Naturally, in autumn, our thoughts turn to ghosts and haunts, to scary stories and weird occurances - to life - and after life. Throughout October, 2010, we'll explore local ghost stories, autumn festivities and ideas, as well as the Halloweenish, the weird, the macabre, the spooky....
First, we'll learn about a local legend - a ghostly story that takes place in downtown Santa Barbara....
The legend is told in a book simply entitled, Santa Barbara, California. Written by Miss Leila Weekes Wilson, it was published in 1913, with the express purpose of illuminating highlights and points of interest to tourists and visitors to our local area, as well as new residents who had come to stay.
Some of the things Ms. Weekes Wilson describes have been swallowed by the mists of time. Some buildings and places and bits of that earlier history survive today, linking us with the past.
Ms. Weekes Wilson seeks to aide the traveler, and lists fraternal organizations, churches in town, prominent buildings and their locations, names and locations of local schools, and a list of fine hotels and boarding houses. She discusses the Arlington Hotel, the Potter Hotel, and The Gregson Hotel. She also mentions the Upham Hotel, "in every way excellent", which still stands today.
Also mentioned is a residential hotel known as, The Edgerly Apartments, on Sola Street. (Although currently sporting a very early-60s-stucco vibe today, the building survives and is an apartment complex known to us in modern times as, The Edgerly Arms.)
A number of pages have been devoted to "pleasure drives" via car, horseback or carriage. She offers directions for THE MOUNTAIN DRIVE, or the MISSION CANON DRIVE, or the simply-stated GAVIOTA PASS drive, and one to FERN FALLS.
Sometimes, the veracity, importance, and intent of her statements is questionable:
- "An EARTHQUAKE has not been felt here for a hundred years, so the danger from seismic disturbances need cause but little worry."
- "Money: Two bits equals 25 cents"
- "Chinatown is more conspicuous than important"
Through her descriptions, we can see a bit more of what Santa Barbara might have been like in the beginning of the 20th century. Beautiful, vibrant - yes.
But some of the chapters in our history have been dark, and harsh, as well....here, bulls and bears were paired to fight to the death for local sport, and a man once bull-whipped a rival in the middle of State Street. This is a place where pirates mauraded among the local ranchos, where robbers regularly attacked stagecoaches and trains, a city where murders were known to occur....
History tells us that horse thieves in California were common - as much so as today's car thieves.
However, for horse thieves - retribution was swift and harsh. And history will also tell us that men often covered their darkest deeds with half-truths or convenient lies to achieve their ends....
In her book, Ms. Weekes introduces readers to Santa Barbara's LARGEST OAK TREE - HORSE THIEF TREE. She begins by informing the reader that "the majestic 200-year-old oak tree commonly known as the 'horse thief tree'," was used by Spanish settlers to "hang Indian horse thieves."
According to the book, in 1913, the stories of the "legendary history" of the tree were common knowledge around town. It was said that the early Spanish settlers would hang "Indian horse thieves" from the branches of the huge old oak, and riddle them with bullets.
Since that time, it was said the tree was home to unsettled spirits. Mrs. Brandes, the owner of the land in 1913, advised Ms. Weekes Wilson that "several old settlers have told her the tree was haunted". The old-timers claimed to have witnessed ghostly apparitions near the tree, and wandering around the property.
The tree, located on the 400 block of De la Guerra Street, had undergone major surgery in that year - 1913. The tree was huge, and measured over 21 feet in circumference.
Mrs. Brandes had recently become concerned about the health of the large old tree. She had hired a tree surgeon from Los Angeles to come to Santa Barbara to try to save the tree, as it was suffering from life-threatening injury to its core. The injury had created a "cavity ten feet by three feet" in the center of the trunk. The tree surgeon, RB Sherman, had used a variety of methods to repair the damage: the inside had been burned out, lined with swinefurth green (?), covered with mesh, then asphaltum, and "hermetically sealed" with chemical cement and quartz.
All over America, "men interested in tree preservation" were aware of the attempt to save the old oak, and of the radical measures used to repair it. Santa Barbara and the rest of the nation could only wait and hope that the tree would survive. Ms. Weekes Wilson said the owner had decided to try to save the old tree, as it had "an interesting legendary history."
Mrs. B, however, denied witnessing any otherworldly activity herself.
In fact, Mrs. B gave a very prosaic explanation to counter the grizzly tale, by stating that she believed the tree was damaged by the previous property owner. The landowner was a gunsmith. Upon making needed repairs to various weapons, he would test the guns before returning them to their owners. He performed these tests by shooting at targets nailed to the trunk of the tree.
Mr. Sherman, tree surgeon, did in fact remove 16 bullets of the "home-moulded type" when he was repairing the tree. The only physical evidence that remains, is the tree itself, which does exhibit a large cavity in the trunk. You will have to determine for yourself the cause of the injury - whether the work of a tradesman performed in his daily labors - or that of the lawmen and vigilantes of the day, whose work included hanging horse thieves from the strong, high branches of an oak tree.
I had to know if the surgery worked - could the tree possibly still exist? It would be about 300 years old now....
I drove over to the 400 block of De la Guerra Street, as mentioned in the book, and found two huge old oaks living on the north side of the street. An apartment building now stands on the property shared by the trees. It's a new building, made to look old.
It is very possible that the property had been subdivided at some time in the past, and that one of these two old trees is actually the infamous "Hanging Tree."
I examined the trunks of the trees, and found one to have a very large and deep cavity in its trunk. Although not "ten feet by three feet", it certainly could have been that large almost 100 years ago. Although I did not measure the trunk, I estimate that it would take three adults, hand-to-hand, to circle the trunk. That could make it 21 feet in circumference - or more. It is certainly possible....
I have spent many days searching the internet - LA County Library website, Library of Congress, Online Archives of California - and my other books for any reference of the Hanging Tree. I can find nothing.
I contacted the Santa Barbara Historical Society, Gledhill Library. They knew nothing of the story. I emailed the City Arborist, but have not received a reply.
When I stand beneath the serpentine branches that whisper with the autumn breeze, a dark air of mystery swirls all around....I think about the true history of our city.
I wonder if men actually hung from these branches as the stories have told, and if so, how many of them were actually horse thieves....or was that term just a convenient justification for a crime much darker than stealing horses? If the tree is, indeed, haunted - whose ghosts are these? The hanged - or the executioners?