Hang ’em High

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 I was thrilled recently to learn that my entry, Outlaw Bride, has finaled in the Romance Through the Ages Contest sponsored by RWA’s special interest chapter, Hearts Through History. This work-in-progress features a horse-hang-tree-barethievin’ heroine who manages to escape getting strung up on a tree outside an Arizona town. This second chance at life finds her mending her evil ways…and falling for a handsome Cavalry scout turned rancher.  All the while she’s outrunning her big bad outlaw brother and the bounty on her head. ..disguised as a nun.

Well, she’s itsy bitsy, so the hangin’ tree didn’t have to be very big…but most hanging trees, real or legendary, had to be sturdy with dramatic, stretched-out branches.  In California, oaks and sycamores were the trees of choice although juniper came in handy, too. Or should I say, necky? Many trees have been lost to age, disease, or development, but some remain, like the hanging tree in Holcomb Valley in the San Bernardino Mountains.  (shown below) 

The valley was the richest gold field in Southern California, a good dozen years after the Forty Niners up north. While miners and prospectors worked hard and honest to find their lucky strikes,  claim jumpers, gamblers, and outlaws such as Button’s Gang all the way from Salt Lake City, Utah, made harsh frontier justice necessary. In the first two years after gold was discovered in 1861, some 40, possibly 50 murders demanded a strong message of law and order.

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Records claim that this lovely juniper in Holcomb Valley witnessed as many as four  hangings at a single time. When the hanged criminal was cut down, so was the branch from which he hung.

Down the mountain, in the canyon below a tollway in Orange County’s  master-planned community of Irvine, bad guys were hanged long ago from a stand of seven sycamores. A plaque reads, “Under this tree, General Andres Pico Hung Two Banditos from the Flores Gang in 1857.”

General Pico, the brother of California’s last Mexican governor, led the posse that captured and hanged at that spot Francisco Ardillero and Juan Catabo of the treacherous Juan Flores Gang. The gang had massacred a Los Angeles County sheriff and three other lawmen during a reign of terror that blazed for a hundred miles. 

Juan Flores himself was strung up in downtown Los Angeles while thousands of spectators watched, but the humbler Ardillero and Catabo were soon forgotten.

They might be nameless even today if the monument shown below hadn’t been erected forty years ago by an equestrian club. Today these sycamores symbolize life. Docents will lead hikes to O.C.’s Hangman’s Tree later in the summer only after a pair of nesting hawks have raised their young.  

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 Up north, about an hour west of Lake Tahoe, Placerville, California still lays hangman-tavern-placervilleproud claim to its original moniker, Hangtown. All along historic Main Street, establishments display such names as Chuck’s Hangtown Bakery, Hangtown Grill, and even Hangtown Tattoo and Body Piercing. Without a doubt, Hangman’s Tree Tavern is the site most deserving of bragging rights, for down in its basement you can see the original stump from the white oak hangin’ tree. I’ve seen it…kind of sad, really. 

Placerville likely got its original name in January 1849 when a colorful gambler was waylaid by robbers after a particularly profitable evening at the saloon. Once captured, the thieves were unanimously declared guilty and condemned to death by hanging after a 30-minute trial and little evidence. At that time, the infamous white oak hanging tree stood in a hay yard next to the aptly-named Jackass Inn.

 Ken Gonzales-Day, an art professor at Scripps College in Claremont, California, has written an excellent book, Lynching in the West, which chronicles 350 such cases in California between 1850 and 1935. Tragically, many were racial injustices. Because he feels people tend to fictionalize the past unless they realize real people lived it, he has photographed dozens of “hang trees” in his research and describes his pictorial journey as “part pilgrimage and part memorial.” Some day, he says, the trees will be gone, and the last living pieces of this history will be lost.

Ken, who describes the trees as “witnesses standing there when the mobs walked by,” has kindly shared with us some of his hauntingly beautiful photographs, the three below and the “bare” tree at the top. It actually is very like the imaginary scene in my head where my outlaw bride almost meets her Maker. I didn’t know Ken’s work when I wrote the story.

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hang-tree-twoFortunately, most of California’s native trees don’t have such  grim histories. Our state has got California live oak and palm trees (not native), groves of avocado and lemon and olive, the giant Sequoia, Generals Sherman and Grant, the coastal redwoods, ponderosa and jeffrey pines, and bristlecones thousands of years old. Not to mention hundreds of species inbetween.

Other than a Christmas tree by my fireplace in December, my favorite tree hang-treeis the lemon tree in my backyard. I raid it almost daily for slices for my iced tea. And we found a humming bird nest in a red-leaf not long ago.

What are your favorite tree stories? Did you climb them as a kid? Build a tree house? Hang a tire swing from a branch, or a hammock between two trunks? Tack a fairy door over a knothole to give the little people some privacy?

Please share!

(Many thanks to Professor Ken Gonzales-Day and the LA Times, May 7, 2009.) 

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