Posts Tagged ‘oldest tree in New York City’

The “hangman’s elm” of Washington Square Park

October 11, 2012

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]