Way up Bagby near the bayou, there stands a live oak that was old when the Allen Brothers arrived here and perpetrated the real estate scam of the Millennium. One of the few trees to have escaped the city's 173 years of boom times, the majestic oak owes its survival to its history as Old Houston's hanging oak. Or does it?
A plaque on the site tells one version of the story:
Many stories attached to the 400-year old history of this live oak. Some say that, during the days of the Republic of Texas (1836-1845), at least eleven criminals were hanged from its graceful boughs. Although others dispute the tales, the legend survives.
In 1896 a courthouse with jail was built nearby. Inside, criminals were hanged from scaffolds. Outside, beneath this tree, relatives, mourners, and onlookers gathered and waited.
A second courthouse building later occupied the site. When it was demolished in the 1960's to make room for the Albert Thomas Convention Center, a basement wall was left intact to protect the tree's root system.
The Old Hanging Tree is thought by some to be the oldest tree in Harris County.
Today the Old Hanging Tree is maintained and preserved by the City of Houston Civic Center Department.
But there appears to be another hanging oak about a mile or two away.
According to Bayou City History, in his 1913 book True Stories of Old Houston and Houstonians, Dr. S.O. Young mentioned a hanging tree in what is now Freedman's Town that was also said to have been the site of many an execution. Young disputed the high number of hangings. He wrote that only three men were hung there - the first a white man named Hyde who ambushed a traveler and fled back east to Louisiana or Mississippi, from which he was legally expedited to Houston and hung in 1853. In 1868 and 1870, two black men each named Johnson were also hung from the tree.
Virtual Tourist paints a far more monstrous picture of the Freedman's Town hanging oak.
This tree, here in the picture, has seen an untold number of deaths & suffering. Only God & this tree can tell the full story of all the atrocities this tree has played a part in. Prior to emancipation, & for some time thereafter, this tree was used to hang black people for all reasons imaginable. Some of the old black folks you see walking around this part of Freedmenstown [sic] can vividly remember witnessing the lynching of friends & family members. I actually had the opportunity to speak to an older woman, 99-years-old, who has outlived all of her relatives, & was informed that two of her uncles were hung from this tree. I was utterly dumbfounded by the fact that the tree still stands today, as had this tragedy befallen me, I would have personally seen to the tree's destruction many, many moons ago.
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(Umm, why take it out on the tree?)
There are quite a few discrepancies in all these tales. First, it is clear that we are talking about two different trees here. Dr. Young's hanging tree was located not off Bagby but on the "southeast corner of the old cemetery out of the San Felipe Road" [today's Founder's Cemetery on West Dallas Street] which is where the picture in the Virtual Tourist blog appears to have been taken.
The Virtual Tourist post went up in 2007, but it's uncertain when the author spoke to the old woman about her executed (or lynched) uncles. In any case, it seems clear that the men would have had to have died some 50 years before the old lady was born, so maybe she was referring to great-uncles. While it is intriguing that both black men acknowledged in Young's book were named Johnson, much of the rest of the post seems a touch melodramatic. Surely if a large number of people were lynched from that tree's branches in living memory, there would be some record of it. As rough as 20th Century Jim Crow Houston was, it was not a non-stop orgy of lynching.
And where all of this leaves the tree with the plaque on Bagby, we have no idea. Let's just say that both seem worthy spots for ghoulish Halloween picnics.