The Ballad of Tom Dooley

A Ballad Novel

Ballad Novels

Sharyn McCrumb

Thomas Dunne Books

THE BALLAD OF TOM DOOLEY

What did I know about murder cases that a man’s life should lie in my hands? I had spent the whole of my adult life in politics, except for a few years on a mountain circuit court, a decade before that trial. A war ago.

This tale is not a penny-dreadful thriller, penned by the likes of Mr. Wilkie Collins. Look elsewhere for clues and footprints and the trappings of a puzzle story—and go to the devil if you try to make this tale into one.

A case of law is a chess game for those who make their living at it, and a great sorrow for those who get caught up in its web.

A man died bravely, doing perhaps the only noble thing he ever achieved in his brutal, useless life. Another fifty years of living would not have improved him, for he had only a minute’s worth of courage, and he spent that.

That is the burden of this story, and it would shine brighter if there were a good woman at hand with the heart and the wit to tell it well. But we have no good woman to speak out for the doomed man—only a vain and selfish ditch rose, who rightly feared for her own life, and a raddled slut who delighted in the destruction she wrought single-handed. One of those wretched women is also my client, for the pair was arrested together, and bound over to stand trial for the same crime, but I had deemed it better for all concerned that they be tried separately for this deed, and I vowed to ask for severance as soon as I was able.

The young soldier was the first to face the judge, and it was he that I was concerned with at the outset. I would do what I could for him.

People will tell this story for a century, though I’m damned if I know why. There’s little enough to it. No doubt they will sing about it, and spin fanciful tales, and act it out, turning all its principals into Sunday-school sweethearts and black-hearted villains. It will all be nonsense. At least I remember what was real.

I remember.

*   *   *

I am weary and garrulous in my old age, sitting by the fire in my fine Washington home, and thinking back twenty-odd years, to when I was domiciled here in the old Capitol Prison, instead of in the United States Senate, where I have been nigh on ever since. I have been paging through my personal papers, idly speculating about whether I should like to write my memoirs someday. They would make interesting reading, though I do say so myself. One might trace my progress from backwoods farm boy to country lawyer, to Congressman, and then to Colonel of the 26th North Carolina during the War. I saw action on the front lines in Virginia. That was about as much soldiering as I cared to experience, so when the opportunity arose, I got myself elected Governor. From the Governor’s Palace in Raleigh, I sat out the remainder of the hostilities, skirmishing with bureaucrats and trying to protect the people of my state from both armies. They clapped me in prison here in Washington at the War’s end, for my trouble, but I didn’t take it personally—all the governors were there, so I did not lack for society. In a few weeks, they let us all out again, and I went home to a state made so desolate by war that my own personal ruin hardly mattered. I began again.

I had to practice a little law after the War ended, before those same trifling government bureaucrats saw fit to let me back into the congress I had unwillingly left when my home state seceded. I do not mean to ever leave Congress again. I shall die here, protecting the interests of my fellow Tarheels for as long as God grants me breath and strength.

A fine row house in the District of Columbia city is a far cry from my birthplace—a log cabin in the Carolina backcountry—but from my boyhood I could see my way clear to getting here as surely as I could see that blue haze of mountains that walled us off from the state of Tennessee. I come of good stock, though you might not think it, for we looked no more prosperous or cultured than most of our frontier neighbors, but my father’s father had fought in the Revolution. He wintered at Valley Forge with General Washington, and fought alongside him at Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth. I am proudest, though, of the fact that he fought closer to home—at King’s Mountain on the South Carolina border, just west of Charlotte. In 1780 a group of backcountry volunteers, calling themselves The Overmountain Men, engaged the British forces there, and defeated them in an hour, killing their commander, and proving that untrained colonials could defeat the mighty British army. George Washington’s troops were losing the War to the north, and that little victory on a Carolina hillside proved to the rest of the country that winning was possible. It was the turning point of the War, and I was proud that my family had been part of it.

On that little mountain farm where I grew up, we plowed furrows, and slopped hogs, and hewed firewood, but we were never allowed to forget that we were destined for greater things. My grandfather had left a library of five hundred books, and my mother read to us each night when the chores were done. My father died young, though, and so the way to prosperity was a steep and thorny path for us. I got some schooling over in Tennessee at Washington College, so that I had the rudiments of Latin, and composition, debate, and ancient history, but my father’s death ended that idyll, and before long I was clerking in a fine resort hotel in Warm Springs. That, too, was an education, though. It was a zoo for the aristocracy, and I learned to pass muster as one of them.

I read law in Asheville, and then begged and borrowed the funds to take me to the University of North Carolina for the formal study of law. I meant to get elected to something before long, and so I did, but for a few years in my youth I practiced law on the circuit court out of Asheville. There was little in those experiences worth mentioning in a senator’s memoirs.

But this Wilkes County case … That came later in my career, and in it, I was defending a man on trial for his life. I had thought of including the tale in my memoirs, because it became quite a celebrated trial. The New York Herald even sent a reporter down to cover it. But the public finds it hard to recognize success or skill if one ultimately loses the case, so perhaps I will not include it, after all. I have had enough adventures for two lifetimes, without telling that sad little tale.

That Wilkes County court case constituted my brief hiatus from public life, falling in 1866, when, having been the Confederate Governor of North Carolina, I was barred from running for public office yet awhile, so, when they let me out of Capitol Prison with the rest of the Rebel governors, I bided my time and supported Harriette and the boys by returning to the practice of law. Perhaps I thought that my renown and popularity would make up for any deficiencies I might have in my long-disused courtroom skills.

The law was never much more than a means to an end for me, anyhow. I was always happy to help people escape what was coming to them, which is mostly what a defense attorney does, but from the very beginning I was only marking time until I got elected to something. But for the War, I would have never looked back.

*   *   *

A frail girl was stabbed to death in the foothills of Wilkes County, and nigh on everybody there knows who did it. Well, I didn’t know. I was practicing law in Charlotte, some ninety miles away, and I was only called in to defend the man they had arrested, a complete stranger to me, despite what people have said to the contrary over the years. He was a Confederate veteran, as was I, but we never served together, and would not have been acquainted even if we had, for I began and ended my military service as a colonel, and he stayed a sickly private and a drummer boy. We were worlds apart, except perhaps to people who looked at our lives on paper.

This twenty-two-year-old former soldier got himself arrested, and I in my infinite wisdom got the trial moved to the next county, where nobody knew any more about it than I did. My intentions were good. And I suppose I could not have done otherwise, even if I had been more in possession of the facts. In the end, a lawyer must do his client’s bidding, and I did that.

God help us both. I did that.

*   *   *

I expect that in years to come there will be more people wondering why I took this case than there will be wondering if he did it.

Oh, why did I agree to represent a man, generally accorded by my learned colleagues in the legal profession to be guilty, who could not have paid for a shot of whiskey, much less an attorney for his defense? An idle, amoral Confederate veteran, accused of stabbing a young girl to death and burying her body in the woods.

Well, somebody had to represent him. Any country lawyer will tell you that. If we managed to get Satan himself into a courtroom, it would be some lawyer’s lot to defend him, and to argue, no doubt, that he is a hard-working fellow.

But why me?

I don’t know that I had any choice in the matter. The Wilkes County judge appointed me, and ordered me to defend this young man pro bono. It is a fine sentiment, pro bono. For the public good and in the interest of justice, a lawyer can be assigned to an indigent defendant, and he must represent his client completely without charge. This ensures that the poor are accorded a defense, but it can be hard lines on a struggling attorney, and I expect that the temptation would be great to rush through the case, and move on to more lucrative matters. A man’s life is at stake, though; if I shirked my duty in so grave a matter as this, I would never sleep again.

I don’t suppose the judge pulled my name out of a hat. He could have found lawyers a-plenty in the surrounding counties without reaching all the way to Charlotte to fetch one. Perhaps he intended the appointment as a favor. Here was I forced to practice law, but lacking in experience, and perhaps he thought that a notorious murder trial would set my name before the general public, so that people would queue up to retain my services for their legal requirements.

I am sensible of the honor, but I could scarcely afford the opportunity. There I was, former Governor of the state of North Carolina, and before that a U.S. Congressman, and, in-between, for a few ill-considered months, a colonel in the Army of the Confederacy, and, only incidentally, an attorney licensed to practice law in my home state. I never thought I’d be called upon to do so again after all the loftier honors I had achieved. Indeed, I hoped not, but our fortunes shift like the tides, and the fall of the Confederacy had left me high and dry, penniless, jobless, and free only on the sufferance of the United States President. In those days I was rich only in friends.

From the corridors of power to a stuffy little courtroom in a town in Iredell County that is only on the map two days a week. When I charted the course of my life, that was an unforeseen development, but there I was.

If I should ever have the ear of posterity, it would take me a good many words to talk my way out of that one. But I am both a lawyer and a politician. Words are my stock in trade. This story, though, will be omitted from my memoirs. After all, for all the protracted nature of the legal proceedings, the case only took up a few days of my time, and its outcome did me no credit. It is a mere footnote in the long and illustrious history of a dedicated public servant. I shall not speak of it.

From time to time, though, that poor wretch crosses my mind, and before I force my thoughts on to other things, I repress a shudder, and think, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

*   *   *

I was born beyond the pale of gentrified civilization, as was that young man in the dock on trial for his life. You might think that coincidence of circumstance would have made for common ground between him and me, but the truth is that we could not have been farther apart had one of us been born on the moon. My childhood poverty was only in material want, but in heritage, intellect, learning, and morality, my family had wealth beyond avarice.

For reasons I am at a loss to explain, this Wilkes County case became a cause celebre among the national press, and I fear that whenever people read about the sordid circumstances of these wretched people, they will attempt to tar all the inhabitants of the Carolina mountains with the same brush, which is hard lines on the honest and educated people who choose to live in those mountains. In defense of my fellow countrymen, I offer up the example of my own life.

The Ballad of Tom Dooley Copyright © 2011 by Sharyn McCrumb.