The sprawling English elm, which has been standing at the northwest corner of Washington Square Park for the last 300 years, is the oldest living tree in Manhattan. It was planted in 1679, a mere 15 years after the English took over the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam and renamed it New York.
The tree’s macabre nicknames of the “Hanging Tree” and “Hangman’s Elm” came from the urban legend of traitors being hanged from its branches during the American Revolution. Most likely this is just a tall tale, as no records exist of any public executions at the tree itself. Though executions did indeed take place at Washington Square Park, the hangings were done at the gallows rather than the tree’s powerful branches.
The “Hanging Tree” has been standing in the area long enough to witness the incredible evolution of a marsh around Minetta Brook into the elegant Washington Square Park. Used as farmland by the Dutch and then by the English, the land was bought by the city for use as a public burial ground in 1797. The poor souls that perished in the yellow fever epidemics of early 1800s were buried here—safely outside the town limits.
Yes—there are over 20,000 bodies lying underneath the Washington Square Park! As the city grew north, it re-purposed the potter’s field into the Washington Military Parade Ground before finally reworking it into a park in 1827.
There was once another tree in Manhattan even older than the Hanging Elm. But the pear tree planted by Peter Stuyvesant—the first governor of New Amsterdam—on his farm at the corner of 13th Street and Third Avenue tragically did not survive when a carriage smashed into it in 1867.