The “hangman’s elm” of Washington Square Park

Was the gorgeous elm tree at the northwest corner of Washington Square Park (at left in 1936) used for public executions?

It’s a legend passed down over the years.

On one hand, a Parks Department web link seems to imply that people were indeed hanged from the 110-foot tree, estimated to be at least 300 years old.

“The [sic] English elm (Ulmus procera) at the corner of Waverly Place and MacDougal Street acquired its reputation during the American Revolutionary War,” the site explains. “According to legend, traitors were hung from its branches.”

In 1797, the city acquired the land for a potter’s field. “The field was also used for public executions, giving rise to the tale of the Hangman’s Elm. . . ” another Parks Department link states.

In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette, visiting from France, supposedly witnessed the hanging of 20 highwaymen here in 1824.

Newgate State Prison was just a stone’s throw away on Christopher and 10th Streets; inmates sentenced to death were reportedly walked over and hanged here.

Newspaper archives through the 19th century contain several stories that refer to the “hanging elm.” But perhaps the articles simply repeated the legend.

The only actual recorded execution in the vicinity was of a young woman named Rose Butler, convicted of arson and strung up on a gallows across the street in 1820.

Here’s the story of the city’s other most notorious tree . . . until it was knocked down.

[Top photo: NYPL Digital Collection; middle photo: Wikipedia]

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8 Responses to “The “hangman’s elm” of Washington Square Park”

  1. Rob Says:

    Reblogged this on West Village Food.

  2. billybeyond Says:

    Reblogged this on billy beyond's blog and commented:

  3. Michael Ballaban Says:

    Fascinating… you might like the post I did about Washington Square Park a few weeks back:

  4. Sexy Ghosts in the City: Pagan Pride 2013 Says:

    […] was used as a “potter’s field,” for those less fortunate. The park is also home to the “hanging tree,” said to be the oldest tree in the city. I will be discussing all this, magic and more at my […]

  5. Herzog von Otter Says:

    West 10th Street was called Amos Street when the Newgate Prison stood between Christopher Street and present-day W. 10th Street.

  6. Debi Rotmil Says:

    Reblogged this on Order of the Good Write and commented:
    I’ve always been fascinated by the Hanging Tree in Washington Square park.

  7. 15 of the World’s Most Famous Trees – Tiptople Says:

    […] because of its supposed association with public hangings during and after the Revolutionary War. Traitors were supposedly hung from its branches at the corner of Waverly Place and MacDougal Street, and a visiting Marquis de Lafayette is said to […]

  8. NYC – Points of Interests – Photographing NYC Says:

    […] Hangman’s Elm – the oldest tree in NYC at 300 years old […]

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