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Placerville's hangman hangs no more

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Image credit: Nancy Bradley
Image credit: Nancy Bradley
Nancy Bradley: A dirty manikin in old clothes hung by the neck from the second story of the building, a grim reminder of a troubled time when Placerville California was called ‘Dry Diggins and later Old Hangtown” as a reminder to all gold diggers that they should not jump claims or commit any other bad deeds. Old Hangtown saw more hangings than anywhere else on the map in the gold rush days. And the spot where the manikin named “George” hung was just under the spot where the official hangman’s tree once stood. The tree’s root is still evident under a crawl space in the Hangman’s Tree bar that for years occupied that spot. Sadly times change, and the bar being on Main Street Placerville where alleged mischievous activity from drinkers from anywhere around was no longer welcome, along with the increasingly dilapidated condition of the old building, forced the shutting of the doors. George hangs no more.

But there are many ghost stories of when the bar was in operation there.

Sitting on a bar stool in the spot where over 1,000 hangings tool place in the 1800s, might well “spook” the average person, but for the hearty customers that ‘hung out’ (pun intended, at the old Hangman Tree lounge, it was primarily just another reminder of a time when the town frothed with prospectors and unfortunates. Often they would hold their glasses in the air in a silent toast to their fallen brothers. After all, not all those hung were guilty of a horrendous crime. Some were just put to death. Just in case! A bar since 1933, it stood many a test of time, and the test of may an old ghost that wanted to be seen.

Formerly located in what is now lower Main Street Placerville, the Hangman’s Tree Lounge was a very popular place, the business run for over thirty years by Jim and Ruby DeCair. The history of the place and the things that go “bump in the night” became commonplace, and after a while did not rattle the proprietors or the staff. “Sure we hear things we cannot explain,” former owner Ruby was to tell the author. “I had a bartender a while back that talked of seeing a ghost in the building and he was not the type to tell tales.” The spirit wants to be called Darrell, a name he gave himself, one he fancied, as he does not want to use his real name. He is one of the hangmen.

But again, the former Hangman’s Tree lounge sits directly over the spot of the Hangman’s tree of the 1800s. There are many old trees in Placerville, and most of them saw their fair share of hangings. This one had long been chopped down. In front of the Hangman building you can see historic marker #141 which reminds us of the spot. Everyone knows if you still had access to enter this old building you would feel the ominous aura of another time.

Carla Phillips, longtime resident and total believer, was eager to discuss her experience. “I came in for a beer with my husband after work,” she told us. “It was a hot day in July and we needed a break. After the second beer, I excused myself to go to the restroom. I got up and headed in that direction. I saw a man coming out of the ladies’ room, and I thought that it was odd, but assumed the men’s room must be out of order. He was dressed real funny-like, in black and with a top hat. I thought to myself, “Maybe we are having a Pioneer Day, or a parade or something.’ Anyway, when I went back to my seat, he was not in the bar. I asked my husband if he saw him leave, but he had not. No one else in the bar had seen him that day either, and there was no parade that day or anything.”

Phillips assured us she had only had two beers. “I was not drunk!” she stated emphatically. “If I was, I could have come up with something more original than a tall man in black. I do believe this was a highlight in my life. Imagine seeing a ghost! WOW!” A former bartender who worked at the Hangman’s Tree lounge took me aside. “She is a regular client and a straight shooter so is not giving you stories. However, what she experienced, the same guy, dressed the same is the hangman. Many people have seen him, as well as me.”

Robin Elliott, another former bartender of the establishment and one who worked there for over twenty-five years is no stranger to ghosts. “Oftentimes when my back is turned, I feel someone watching me from behind, like at the jukebox area. When I turn around there is no one there. There is a ritual that the bartenders performed each night at closing time, which is to open the restroom doors to make certain no one is left behind when we lock up. When I go back a second time, they are closed again.

“I do believe the most startling thing is the shot glasses” she told us. “We put them on the shelf, and find them in the ice. This is completely impossible. If they were to fall of the shelf they would hit the counter. They would have to FLY quite a distance to reach the ice.” Elliott also had a friend who carried on a conversation with someone at the bar and turned away for a second only to turn around and find there was no one there.

Not too many years ago, while working at night on the business adjacent to the Hangman’s Tree, a workman was startled to see a tall man dressed in black walk through the wall from the Hangman’s Tree side of the building, stand in front of him, and silently disappear. With the controlled swiftness of one in shock, the contractor came down off his ladder, walked to the counter to retrieve his car keys, and leaving his tools where they lay, left the building. He did not return until the sun came of the following day and there were others around. I guess babysitting ghosts was not part of his contract.

In 1849, three desperados were hung at the same time from the tree at the location of the Hangman’s Tree lounge. Rumor has it they were given 39 lashes and were close to death from the beatings prior. Townsfolk hung them anyway. History has conflicting stories as to what their crimes were. Some accounts say robbery, while others say it was cheating at cards and a nasty fight afterwards that ended in a murder. Their remains were apparently not worth the trek to “book hill,” because they were buried behind the tree, which is now a parking lot. On January 24, 1959, the James W. Marshall Chapter of E.Clampus Vitus erected a monument to mark the spot. It reads:

“Somewhere here lies the remains of the three unfortunates hanged in late 1849 from the oak tree in the feed corral. After a fair trial by the Vigilantes this incident changed the name of Dry Diggins to Hangtown. Let us not judge too harshly, for those were rough days of the Great Gold Rush.”

Imagine too the morning that bar owner Ruby DeCair had her startling experience. “I put my key in the door and opened it as I always do. As I walked through the doors to turn the light on I saw a man sitting at the table directly in front of me. He was wearing a tall hat and a black coat. I jumped, turned around, and he disappeared!” The jukebox would go off and on at its own accord. Ah, the many stories to be told about this place.

Unfortunately time was not on its side. You must check out the spot before the building is torn down or otherwise not available to the public even from the outside. An old haunting, soon to be stilled to take its final resting place in history.

Copyright @ 2009 NANCYBRADLEY to be in the upcoming book ‘BE A GHOSTBUSTER WITH GOLD RUSH GHOSTS PARANORMAL INVESTIGATIONS due out in September.

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