At the northwest corner of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, stands an English Elm called “Hangman’s Elm” or The Hanging Tree. The tree is 110 feet tall (33.52 m) and has a diameter of 56 inches (1.42 m). In 1989, the New York Department of Parks and Recreation determined that the tree is 310 years old, making it the oldest known tree in Manhattan. Outliving both Peter Stuyvesant’s pear tree at 13th Street and Third Avenue and a renowned Tulip poplar at Shorakapkok in Washington Heights, Hangman’s Elm is certainly a longtime fixture here.
However, more than its fascinating age is the tree’s dubious name that has intrigued historians for many years…the how and why regarding this strange appellation.
An earliest reference to the tree as a “hanging tree” dates from the late 1800s and it was immediately assumed that at one time or another the tree served as an execution device or setting. Insofar as the name having something to do with its physical configuration, the tree itself doesn’t hang or stoop but stands quite erect. What’s more, at this time public executions no longer took place in New York State and the tree always stood on a private farm that was added to Washington Square in 1827 by the city.
The only recorded execution in this vicinity was that of a woman named Rose Butler in 1820 at Minetta Creek, about 500 feet from the tree. With scant evidence, tour guides (as well as a few historians) perpetuated the claims of the tree’s deadly usage as fact rather than fancy throughout the past two centuries. The most notable allegation is that the Marquis de Lafayette supposedly witnessed the execution of twenty highwaymen. Happily, for those who appreciate the vague and mysterious, the controversial history surrounding the tree continues.
In my bygone days as a student at NYU, where I spent four years in a scholarly coma, I lived in Greenwich Village. My apartment was within walking distance of the university (also within staggering distance, which came in handy many a morning following an all-night bacchanal) through Washington Square Park and pass the The Hanging Tree.
Dappled in sunlight, convulsed in storm or embraced in moonlight, The Hanging Tree weathered the seasons. I often sat beneath the Tree and meditated: my fears assuaged by the caress of its branches, my doubts by the lull of its leaves and my resolve by the awe of its rooted permanence. This was where my first wife and I became intoxicated lovers, destined to wed and doomed to divorce…lending The Hanging Tree’s fiction a glimmer of truth; then again, this was a rather sketchy time in my own legend.
Source: The Big Apple