The Ballad of Tom Dooley - By Sharyn McCrumb

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,