Recently, under the influence of some claustrophobic nightmares, Dr Beachcombing did an unsettling post on “Death by Oak,” about unfortunates who died in hollow trees. Stories of arboreal entombment, in the evergreen way of urban legends, made the rounds of the newspapers, often with elaborate and heart-rending details: diaries found with skeletons clothed in shreds of flesh, and wallets containing personal details, last messages, and wills. It is not surprising that ghost stories would arise around death-trap trees. In this tale from Indianapolis, in a reversal of the usually procedure, the dead man (and it is not clear whether he was lynched or was a suicide) was deliberately buried in a hollow elm, leading to
A Ghost in a Hollow Tree.
Indianapolis, March 20. Nowhere on Hoosier soil has nature nourished such giant trees as in the Pogue’s Run Bottoms. On East Michigan avenue, beyond the creek, is one monarch whose branches have a diameter of over a hundred feet, and close to this one is the stump of a burnt-out sycamore, still showing signs of life, in which a family could comfortably live. The interior of the hollow tree is eight feet across in the clear.
But one tree belonging to this group is better known than all the rest. It is sometimes called “hangman’s Elm,’ sometimes the “gallows tree” and occasionally the boys of the neighborhood speak of it as “the home of the ghost.” During the war, one day when there was bloody news from the front, and when human life was cheap the body of an unknown man was found hanging from this particular tree. Soldiers who climbed the tree to cut down the body found a curiously concealed opening into the tree. It was instantly concluded that the hollow interior of the elm should be the place of sepulture. The body was lowered into the hollow tree, but apparently it struck no bottom. Certainly it gave forth no sound in falling.
It may have been that the dust and accumulation of rotted particles of the tree’s heart had made a soft, deep bed within so that no sound of the falling body came forth. Or, was it possible that the spreading roots of the elm walled in a deep “cave of the winds” or well? At any rate, nothing was heard when the body tumbled to its uncertain grave.
The body where the supposed burial tree stands long ago became part of the city. The site is beautiful. Lots have been sold and houses built all about it. A stranger bought the lot on which the tree stands. But he will never build there. One of the neighbors says:
“From the swaying branches of the old elm come mourning sounds of distress, and many a man passing that way has been horrified at the footfalls of invisible pursuers. Dim figures are sometimes seen in the neighborhood, but these always retrace their cloudy way to the tree, and are, as it were, swallowed up by it.
“Once, boys playing ball discovered that their balls, knocked into the tree, invariably disappeared. One of them thoughtlessly struck the great tree with a bat, and such horrible moans of pain came forth that the boys heard and fled. Bolder youths one day determined to examine into the cause of the mysterious disappearance of the balls. One climbed to the high forks, and once there could see what was not visible from the ground, the entrance to the core. He was about to call out his discovery when a terrific blast from the cavern smote him and took away his breath. There was mingled with the roar of the wind, the rattle of voices and the moans of despair. Again the current would change and everything about the hole would be sucked into it; the boy lost his hat and barely escaped with his life. From that day to this no man has climbed the haunted tree.
“Is it not possible that buried treasures lie under the tree, vainly seeking all these years to testify by these mysterious methods to its rich presence? Or is it the tortured spirit of the murdered man seeking rest and finding none?”
St. Louis [MO] Post-Dispatch 26 March 1889: p. 3
The story, with a bit more rhapsodising on the ancient trees in the area, appeared originally as
A WAR-TIME GHOST.
Traditions of a Haunted Elm Tree in the Pogue’s Run Bottoms.
The Indianapolis [IN] News 29 January 1889: p. 4
While not having the cachet of the fairy beech or the gravitas of the Druid oak, elm, perhaps due to its water-resistant qualities, was a standard choice for coffin wood. There is also a grim proverb to the effect that “Elum hateth man, and waiteth.”
The dim figures, moaning sounds, and suggestion of buried treasure come straight from the haunted tree playbook. [Another day, another post.] It’s the second-to-last paragraph that interests me because it falls outside the normal range of haunted tree folklore.
The disappearing balls (I kept waiting for some spider-limbed or serpentine creature to emerge from the hollow) and the almost sentient breathing of the elm might remind us of the deadly depths of James’s ash tree. The boy was lucky that he lost no more than his hat.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.