The Hanging Tree

Witches were once executed along the shores of Patchogue’s Swan River.

…at least that’s what some folks around here say.

It’s a colorful piece of local lore; that the bodies of condemned witches once swung from the branches of a tree that yawns across the river. Unfortunately, (or for the sake of the accused- fortunately!) chances are that this never happened. Nevertheless, young Robert and I were on a quest for the truth.

We had to find that tree.

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-metal guitar riff- Woah! Uncle Sean is here in his super cool jeep!

Robert’s Uncle Sean took the challenge and decided to join us on this mission. His mother also came for a ride.

All we knew was that the tree sits in the back of a wooded piece of land near Shorefront Park. It was the perfect excuse to make a pit stop at the playground for little Robert.

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Alison strapped him into the jeep. The lack of doors and roof seemed to have confused him. We drove slowly. The warm summer air gently blew his wispy hair across his face. Within minutes, we had arrived.

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After a brief stop at the park, we continued on to the woods. Shorefront Park is near the river, so it was only a short drive down the road. We turned onto Grove Avenue and headed north. The forest ran along our right side. At this point, we had no other information. The Internet mentions virtually nothing about the tree (although the Yelp review was quite helpful). We had to park on the road and guess from this point.

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The not-so-successful sequel to that Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie from the 90s.

As we strayed from Grove Avenue, the sunlight became increasingly obscured by foliage. The route before us looked ominous; a thread of dirt leading into some deep green cavern. Shadows fell haphazardly onto the ground, forming patches of darkness on an otherwise bright and sunny trail.  In the distance, a rabbit hopped across our path.

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The mosquitoes grew increasingly troublesome. We quickened our pace, hoping to outrun them. Empty containers and discarded tires flanked the wooded road, serving as nurseries for the vile pests. After a few minutes, the path swung to the south. We had reached the riverfront.

And there it was. Awkwardly grounded in the muddy earth was the dreaded Hanging Tree of Patchogue. In my mind, I had imagined it this way. Crooked and bent; struggling to stay rooted in the shifting banks of the Swan River. Gangly and gnarled branches reached wildly from all points of the truck, stretching desperately into the waters before it. Evidence of nocturnal revelry littered the ground beneath the tree. Half-burned logs and ashes sat in the center of some overturned and broken lawn chairs. People came here to party.

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But was this place once the site of an execution?

The only recorded case of witchcraft on this island comes to us from the annals of East Hampton history, in which case a woman named Goody Garlick was accused of killing livestock, infants, and everything in between. The Garlick trial predated the infamous Salem incidents by decades. It is Long Island’s first and only formal case of judicial action taken against an accused witch.

But what about those acts of violence that stayed off the books? Is it possible that no formal charges were brought against women in the Patchogue area? Could an angry mob of vigilantes have strung up townsfolk in the dark of night?

The provability is still unlikely.

As the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution came into bloom, the mass hysteria that had gripped Western Europe and the New England colonies began to fade. By the early 18th century, witch trials were nearly unheard of.

During that time, the Patchogue area remained largely devoid of European settlement. The first settlers came to build mills on Patchogue’s three principal rivers in the colonial era, but the region still only had 75 residents by the year 1812. Therefore, it doesn’t seem likely that Patchogue would have had enough of a population to even go witch hunting in the first place.

Layered on top of the witchcraft legends are more recent stories of suicides under the tree. It is said that in the 1950s, at least one man hanged himself from the tree’s thick branches. But local newspaper archives fail to produce any evidence suggesting such a thing  ever occurred here.

The tree still continues to contribute to the rich tapestry of the Patchogue area, albeit tragically. Recent graffiti on the tree suggests the death of someone with the initials B. P.

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Above this crude memorial is a plaque and weathered photo nailed to the trunk.

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A quick Google search reveals that Bruce Poole was a Patchogue teenager who died of an alleged Xanax overdose. Poole apparently enjoyed spending time at the tree, so his friends created this simple but poignant tribute to the deceased.

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As the sun began to set, the mosquitoes intensified their assault on our veins. Sean, Alison, little Robert and I left the way we came. Within 10 minutes, we found Grove Avenue and hopped into the jeep. Before turning the ignition, we heard someone calling to us from one of the houses across the road.

A tall, wiry man with a greying beard and a trucker hat walked over to us. He smiled, and we returned the gesture. The man engaged in some small talk with Sean about his jeep. The conversation eventually turned to the subject of the woods. The man offered us a beer, and we noticed that he was pleasantly lit up. After politely declining the offer, we said goodbye and made our way back home.

It was only then that we all realized that this man was a walking horror trope; the plot device that warns the road tripping, naive teens in every cliched horror movie, “I wouldn’t go in those woods if I were you!”

If only he were able to warn the witches to steer clear of the Hanging Tree on Swan River…

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About Rob Fleming

Need to know basis, fool.
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