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September 2008

Horse Thieves and the Hanging Tree Mystery - A Santa Barbara Ghost Story

Naturally, in autumn, our thoughts turn to ghosts and haunts, to scary stories and weird occurances - to life - and after life.  This month, we'll explore local ghost stories, autumn festivities and ideas, and the weird, the macabre, the spooky....

First, we'll learn about a local legend - a ghost 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. 

The little book is written in the flowery parlance of the time, and featuring capitalized words that fairly shout from the page:  "About the RAINY SEASON"..."OLIVES are raised in Santa Barbara"...and this gem, "An EARTHQUAKE has not been felt here for a hundred years, so the  danger from seismic disturbances need cause but little worry."

Ms. Weekes Wilson lists lots of things, like 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.)

California Land of Sunshine

Santa Barbara was a popular destination in those early days of the 20th century, bringin visitors to the area by "steamers" - passenger ships - from departure points such as  San Francisco, or  San Pedro.  Upon arrival, tourists had many opportunities for leisure activities and relaxation...

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.

The book also offers facts of questionable veracity and dubious use to the traveler.  Her intentions are especially obtuse in the section entitled "General and Miscellaneous Information":  

    • "The five banks in town are well-established"
    •  "Money: Two bits equals 25 cents"
    • "Chinatown is more conspicuous than important"
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Her descriptions offer us a glimpse into a day long past, and through her eyes, we can see a bit more of what Santa Barbara might have been like a the turn of the century.  Beautiful and charming, to be sure....

But our beginnings were tumultuous and harsh, as well....   This was a town in which bulls and bear were matched in a fight to the death in the city square, where a man once whipped a rival with a bullwhip on State Street, a place of stagecoach robberies, cattle theives, murders....

And history will tell us that horse thieves in California were as common in the 19th century as car thieves are now.   Santa Barbara was no exception.

Horses and Men

Ms. Weekes tells the tale of the 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',"  used by Spanish settlers to "hang Indian horse thieves."  Located on the 400 block of De la Guerra Street, and had, in 1913, recently undergone major surgery.  The tree was huge, and measured  over 21 feet in circumference. 

The property had changed hands many times through the years, and the owner, 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."

Below that is a section that reads:  Indians Hanged on Tree.

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 haunted.  Mrs. B, the owner of the land, went on to confirm the belief, stating that since she had lived on the property, "several old settlers have told her the tree was haunted".  They had witnessed ghostly apparitions for themselves.

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.

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Whether the history of the hanging tree were actual fact or a grim story, I wondered why it was only "Indian horse thieves" who were said to hang from the branches.  Surely, horse thieves from Mexico, Alta California, the United States, and Spain - were represented in equal numbers.   And I wondered who the haunted were - the hanged or the executioners?

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 address mentioned in the book, and found two huge old oaks very near the street number listed.  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.

But even without historical confirmation, when I stand beneath the serpentine branches that whisper with the autumn breeze,  a dark air of mystery swirls all around....I wonder if men actually hung from these branches as the stories have told, or if our love of ghostly stories created the tale for us.....

If you know anything about the story, or about the trees - please, let me know!

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California Pepper Tree

Until recently, in the great scheme of things, most of Southern California was an arid landscape of chaparral, oak trees, and grasses.  When the Spanish first arrived and began building homes and towns, they planted a few things in this new landscape, mostly small stands of  fruit trees, olive trees,and grape vines.  For shade trees, they favored a the schinus molle, a Peruvian native that we have now claimed for our own.  We call it the California Pepper Tree.

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The name is somewhat misleading as it is not originally from California, and it has no relation to any sort of  "pepper" .  It is a member of the anacardiacea family, which includes the cashew tree, and the sumac, as well.

In the early days, the trees were favored for their rough, dramatic trunks, and the light, feathery foliage that will, if the tree is left untrimmed,  droop clear to the ground. 

In the Pacific Coast Scenic Tour, a book written in 1890 by Henry Theophilus Finck,  Mr. Finck describes the California Pepper tree:

The red-pepper-tree, with its gracefully drooping branches, resembles a weeping willow, but its growth is more luxuriant, its dimensions larger, and it is adorned with bunches of beautiful small red berries.  -page 9

At the turn of the last century, it was, along with the eucalyptus, the most widely planted tree in Southern California.   It was also extolled for its virtue in creating windbreaks when densely planted.  It was even touted for its excellence as a "dust-catcher", as dust was an ever-present and very real problem in the Old West.

However, with the coming of the citrus ranches, it was discovered that a fungus harbored by the California Pepper was injurious to the oranges and lemons in this new and lucrative industry.  Soon, California Pepper trees were cut down by the hundreds.

However, there are some fine old specimens still to be found.  They will always be found near the California missions; it is said that every pepper tree in California came from the parent tree planted at the Mission San Luis Rey.  The 1940 edition of Trees of Santa Barbara notes that the pepper tree at the Santa Barbara Mission was planted in 1825, a progeny from that parent tree near San Diego.

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Throughout Santa Barbara, you'll find quite a few fine pepper trees around town and along highways and back roads.  According to the 1941 Works Project Administration book entitled Santa Barbara,  the pepper tree in front of our City Hall is "ancient".  De la Guerra Plaza, location of our City Hall, was established in 1855, and has been in continuous use since then.  I don't know when the tree was planted.  But as you can see from the picture above, it is a wonderful specimen.  These trees have become icons of a younger, more romantic time in California.

Jesse Pryse Arthur published an ode to the tree in a volume of Sunset, the Pacific Monthly, printed in 1913:

The pleasantest place for a child to be,

Is under my tent, the old pepper tree.

Its fern-like branches droop clear to the ground,

Its red and green berries peep in all around,

The shiny brown grasses have woven a mat -

No gypsy queen has a carpet like that.

I love to breathe the spicy scent

Which fills the air of my pepper tree tent.