death records from North Carolina indicate that Andrew Carson Cowles died in 1881).
Margaret, 53, is living with her father, Reuben, 86, and two of her children, Reuben R. 27 and Hugh R., 25. Living in the household is also Amanda Carson, 53.
Margaret A. Cawles, 63, is listed as living in Iredell County as the head of household, and living with her is Hugh R. Cawles, 35, Eloise N. Cawles, 29, Andrew V. Cawles, 3, Reuben R. Cawles, 2, and Mandy Blackburn, 63. Although the name is spelled with with an a in this Census, it is to be noted that Margaret’s son, Hugh R. Cowles married an Eloise Neely and they had four children; Hugh, who died in 1907 at age 3 and thus prior to this Census, Andrew, Reuben, and Margaret (who was not born until 1914). This undoubtedly is Margaret Reynolds.
North Carolina death records indicate that a Margaret R. Cowles, 91, died 13 June 1938 in Haywood County, North Carolina. The name and age suggest that this was our Margaret.