The Gallows Tree: Executions or Legends?
In the book “The History of Dutchess County” by James Smith, there is a passage that reads, “on the west side of the road, nearly midway between Kidney’s creek and the Fallkill, on the old Thomas Nelson property, now the estate of Mr. Orrin Williams, stood the Gallows Tree.” When we think of the term “gallows,” we immediately think of people being hanged from a tall branch. The idea that a tree’s single purpose in history was for the hanging of criminals is certainly an ominous thought, but what proof do we have that a certain tree was used by the city of Poughkeepsie to conduct capital punishment? If indeed the tree was used for such things, how long did that go on before someone finally said “it’s time to find a better way”?
On the 1799 map of Poughkeepsie in the area of what is now Pulaski Park there is definitely a very clear set of words: “Gallows Tree,” complete with a little drawing of a tree (in case future historians thought that might be the terrible name of someone’s estate or something). So we have concrete proof that there was certainly a tree with that name at the end of the 18th century within Poughkeepsie. The Gallows tree was even used as a landmark on some early deeds in that area. However, none of this tells us if people were truly executed at this spot, only that the tree certainly stood there and had that name. Historian Helen Wilkinson Reynolds had believed that the name of the tree was simply referring to an old English term that focused more on the shape of the limbs of the tree and less on death.
There were certainly plenty of executions here in Poughkeepsie during the 18th and 19th centuries that used the method of “hang by the neck until dead,” but where did they take place? Another area in town that earned a “gallows” in a portion of its name was Forbus hill, sometimes known as “Gallows hill,” which would have been on the land between the modern day Dutchess County office building and Grand Street. Historian Benson Lossing wrote in his book “Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution” that a gallows was constructed on Forbus hill for the hanging of a loyalist spy named Huddlestone in April of 1780. Several other spys would also meet their ends at this location in the following year. Two more mentions of executions in Poughkeepsie appear, that of Ezra Mead, who brutally stabbed Jacob Horton to death in 1793, and Francis Uss who in 1793 had stolen jewelry and horses during his brief career in crime. However, no records can be found concerning any executions at the gallows tree itself (not even secondary sources).
Based on news reports of the time, public and outdoor executions appear to have fallen out of style here by the early 19th century. The final public hangings are believed to have taken place on a special gallows that was built in 1806 for the executions of two men for different murders: Jesse Wood and Peter Shaver, somewhere around the end of South Hamilton Street. After that, the majority of executions took place within the courthouse building and the jail, which was next door, and only a limited number of people could attend. Major murder cases which intriqued the nation would inspire crowds to flock to the court house in the hopes of witnessing justice first hand, only to be turned away.
In 1848, Wesley Pine was sentenced to hang for the murder of Mrs. Russell of Pleasant Valley. His execution took place inside of his cell within the jail and as the newspaper reported, “he died comparatively easy, struggling but very little, after hanging for half an hour he was cut down having been pronounced dead.” This city witnessed the execution of only the fourth woman in the state’s history, Lucy Ann Hoag, who in 1852 was convicted of murdering her husband. She put arsenic in his oysters in order to be with another man, but we’ll save that story for another time. In July of 1852, a gallows was constructed within the main vestibule of the courthouse for two criminals to be hanged. Lucy would share her execution date with a man named Jonas Williams who had been convicted of killing his step daughter.
The modern day courthouse was built in 1902, but in keeping with traditions of the old courthouse and the requirements of the original deeds, there are still two jail cells in the basement to this day (now used for storage). Even though the building is not the same as it was in the days of those executions, it’s still in the original location. If you happen to be in the area, stop by the Courthouse and head to the second flood to see their photographic timeline of courthouse and jail’s history.
Poughkeepsie Journal: 4 Aug 1789, 9 Jan 1793, 20 Aug 1805, 23 Jul 1805, 27 May 1848, 4 Oct 1970
New York Times: 31 Jul 1852
“General History of Dutchess County: from 1609 to 1876” by Phillip Smith
“The History of Dutchess County” by James Smith
Special thanks to the kind officer who allowed me to examine the old jail cells in the basement of the County Courthouse!
01 – Map of Poughkeepsie from 1799 showing the Gallows Tree
02 – Newspaper clipping from the Poughkeepsie journal concerning the execution of Francis Uss, 4 Aug 1789.
03 – Cover of the Lucy Ann Hoag case booklet, published in 1852 in Poughkeepsie. Special thanks to the New York State Library for sharing this booklet with us.
04 – A photograph of the courthouse in the mid 19th century. – LH Collections