The Hangman’s Elm, the oldest known living tree in Manhattan, is surrounded by legends of being used for executions.
You’ll find the Hangman’s Elm in the northwest corner of Washington Square Park. It’s an English Elm (Latin name: Ulmus procera), which is a tree known for having extremely strong wood—apparently strong enough to hang something as big as a school bus. On a sunny spring day, it doesn’t seem ominous, but the local legends would beg to differ. The Hangman’s Elm, as you might have surmised, is the supposed site where those sentenced to death by hanging met their fate.
Sometimes just referred to as the “Hanging Tree,” it stands at 110 feet tall and was determined to be over 330 years old, according to the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. It’s hard to confirm whether it is indeed the oldest, but it’s definitely one of the very eldest in the city. That means it started spreading its branches just around the time “New Netherland” became “New York.” References to the tree as the “Hangman’s Elm” go all the way back to the 19th century.
The tree apparently witnessed, and played a role in, a number of hangings—including those of traitors during the Revolutionary War. Newgate State Prison was once just around the corner on Christopher and 10th Streets, and inmates there might also have been brought to the elm for their executions. There are no public records to confirm any of these hangings, however historians do know that this area of Washington Square Park was once a burial ground for slaves and those who died of yellow fever.
There has been at least one confirmed execution in this area, about 500 feet from the elm—that of Rose Butler in 1820, a slave accused of arson. During a soil testing project in 2008, archaeologists found four mostly intact skeletons. Many others have been found in the park, and left in the ground out of respect.
Next time you wander by, take a look up through the branches and back in time. Hangman’s Elm reminds us that even as we sit below the shade of an a beautiful old growth tree in Washington Square park, we’re surrounded by hundreds of years of history— much of it sinister.
Know Before You Go
You can find the elm in the northwest corner of Manhattan's Washington Square Park, a few minutes' walk from either the West 4 St station (ABCDEFM) and 8 St station (NQR).