Sitting on a bar stool on the very spot over 1,000 hangings took place in the 1800’s might spook the average person, but for the hearty customers of the Hangman’s Tree Lounge, it’s a reminder of the gold rush era when the town overflowed with prospectors and unfortunates. Not all those hung were guilty of a crime; some were put to death just in case.
In 1849 Placerville, California, was called Hangtown and was considered one of the major camps in the gold country. Originally known as Old Dry Diggin’s, the town’s notorious and frequent hangings accounted for the name change. It still hovers today in the form of disembodied spirits that haunt the town, the cemeteries, the old buildings and surrounding mountains and hills. Miners, weary of the crowds in Coloma, came looking for fertile ground in which to pan and placer mine. Old Dry Diggin’s proved to be a rich find.
Unfortunately as news spread, Hangtown became overrun with prospectors, the ever hopefuls, and as always, the element of greed and deceit. Claim jumping, murders and lawlessness became commonplace. The question was no longer who to hang, but how many at a time.
Justice was quick. A trial and hanging often happened on the same day – sometimes for trivial offenses as patience was no sanctity in those days. Kicking a man’s dog could cost you your neck and touching his gold could cost you 39 lashes before the hanging.
In 1849 three desperados were hung at the same time. Rumor has it they were given 39 lashes and were close to death from the beatings. Townsfolk hung them anyway. History has conflicting stories as to what their crime was. Some accounts say robbery, others say cheating at cards and a nasty fight afterwards that ended in a murder. Their remains were apparently not worth the trek to boot hill because they were buried behind the tree, now a parking lot beside Highway 50. A memorial is now in place. 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 Diggin’s to Hangtown. Let us not judge too harshly, for those were rough days of the Great Gold Rush. “
The Hangman’s Tree Lounge sits directly over the spot of the official hangman’s tree. Folks at the lounge see a ghost downstairs and sometimes floating above, which would be at the height of the scaffolds. In front of the lounge is a yellow Historical Marker, No. 141. Everyone knows once you enter this old building, you’ll feel the ominous, the aura of another time.
A patron mentioned that she had come in for a beer. When she went to the restroom, she saw a man coming out of the ladies room and thought it was odd, but assumed the men’s room was out of order. He was dressed in black with a top hat so she assumed he was dressed in costume. A few years ago a workman was startled to see a tall man in black walk through the wall from the Hangman’s Tree part of the building, stand in front of him and silently disappear. He quickly left the building and didn’t return until the next day when there was sunlight.
Staff members say the most startling thing is the shot glasses. They put them on the shelf and then find them in with the ice. If they had fallen, they would have landed on the counter. To get into the ice they would have had to fly.
Hanging from his neck from the second story of the building is “George,” a mannequin dressed in 1800 attire, his hands tied behind his back. He adds to the mystique of Placerville and the aura of the area. He’s been hanging there for about 55 years now.
I worked in an art gallery just down the street and always waved to George on the way to work in the morning. One day he was gone. My heart caught in my throat. How could he not be there for me to greet? Later I found out it’s customary to take George down every so often and give him a new set of clothes and clean him up. Much to my relief, in a few days he was back.
This information was taken from The Incredible World of GOLD RUSH GHOSTS, Written by Nancy Bradley and Robert Reppert. Photo by Marlene Urso.