by James L.
The Haunted Tree of Shelby County's Square
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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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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,
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
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