By BILL MARDIS, Editor Emeritus Commonwealth Journal
Recent stories about hanging trees continue to generate more talk about ghastly limbs from which outlaws paid their debt to society. The lawless lynchings are shrouded in mists of passing time as are ghost stories and flying saucer landings.
Nothing unusual. Rare is a community that backward glimpses do not conjure images of pioneer justice that lingered not in legalese; of ghosts in the past; even visitors from out in space.
The Somerset area has two, maybe three hanging trees. Also, there are ghostly places aplenty, including the Commonwealth Journal building. And if you don’t believe flying saucers have landed in Pulaski County you are a “foreigner.”
Have you ever ridden near midnight in a two-horse wagon up Fishing Creek Hill toward town? Maybe not the younger generation. They, with cell phones and iPads, have no reason to be out late at night. They text each other from the comfort of home.
But old-timers, who labored their team of mules across the creek and up the hill at the midnight hour would sense a rider in the wagon. A friendly sort, not talkative, he only wanted a lift up the hill.
However, many times; matter of fact, most times, the live man in the wagon would bail out on the run, leaving his team and wagon in the invisible hands of the flimsy hitchhiker. In those days, 9-1-1 didn’t exist and the few law-enforcement officers had gone in and gone to bed.
As soon as we regain our composure we’ll tell another ghost story, but now, about those hanging trees.
Pamela Picard, an aide at Crestview Personal Care Home on Richardson Drive, sent us photos of a gnarled oak tree in the old Sinking Creek Cemetery. The tree blew down in a windstorm a week or so ago.
“I’ve been told this is the hanging tree,” said Picard. “The limb from which people were hung broke off in 2000.”
Actually, it’s sort of poetic justice. A tree from where necks snapped in a noose finally gets its comeuppance. Not from a lynch mob, but a puff of wind. Pam has pictures to validate her story.
Curtis Gilliland, a retired mail carrier for the Somerset Post Office, locates a hanging tree a short distance away. He took a reporter for the Commonwealth Journal to the very spot his grandmother had pointed out. It was here a sycamore tree with an accommodating limb substituted for a judge and jury.
Curtis wondered aloud if one of the weathered trunks lying in the area could be remains of the infamous tree where frontier justice was administered. This was the tree from which were swung two young men accused of shooting a sheriff. Evidence surfaced later they may have been innocent. Curtis has historical records to take away myths that shroud this heinous hanging.
And, then there is a hanging tree in the Parkers Mill area. Name of the unlucky person who made this tree famous is lost in the mists of time, but the event drew a crowd. A few still live who were among the onlookers.
Matter of fact, nothing draws a bigger crowd than a hanging, not even a circus. This writer with tongue firmly in cheek suggested several years ago the best way to revitalize downtown was to stage a hanging on Fountain Square. A Saturday event like this, as untasteful as it is, would fill the town with onlookers.
With the soon-to-be $1 million renovation of Fountain Square and spacious plaza at Pulaski Court of Justice, a gallows would be nice touch. Suggestion: Hang the rascal early in the day to leave shopping time after justice is served.
And then there was the flying saucer. This writer, as a young reporter, was actually dispatched to a community (we won’t pinpoint the location) in southern Pulaski County where a flying saucer reportedly had landed. The little green men had gone when we got there, but a bare space in an open field may have been where the ship from outer space had landed. That’s the truth if I ever told it. It’s also true the then-editor of this newspaper sneered that the reporter should have boarded the saucer and flew away with the other little green men.
During the mid-1970s there was the out-of-state truck driver who drove his rig through the Fishing Creek cut on the recently opened Cumberland Parkway. A ghostly light flared, giving the protruding rocks a shimmering of green as he crossed the bridge.
The driver, pale as a ghost, rushed in at the former Cherokee Restaurant north of town, where a group of early rising local businessmen always gathered for coffee. With trembling voice he told about the happening, vowing never to come that way again.
The truck driver’s scare was detailed in the Commonwealth Journal that very day. The following morning, before daylight, a dear lady in the eastern part of the county called in to report a flying saucer hovered directly over her car all the way into town. You think I’m kidding. I’ve told some tall tales in my time, but I wouldn’t make up a story like that.
Oh, we almost forgot about the ghost in the Commonwealth Journal building. Sadly, he’s not with us anymore. When they tore down the original part of the newspaper building last year it did away with the catacombs that were ghostly haunts.
Many times, working late at night, this writer heard sounds; footsteps on the upper floor; doors slamming shut; occasionally a whispery voice.
I would continue working, pounding the typewriter. I didn’t go look; you can’t see a ghost. I knew that.
Distant steps, slowly walking, were easily ignored. It was the heavy breathing that gave me pause. Often, hair on the back of my neck would stand.