By Estelle Timar-Wilcox
One of the most well-known landmarks from Civil War-era Falls Church is the site of the Hangman’s Tree, a massive oak tree that used to stand on the corner of Broad Street and Virginia Avenue.
The tree itself is long gone, but a plaque on a stone marking the spot tells the legend of the Hangman’s Tree: During the Civil War, when a Confederate colonel named John Mosby and his troops occupied the village of Falls Church, Mosby and his men supposedly used the tree to hang several enemies suspected of being Union sympathizers or spies.
The legend appears to simply be a legend, however.
Mosby and his men consistently kept detailed records of any hangings or similar actions, and they had no written record of hanging spies or enemies in the Falls Church tree.
The Union Army also recorded Mosby’s time in Falls Church, and, like Mosby, had no record of any hanging at this tree. The most detailed (yet still vague) account of the legend comes from Reverend Melvin Steadman, Falls Church historian and author of “Falls Church, by Fence and Fireside.”
Even this retelling of the story is indirect, though – Steadman’s account came from his grandmother, who claimed to have witnessed the event.
Only a few elements of the story are based in fact. Mosby and his men, commonly known as the Partisan Rangers, did occupy and raid Falls Church during the Civil War.
The legend itself possibly originated from Mosby’s real raid of the village and his attempt to capture and hang George Ives, his Falls Church enemy. Even though his attempt failed, many knew of his intention to hang Ives, which could have led to the legend of the Hangman’s Tree.
The tree of the legend came down in 1968, after its roots were damaged in the expansion of Broad Street in the 1950s. After the tree was removed, the Falls Church Historical Commission placed the plaque and stone on the site of the tree, keeping the legacy and story alive.
The plaque sits just behind a bus stop, in front of what is currently Liberty Barbecue. Though the legend is likely false, the landmark still stands as a reminder of the actual people and events that occurred in Falls Church during the Civil War.
This is the first in a series of articles by the News-Press highlighting landmarks and curiosities around the Falls Church area. Have an idea for a future article? Send your suggestions to us at [email protected]