Monday, October 21, 2013

Hangman’s Tree

A lone Ponderosa pine, just west of Helena's present-day Blake Street between Highland and Hillsdale, served as the town’s Hangman’s Tree. It was the only tree left standing in 1865 after miners had denuded the countryside for cabins and sluices. Mary Sheehan Ronan attended school up the hill in a simple cabin at Rodney and Broadway. From the schoolyard the children had a clear view of the lone Ponderosa. One morning as they arrived at school, the children saw the limp form of a man dangling from the tree. The boys ran up and down the gulch, speculating about the “bad man” who received such awful punishment.  Mary later wrote: “I hated the talk. It made me shiver… that dreadful, pitiful object, with bruised head, disarrayed vest and trousers, with boots so stiff, so worn, so wrinkled, so strangely the most poignant of all the gruesome details. I tried to forget, but I have never forgotten.” At least eleven men suffered this fate on the famed Hangman’s Tree. The last of the eleven hangings took place in 1870 when vigilantes hanged Arthur Compton and Joe Wilson for the attempted murder of a local rancher. Photographer Mary Ann Eckert captured the grisly scene in a graphic, horrific photograph.

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, 948-121
Until recently a copy of it graced the hallway of a Helena elementary school, a strong message that crime doesn’t pay. In 1875, thousands thronged the neighborhood to cut a souvenir sliver from the tree when Reverend Shippen, a Methodist minister, cut it down. He claimed recent flooding had undermined its roots and the tree was so unstable that he feared it would fall on his barn and kill his horse. Many years later, while workers were digging a foundation for a new house, the huge roots of the Hangman’s Tree came to light. They were just as sturdy and secure as they must have been when the tree was young.

P.S. Tales of hauntings abound throughout the neighborhood around the tree. Read about them in Beyond Spirit Tailings, now available as an ebook.


  1. There is a hanging tree close to Helena that is still standing. South of Montana City on what used to be Hanging Tree Lane (now Haab Lane), about half a mile off the frontage road is the Prickly Pear Creek Hanging Tree. It's on the east side of the road and has a little fence around it. You can still see rope marks on one of the branches.

    Ms. Baumler, do you have any information about that tree? All I've ever heard have been word of mouth stories.

    1. Yes, I have researched that tree. It is only a hangman's tree in the minds of local storytellers. There is no evidence that it was ever used for that purpose. In fact, there have never been any recorded hangings in Jefferson County except for legal ones at the county courthouse in Boulder. It definitely has that look to it, but unfortunately, it's just a tale. Thanks for your question!