The Hanging Tree

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The Lynching of Charles MacCauliffe
From: History of the Carrollton, Illinois Area 1821 - 1989
Ada Eileen Smith Cunningham, Project Director
Pages 176-177:


A man in a drunken stupor kills his brother-in-law in a local saloon. Later, after catching the fugitive killer, an angry mob lynches him on a sturdy oak tree, leaving the body to the mercy of the buzzards.

It is the stuff of a good western novel, but it didn't happen in the west and it was never a novel. It happened over 100 years ago in Greene County near Wrights and has become a bizarre legend retold over the years.

"Wrights was a prosperous little town in 1879," said Vera Harr, 91, of Carrollton. "It had several thriving businesses and a tavern. One night a local doctor known only as Doctor McCauliff got drunk with his brother-in-law James Heavener. They got into an argument and McCauliff took a double-barreled shotgun from behind the bar and killed Heavener."

According to Mrs. Harr, the doctor fled. A possee of neighborhood men found him hiding in a barn and took him into custody.

"After a discussion among them as to what should be done with the doctor, a constable (deputy sheriff) and several of the men loaded McCauliff into a horse-drawn farm wagon and started over the dirt road to Carrollton. When they passed a large oak tree just south of Hickory Grove Cemetery, they decided to hang him there and they did, apparently with the full approval of the constable.

"Later they told folks that a mob of men had taken the doctor from them, but that story probably wasn't true because after the hanging they had all gone home and went to bed. If someone had taken the doctor from them they would have scoured the countryside looking for him.

Mrs. Harr said the next morning some children walking down the lane found the doctor still hanging from the tree. They became frightened and told their parents.

"A crowd gathered and pondered what to do with his body. One story I heard is that they took the body to the railroad station and hanged him there so passersby could see him serving as a bad example.

My mother was born that year and grandma wasn't allowed to see the body for fear the baby would be marked for life."

Mrs. Harr said they finally decided to bury the doctor in an unmarked grave in the corner of Hickory Grove Cemetery.

"There was quite a stigma about wrongdoing back then. This was the day of public floggings for misbehavior, so the doctor was buried almost anonymously. My grandfather, John W. Flowers, who farmed in the area, though, thought the grave should be marked.

From the nearby woods he dug up a small cedar tree and planted it by the graveside. He then took cement and creek sand and molded a small upright monument. He took the doctor's nameplate and imbedded it in the wet cement. The plate read "Doctor McCauliff, Died 1879."

According to Mrs. Harr, the cedar tree her grandfather planted still guards the grave and had grown to 40 or 50 feet tall and is the only tree in the cemetery. Later, a marker was also placed on the "hanging tree." The nameplate on the grave is still easily readable.

In 1984, Mrs. Harr wrote an award-winning essay about the event. In it she says, "If yo linger there in summer dusk, when all nature seems to settle down to rest, you can hear from the field nearby the 'whippoorwill, whippoorwill." Then, later from the woods, "Who, who, who are you?" But the monument, made by Grandfather Flowers, tells 'who you are' even now."

Area legend says don't walk under the hanging tree at night. You might just see someone hanging there, waiting for burial.

By Vera Harr, as told to Ralph Helenthal

From page 38:

"Hanging Tree--An area landmark which drew visitors from Quincy recently was the county's well-known 'hanging tree' near Wrights northwest of Greenfield. The tree, which Carrollton resident Vera Harr memorialized in a prize-winning 1984 essay, was the scene of a March, 1879, lynching of Wrights physician Dr. Charles McCauliffe. The dead man's great-grandson, Charles Howe of Wuincy, returned to the scene of his great-grandfather's death with a companion, Quincy resident Richard Bayless. The two men were joined by Mrs. Harr and her son Louis of Greenfield in their visit to the tree, which is south of Hickory Grove Cemetery near Wrights. According to an 1879 newspaper account, MaCauliffe was hanged while being taken to Carrollton for trial after he shot and killed a nephew, who was intoxicated and had been behaving cruelly toward a sister. A group of local residents, who had taken custody of the doctor for the trip to Carrollton, later say they had been overtaken along the way by a lynch mob, which proceeded to hang MaCauliffe. Although their story did not meet with universal believ, no prosecutions were made. The stone marker near the base of the tree bears the metal plaque from the doctor's office door, and the tree itself displays a wooden plaque recounting some of the details of the incident. (From Green County Days 1988).

Note: The Hanging Tree has since blown down in a storm. The sign on the tree said: "The Hanging Tree. In memory of Doctor Charles MaCaullife, who was hugn here in 1879 by lynchers while in route to Carrollton for a trial."

The doctor's grave is in the southeast corner of Hickory Grove Cemetery. The metal plate reads "Doctor Macaullife" and below it is etched in the concrete: "Died 1879."

Submitted by: Allen Handling