Originally published in the Smithfield Times magazine – October, 2016
Tall Tales Of Treacherous Trees
By Jim Ignasher
From time to time, especially as Halloween approaches, I get asked about the so-called “Witch Tree” that once stood in the middle of the intersection of Log and Mann School Roads that before being cut down had acquired an ominous reputation. According to legend, or I should say, legends, for even now the story continues to evolve with each retelling on the Internet, the tree, and the area around it, was said to be haunted.
One story goes that the tree was haunted by a witch, hence the name, and if one drove their car around it backwards, three times, at night, with the lights off, (Never a good idea.) they would meet the witch.
The anonymous witch, by the way, is said to have lived in a “nearby” house that burned down at some unspecified date. Why she haunted the tree is not explained.
Other versions point to alleged accident victims killed when their vehicles slammed into its trunk, or by a single spectral motor cycle rider who failed to negotiate the turn.
The old tree was finally cut down, some say, to exorcise the “ghosts”, but a new one was planted to replace it – thus the legends continue.
The idea of a tree being haunted isn’t new, and if ever a tree qualified to be haunted it would’ve been the “Hangman’s Tree” that once stood in Calaveras County, California. An 1896 newspaper article described the tree as a “natural gallows”, and no less than forty men swung into eternity from a convenient limb that stretched across the road. And that’s not all. One failed rescue attempt led to a heated gun battle, and when the smoke cleared twenty men lay dead or dying. Survivors of the losing side were summarily hung next to their friend.
Most hauntings have a tragic story connected to them, the details of which are often cloudy, and in some cases, “portable”, as with the following example.
Traveling peddlers were once a common sight, and in the late 1800s one such man was found with his throat cut under a roadside apple tree in Douglas, Massachusetts. It was said that from thereafter the man’s gruesome looking ghost haunted the spot. Furthermore, the apples produced by that tree reportedly had blood-red streaks extending from the cores! This story was reported as fact in some newspapers in 1900, and if it sounds familiar, you’re right. A similar tale has been told about an orchard in Franklin, Connecticut, but the time-frame is set a century earlier.
In 1886, floodwaters swept through an unnamed town in Georgia and left a “haunted tree” story in their wake. Two men climbed a tree to get above the swiftly rising water, but the tree wasn’t high enough, and both drowned. Afterward, locals claimed their ghostly figures could be seen sitting in the tree at twilight.
In 1916, citizens of Brenham, Texas, cut down an ancient pecan tree said to be haunted by the spirits of three men who were lynched from its branches about thirty years earlier. Since that time, many reputable citizens claimed to have seen ghosts in the vicinity of the tree at night. One newspaper stated, the tree, “…has now been made into cord wood, and it is hoped the spirits will cease their wanderings.”
Sometimes the reasons for “haunted trees” are unclear, but the following unrelated stories might offer an explanation.
Anyone who’s ever ventured into an old cemetery has noticed trees growing out of graves, but how many have considered where the roots might have gone? When the grave of Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams, was being moved for re-burial, it was discovered that the root of a nearby apple tree had entered the coffin and took over – so to speak – assuming Roger’s general form. At last report, the root is in the possession of the Rhode Island Historical Society.
Sometimes a falling tree can reveal a mystery, as with the case of a 215-year-old tree that fell in Sligo, Ireland, in 2015. Entangled in the massive root ball was a human skeleton thought to be over a thousand years old! Furthermore, preliminary analysis determined he was likely murdered!
Besides being found under trees, people have also been discovered inside of trees. One instance occurred in Pennsylvania in 1902, when woodcutters discovered a skeleton clad in tattered clothing in a hollow tree trunk. Access could only have been gained through a small hole located high in the tree. How it came to be there remained a mystery.
A famous “skeleton in a tree” case occurred in England in April of 1943, during the height of World War II, when the remains of a murdered woman were discovered in a hollow Wych Elm by a group of youths. The question, “Who put Bella in the witch elm?” has never been answered.
Finally, there’s the story of a “haunted tree” that appeared in the Holmes County Farmer, in 1863, which detailed the story of a large oak that stood outside Millersburg, Ohio. On March 12, 1832, a lone traveler was robbed and killed by two bandits who disposed of his body under the tree. His ghost reportedly haunted the area ever since.
One interesting point to this tale was that like the “Witch Tree” in Smithfield, there was a ritual one could perform – if they had the nerve – to meet the ghost. “Approach this tree on a clear still day,” the paper advised, “and rap three times upon its aged trunk, and ask the question: “Where shall I go, and what shall I do? and immediately you will receive the answer. Go to Chitchfield & Ramey’s and buy your plow points, stoves, bells, and castings of all kinds.”
OK, by a show of hands, how many saw that coming? Me either. It was certainly a clever way to advertise, and it makes more sense than driving backwards in the dark without headlights. Happy Halloween!