It’s funny how a song can get into your head for days at a time. That is what happened to a young girl in the fall of 1958. Nine-year-old Charlotte Corbin was sick from a serious bacterial infection and bedridden in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that fall. She had to lie still in a dim room and about the only “entertainment” allowed was an AM radio.
The big hit record of the day, which was played many times on stations all over the country, was a folk song, “The Ballad of Tom Dooley,” performed by a group which called themselves “The Kingston Trio.” Young Charlotte listened to the sad song many times and came to empathize with the subject of the song, Tom Dooley, who was “bound to die.”
It wasn’t until 1988, after she had moved to North Carolina, that Charlotte found out that the Tom Dooley of the folk song had been an actual person, that his real name was Thomas C. Dula and that he had been hanged in Statesville, North Carolina, on May 1, 1868, for the murder of a young Wilkes County girl named Laura Foster. Dula’s two trials and his scheduled execution had attracted an estimated crowd of perhaps 3,000 in the vicinity of Depot Hill in southern Statesville to witness the 23-year-old’s final moments.
Finding out the truth about Dula’s involvement in the Foster murder became Charlotte Corbin Barnes’s hobby, or more accurately, her obsession. Charlotte and her husband Bill Barnes, a videographer and owner of Bill Barnes Video Productions, have searched libraries, frequented museums, hunted down folks to interview and in every way possible have collected pieces of a puzzle now more than 150 years old, a puzzle that even Sherlock Holmes would have found to be a challenge.
Charlotte Barnes may well be the world’s expert on the subject of that folk song she first heard in 1958 and the man behind it.
In 2016, Charlotte published a 485-page, 64-chapter volume on what she had found over some 28 years of research, calling her book, “The Tom Dooley Files: My Search for the Truth Behind the Legend.” She was encouraged in this endeavor by the late Mrs. Edith Ferguson Carter, of Ferguson, Wilkes County, North Carolina - a lady who had devoted much of her own life to preserving and collecting Tom Dooley lore and memorabilia. Edith, the founder of the Whippoorwill Academy and Museum in the small community of Ferguson, passed on the torch, so to speak, to Charlotte, and encouraged Charlotte to publish her findings and then to write a novel about what really happened all those years ago.
The fruit of that torch-passing and encouragement is now available in “Dooley!,” Charlotte Corbin Barnes’s 455-page paperback “factual novel.”
It’s funny how a song can get into your head …
I found her book to be extraordinary and was particularly impressed as to how the author had woven her research into the novel, incorporating the names of local residents into the story and describing Iredell’s County seat in those days less than two years after Gen. Stoneman’s raid through the town and North Carolina Gov. Zeb Vance’s arrest on his 35th birthday on the steps of what is now called “The Vance House.”
It was a time when Statesville and the South were trying to rebuild and not all that long after red rebel battle flags were furled for the last time at a courthouse town in Virginia known as Appomattox and at a small town in eastern North Carolina named Bentonville.