Ghosts of the PA Wilds: Hanging Around in Wellsboro
A lot of these old ghost stories and legends require some deciphering. It’s worth it to dig into the stories, find the historic facts, and try to figure out what actually happened. Sometimes it clarifies the legend, and sometimes it reveals incidents that make things even more fascinating.
A while ago, in a meeting, my friend Carrie Heath mentioned a tree in Wellsboro that has been said to be haunted. She referred to it as the “Hanging Tree” and mentioned that the legend is that criminals were hung from it. I immediately wrote that down in my notebook for future reference.
That more or less sums up the legend: The Hanging Tree is a tall elm that stands just outside the Tioga County Courthouse, in the Pine Creek Valley and the PA Grand Canyon landscape of the PA Wilds. People say that it’s haunted, because it was used to hang criminals back in the 1800s. It sits on Main Steet, just across from the Green.
Is there any truth to the story? Most of the citizens of Wellsboro say there is not, at least not as far as the Hanging Tree is concerned. Three men have been hanged for their crimes in Tioga County’s history: George Traviss in 1885, Walter Goodwin in 1898, and Isaac Birriolo in 1900.
But none of them were hung from a tree.
The story came about because one branch appears to stick out further than the others, and was thought to have been used for hanging. But that isn’t actually true, according to the Tioga County Historical Society.
“They used gallows. In fact, in one case they had to rent the gallows,” said Scott Gitchell of TCHS. “But it was done at the old jail. Except for a few John Wayne movies, trees aren’t the best way to hang somebody.”
Everyone in Tioga County that I called and interviewed expressed this same sentiment – nobody has ever actually been hung from the hanging tree. (Way back at the beginning of my career, I felt kind of stupid calling people and asking questions like this, but I’m long since over that.)
All three men were hung at the jail, quite some distance away. So that’s the documented truth of the three hangings in Tioga County.
But it’s important to remember that ghosts don’t necessarily follow any simple rules. They don’t necessarily have to haunt the place they died, for instance. They could haunt somewhere that they lived, or somewhere they cared deeply about. They could haunt somewhere that something traumatic happened to them.
Photo: Tioga County Courthouse in Wellsboro, courtesy of Lou Bernard
Such as the place where they were sentenced to death.
All three men were tried and convicted at the Tioga County Courthouse, which was built in 1871. And it is on the same property as the Hanging Tree. So it may be possible that the convicted men are haunting the place where they were sentenced to death, the place where it was decided their lives would end. The courthouse property… which would include the tree.
So even though there wasn’t a “Hanging Tree,” exactly, perhaps it’s haunted after all.
About the Ghost of the PA Wilds series:
“Ghosts of the PA Wilds” describes a series of ghost stories from the region written by historian Lou Bernard, who also revels in folklore and the paranormal. Each Monday of October, and leading right to Halloween, the PA Wilds Are Calling blog will feature a new ghost story to celebrate the spooktacular season upon us.
Know of another good PA Wilds ghost story worth investigating and sharing? Let us know in the comment section below!
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