A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006. Now a Popeyes fast food restaurant on Google Maps.

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Entry from June 12, 2006
Hangman’s Elm or Hanging Tree (English Elm in Washington Square Park)
The Hangman's Elm or Hanging Tree is the elm in the northwest corner of Washington Square Park. It's said to be over 300 years old.

It is also said that several hangings occurred from this tree, although this has been disputed.

Other famous New York City trees include the "Dinosaur," the "Hare Krishna Tree" and the "Tree of Hope."

Wikipedia: Hangman's Elm
Hangman's Elm, or simply "The Hanging Tree", is an English Elm located at the Northwest corner in Washington Square Park, in New York City. It stands 110 feet (33.52 m) tall and has a diameter of 56 inches (1.42 m).

In 1989, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation determined the English Elm was 310 years old, making it the oldest known tree in Manhattan. The elm has outlived the city's other most historic trees: Peter Stuyvesant's pear tree at the northeast corner of 13th St. and Third Ave. and the great tulip tree at Shorakapkok in Washington Heights.

Whether or not any real hangings took place at this location is open to debate. According to legend, traitors were hanged at this location during the American Revolutionary War. Later, the Marquis de Lafayette is said to have witnessed the festive hanging of 20 highwaymen here in 1824. Rose Butler, hanged here in 1820,was the last person in New York State to be executed for arson. The notorious hanging bough was removed in 1992 by the Parks Department.

However, other historians including Luther S, Harris, author of Around Washington Square : An Illustrated History of Greenwich Village, contend the name is a misnomer and that no legal hangings were conducted from this tree. Public executions were performed from gallows on the site, which created some confusion.

Washington Square Park
Originally a marsh surrounding Minetta Brook, in the early years of New York this area was used as a graveyard for slaves and yellow fever victims, a dueling ground and a place of execution. Near the northwest corner can be found the Hanging Elm, perhaps the oldest tree in Manhattan. It's apparently not true that the Marquis de Lafayette on his 1824 visit to New York witnessed the festive hanging of 20 highwaymen here, but Rose Butler was hanged here in 1820, the last person in New York State to be executed for arson. In 1826 it was designated the Wahington Military Parade Grounds, which soon was transformed into a public park.

An elm tree in what is now Washington Square Park (but in Haswell's time was called Washington Parade Grounds) is said to have served as an execution instrument on about three dozen occasions, earning its name as "The Hanging Tree." The immediate vicinity served as a Potter's Field burial grounds.

18 February 1866, New York (NY) Times, pg. 6:
The Potter's Field has become Washington-square. A negro girl (Rose BUtler) was hanged here some three or four years later. Some doggerel lines used to be chalked about the fences, of which I can only recall:

Rose Butler sat upon a bench --
Down drop't the trap, and hanged a negro wench.

20 August 1927, New York (NY) Times, pg. 8:
Four Landmarks on a Corner of
Washington Square to Be
Razed for Apartment.
City Hangman Said to Have Lived
There -- Houses Later Became
Studios and Tea Rooms.
They were built when the Square was Potter's Field. When this section was an uncultivated tract the houses faced the city's gallows, where public executions were held. It is said the hangman of New York once lived in the corner house. The gallows lifted their gaunt head where the Washington Arch now stands. A large elm tree, which stood in the Square as late as 1799, sometimes serves as a gallows. There is little doubt but that the hangman walked from the corner house to serve at the last public execution in the Square, when Rose Butler, a negress, was hanged.

13 March 1941, New York (NY) Times, pg. 23:
Laborers Find Human Remains
of 1800's in Washington Sq.
Lieutenant William Burns gravely investigated. He learned that the present common was a Potter's Fields from 1797 to 1823. More than 100,000 yellow fever victims were buried there; that Rose Butler, a young, serving woman, was hanged and buried there in July, 1819, either for murder or robbery.

6 May 1953, New York (NY) Times, "About New York" by Meyer Berger, pg. 33:
Most of the new properties look right over the Square itself. A good part of that was the old Brevoort Farm. Six and one-half of its better than nine acres were Potter's Field from 1797 to 1823, and 10,000 New Yorkers were buried in it, including Rose Butler, a thief, the last woman hanged on Washington Square gallows back in 1819. The city gravedigger had free rent in a shack on Thompson Street on the south side of the Square.

26 June 1994, New York (NY) Times, F.Y.I. by Andrea Kannapell, pg. CY2:
People were indeed hanged there, though no one seems to know how many. In the early 19th century, when the state penitentiary was at 10th Street and the Hudson, those found guilty of capital crimes were hanged from the elm -- and, since the eastern two-thirds of the present park was a burial ground, the bodies were interred there, said Joyce Gold, a Manhattan historian.

28 August 1994, New York (NY) Times, "Hangman's Tree Deserves New Name and More Help," Letters, pg. 638:
Despite stories of prisoners being strung up from the tree, there are no records of such official hangings -- and there would be. It was just across Minetta Creek from a potter's field, and evidence does exist that a few authorized executions took place there. But starting in Dutch times, executions called for the use of gallows, not trees. And the elm was not on public ground. That didn't happen until the elm's section of farmland became the western part of Washington Square in 1827.

In my view, the reason for caring about the elm has nothing to do with spurious claims for its past. The Greatest Tree is 110 feet tall and 61 inches in diameter. it is at least 300 years old.
Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityBuildings/Housing/Parks • Monday, June 12, 2006 • Permalink