The Hangman's Elm, Washington Square Park

New York City, New York (NY)

There are no prizes for guessing what the Hangman's Elm, New York's oldest and most sinister tree was famous for. Grizzly stuff.

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Washington Square Park is as green and pleasant an area as Manhattan has to offer, and the English Elm in its Northwest corner is no exception. Do a little digging, however, and you'll find a sinister legend lurking beneath the surface of this urban oasis.

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- © Isabella Ruffalo-Burgat

The Hangman's Elm

This gruesomely named tree is of the famously firm Ulmas Procera variety. In other words, its branches are strong enough to hold a dangling corpse. Or several.

Over its 330 year history the tree has supposedly taken center stage in the executions of many men. Traitors in the Revolutionary War and inmates of the nearby Newgate Prison are likely among those who met there ends swaying beneath its limbs.

Although there are no surviving public records to confirm the Hangman's Elms' morbid history, the name speaks for itself. References of it being called this date back to the 19th Century, a time when New York executions were far from unheard of.

Well, if the shoe fits...

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- © Srosenstock

Washington Square Park Murders Beyond The Hangman's Elm

In 1820, just 500 feet from the Hangman's Elm, Rose Butler, a slave suspected of arson, was executed. This, records can confirm.

Worse still, the ground below Washington Square Park is full of bodies, the area having once been used as a burial ground for slaves and those killed by yellow fever.

And we do not need paper to prove this. A soil-testing project in 2008 dug up four skeletons in the park. Since then, others have been discovered, before being put back where they lay out of respect for the dead.

The Hangman's Elm: A Sign Of All We've Chosen To Forget

It would be easy to dismiss the Hangman's Elm's legend as a horror story meant to scare straight the naughty children of the 1800s. Given what we know about Washington Square's Park grim history, however, it might be more prudent to take the story as a reminder of all the other horrible things the history books have chosen to forget.

The streets of New York City are doubtless haunted by many memories of crimes gone unrecorded. If we knew all the hideous things that went on 200 years ago, the Hangman's Elm's tale likely wouldn't even leave an impression.

Can we confirm it was used in the way that its name suggests? No. But if it wasn't, then another tree was.

Interested in finding more places like this? Try one of our Scavenger Hunts in Manhattan, NYC - untangle cryptic clues as a team, as you are taken on a journey to the most unique, unusual and bizarre corners of NYC.


What you need to know

The Hangman's Elm, Washington Square Park
Washington Square Park, New York, NY, USA
Tips before you visit

The Hangman's Elm is at the Northwest corner of Washington Square park, a short walk from West 4 St and 8 St Stations.