FICTION: The Gallows Tree by David Meuel  

Posted by Scott Wilson

On November 27, 1933, a large mob—stirred by inflammatory news reports—stormed the Santa Clara County Jail in downtown San Jose, California; overpowered local law officers; forcibly took two men from their jail cells; and hanged them from a cork elm tree in nearby St. James Park. The two men, Thomas Harold Thurmond and James A. Holmes, had been arrested for the kidnapping and murder of a young San Jose man, Brooke Hart. But they had not been indicted, arraigned, tried, or sentenced for the crime by a court. Five days later, the San Jose City Council voted to cut the cork elm down. As city workers performed the task, police stood guard to assure that onlookers did not take pieces of the newly nicknamed “gallows tree” as souvenirs.

As the men from the Park Department unloaded their ladders and the city’s new gas-powered chain saws from their flatbed truck, one of them, Walt Massey, looked about. In front of them stood the tall, full, elegantly shaped cork elm tree where all the excitement had been the other night. Around the tree, six policemen stood stiffly in a ring looking out. And around them—staring back—were about a dozen small clumps of people. Everyone was so quiet, Walt thought. It was far cry from what it must have been like that night.

“I’ve been with the department six years,” Walt told his friend Ernie, “and this is the first time we’ve ever needed police protection.”

Ernie laughed and then looked at the elm. “The whole thing’s a shame,” he said.

Walt looked at it too. He noticed the gashes in the trunk people had made the other night and since as they ripped off pieces of bark and wood to keep as souvenirs. “Yea,” he said, “what happened to those two guys wasn’t right.”

“No, I was saying it’s a shame we have to cut down this tree,” said Ernie. “Those guys got what was coming to them.”

“Maybe so. I just wish it was done legal-like.”

“Yea, but there was that talk about their lawyer getting them off on some trumped-up insanity plea.”

“We don’t know that for sure. That was just the talk in the newspapers.”

“And on the radio.”

The men picked up the ladders and chain saws and walked single file between two of the groups of onlookers and then through the police ring. Mel, their supervisor, gave the men their assignments. And they went to work, first cutting off smaller branches from the top of the tree and then working their way down.

As they worked, Walt thought about what he had been keeping him awake all week. Had Ernie been here that night? Had he cheered the mob on? Had he even played a role in what happened? All week people had talked about that night and little else. But none of Walt’s friends had actually admitted to being there or not. Not even Ernie.

By lunch, much of the tree had been cut down and then cut up into pieces four or five feet in length. All that remained were a few of the lower hanging branches and the trunk.

“I just don’t like it,” Ernie said when the men stopped to eat. “Cutting down diseased trees is one thing, but cutting down a beautiful, healthy tree like that is criminal.”

“What do you expect the city to do?” said Walt.

“Leave it up. The tree didn’t kill anyone.”

As Ernie ate some grapes, Walt fidgeted a bit and asked: “Ernie, were you here that night?”

Ernie looked startled. “No,” he said. “I was sure curious, but Millie said ‘no way.’ She was probably right. Who knows what kind of trouble those people will get into?”

Walt’s entire body relaxed. “I didn’t think so,” he said, smiling. “Anyway, you’re too nice a guy to be a part of something like that.”

Ernie blushed and smiled back.

That afternoon, the men finished the tree cutting and took two heaping truckloads of tree parts to the city dump, where, under another police guard, all the wood was burned.

After work Ernie asked Walt if he wanted to get a beer. The two went to Joe’s on First Street, and, for the first time in a week, Walt felt completely free to talk about anything he wanted to.

Forty minutes later they left, and as they walked out onto the dark, empty sidewalk, Ernie grabbed Walt’s arm and looked furtively about. Walt stopped, turned to him, and looked confused. Then Ernie pulled several wood chips from his coat pocket and—in a grand gesture—placed them in Walt’s hand.

“You don’t get it now,” Ernie said. “But someday you’ll thank me for this. Someday you’ll show these to your grandkids and say that, yes, you lived in San Jose when the people here stood up to the slick lawyers and gutless cops—when we told the world that we won’t put up with kidnappers and murderers. Someday people everywhere will see those folks as heroes. And you will, too.”

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