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Ghosts / Historic Trees

Hanging Tree
The Haunted Tree of
Shelby County's Square

Center, Texas

by James L. Choron
James L. Choron
You know, I investigate the paranormal. I've been doing it for some time, now, almost all my life, in one way or another. But in all that time, I've never encountered anything that's really "scary". Some of the cases I've been on are pathetic, some are tragic, but I've rarely been on a case that proved truly frightening. I got involved in the investigation of the paranormal through two main sources. First of all, I'm a "natural" sensitive, and I've always been aware of the presence of spirits as far back as I can remember. Secondly, I am basically a reporter. I've been in Journalism, photography, or some form of media work for my entire adult working life. I actually started before I was an adult. I was fifteen when I got my first "newspaper" Job. That was thirty-five years ago that is scary.

I was looking through my files the other day, the old files that are not on my computer. The hand written notes and clippings that span over a quarter of a century, and come from over a dozen weekly papers and dailies most of which no longer exist… files that were written before they knew what a "personal computer" was. They are files from a time when we set the type for the weekly run in hot lead, on a "linotype" machine… something that most journalists, today, have only seen in a museum.

My first job was with a weekly paper, called the "Champion". It was an old paper, founded just after the establishment of my hometown, in the days following the Civil War. It was owned by Mr. Robert Pinkston. "Mr. Bob", who was the third generation of his family to own it, later passed it on to his son, Robert Jr., or "Bobby", who ran it until he was killed in an unfortunate fishing accident, some five years ago.

In any case, in the summer of 1969, Mr. Bob gave me my first real job in the newspaper business. I was his newest "typesetter". I have always had a talent for typing fairly fast, without making too many mistakes, so I was paid the amazing, at that time, especially for a teenager, sum of $3.50 an hour for sitting in front of a linotype machine, wearing a pair of elbow length leather gauntlets, and dodging the molten lead that the smelter spit out at the operator while he was typing. I've got dozens of little white scars on my forearms, to this day, to prove my apprenticeship.

Not too long after going to work for the Champion, I was elevated, accidentally, to the post of "Staff Photographer" and "Staff Writer". It was a Saturday afternoon in late July, and I was alone in the office, except for Mr. Bob. I was setting up the last of the week's obituaries for printing in the Monday edition. The Champion was bi-weekly then, with Monday and Wednesday editions. I was almost finished when Mr. Bob came into the linotype room with a look of extreme urgency on his usually unhurried and unconcerned face.

"Jimmy, I can' t find Guy (the regular photographer) and I need somebody to go and take a picture. You think you can do it?"

"I'll try," I said. "What is it?"

Mr. Bob ran his hand through his thinning hair, then pushed the round, wire-framed glasses back onto the bridge of his nose. "Oh, it's nothing earthshaking", he drawled in his soft gravely voice. "They've got a crew over on the courthouse square getting ready to cut down that big old oak in front of the old jail".

"That's the Hanging Tree, " I commented.

"That's right, Jimmy, it is". He handed me what had to be the biggest camera I'd ever seen in my life, then said "pay attention, son, I'm only going to show you how to work this thing once". After a "crash course" that lasted all of five minutes, in the intricacies, care and feeding of the “Crown Graphic”, a real relic, even then… a large format, sheet film camera that produced a negative the size of a postcard, I was on my way out the door, camera around my neck and notebook in my hand.

I crossed the street that formed the eastside of the courthouse square, crossed the inside parking area, and mounted the courthouse lawn at a dead run. In the distance about fifty yards away, I could see the block-like, three story old jail, standing in front of the courthouse. At that time, it was being used as the Panola County library. As I raced past the old band stand, and around the corner of the old jail to the front of the structure, I could see a group of three or four men, with saws, axes, a chain and other implements of destruction gathered at the foot of the old hanging tree.

Now having grown up in the county, I knew the story of the hanging tree by heart. Back in the 1920's a man named Moses Burke had been unfortunate enough to be found standing over the dead body of Mr. John T. Wheeler. Mr. Wheeler being white, and Mr. Burke being black. Not a good combination, that… not in East Texas, in the twenties… Now, whether Mr. Burke actually killed Mr. Wheeler or not, has never been established. If it was murder, there really isn't much telling what triggered it, as Mr. Wheeler could have said, or done almost anything. He was not in the highest state of sobriety at the time of his death, nor was Mr. Burke.

Sheriff* (see Forum), and City Marshall Bryan McCallum were, however, duty bound to arrest Mr. Burke and hold him for trial, since he was found to be standing over the body, holding a large board, and Dr. Tommy Hurst, the County Coroner established that Mr. Wheeler had died form a blow to the head with a blunt object.

Now, my hometown is tiny. It has never had over five thousand inhabitants at any given time, and at that time, it had only around two thousand. Word spread and things turned ugly fast. A mob formed, and Mr. Burke was broken out of jail, taken out front to the oak, and hanged. In their defense, it must be said that Mr. Christian and Mr. McCallum did their best to prevent this, however, they were outnumbered some ten to one by their masked visitors, who assured them that they had "plenty of rope for three."

Charlie B. and Bryan cut Moses Burke down later that night, and laid him out in one of the cells. He was buried two days later, the day after John T. Wheeler was laid to rest. Trouble is, old Moses didn't rest.

The "Hanging Tree" apparently died not long after that, but no one bothered to cut it down, and within a year or two, it had somehow managed to "come back to life". They thought about getting rid of it a time or two, and supposedly, it was tried once or twice, but somehow, the old tree just stayed there. In time, it was said that Moses Burke "lived" in that old tree, and any time anyone tried to cut it, he would wail and moan, and cry for help, and protest his innocence.

In any case, I took one good photo of the tree, with the group of workers around it, then sat back and waited for them to start up the chain saw and get to work. In a few minutes, the air was rent with the sound of the sputtering, snarling motor, and the rattle of the spinning chain. There was an unmistakable lag in the rhythm of the saw's motor as the chain bit into the hard, seasoned wood of the old tree, then… the otherwise still summer air was pierced by the most horrifying, blood-curdling scream that can possibly be imagined. It seemed to originate deep within the old oak, but was everywhere at once. It echoed off of the walls of the buildings lining the town square and literally beat its way into the consciousness of everyone present. Everyone on the square heard it. There was no mistake. I tried to get focused and get a photo of the tree. No luck. I was too busy trying to keep from being trampled by the departing work crew, who completely abandoned their chainsaw and left it hanging in the old tree. Of course, the stampede jolted the old cameral open, so I didn't have any picture, either.

I wasn't looking forward to going back to the office so I took my time. When I finally did get back, Mr. Bob was standing on the sidewalk, looking out toward the courthouse square, with a big smile on his face. It's been over thirty-five years, and I can still see him and hear him now.

"Looks like you got run hard and hung out wet", he growled. "Camera looks pretty beat up, too. I suppose you don't have any pictures?"

"No, Mr. Bob," I admitted. "I don't. They almost trampled me to death… you saw", I began.

"Don't worry, Jimmy I saw it… heard it, too. You did a fine job. I didn't expect you to come back with any pictures. They've been trying to cut that old tree down for years. It hasn't worked yet. That's why I didn't give you one of the good cameras. I did figure you'd come back with a good story, though. Now let's see how good you can write".

Mr. Bob has been dead for over fifteen years. Bobby, his son, has been gone for five. The old Champion is no more. It’s part of a conglomerate. The old "Hanging Tree" is still there. There are too many people still around who remember the last time someone tried to cut it down.

© James L. Choron
June 26, 2004

Subject: Hanging tree in Shelby County

The article written about the hanging tree in Shelby County says that the County sheriff and City Marshall were Charlie B. Christian and Bryan McCallum. Charlie B. Christian, my father, was born in 1921. He was the sheriff in the 50's and 60's and deputy sheriff in the late 40's. - May 26, 2008

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