The Hanging Tree
In 1945, as an eight year old boy, my father took me to Wilkesboro, North Carolina to attend the trial of his boyhood friend, Max Mull, who was being tried for murder and bank robbery. Daddy had attended Darby Elementary School through the fourth grade with Max where they were best friends.
Daddy said, “I lost touch with Max because my daddy moved us to Cherokee County in 1904. The reason my father gave for moving from Wilkes County to Cherokee County was because of the moonshining. To quote him exactly, ‘the people were just too mean.’
Max’s father was often in jail for drinking and selling moonshine, and during the times his daddy was in jail Max stayed with us. Max had a mother, but when his father was in jail, he preferred to stay at our house. Mother took care of Max as if he was one of her own, since we were the same age, we played together and Max spent many nights at my parent’s house.”
The purpose Daddy gave for wanting to attend Max’s trial was news reports weren’t too favorable for Max so he reasoned a character witness just might be the difference between a life and death sentence. The reason he took me with him was that he and Mother had nine children so taking me gave her some relief.
The trial was held in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, the County seat of Wilkes County. I was fascinated by a tree on the courthouse property called the ‘Hanging Tree.’ Locals called it the Tory Oak. It got its name from the hanging of at least five Tories in 1779. It was told that young boys would climb the hanging tree and watch the hangings from tree limbs. Daddy told me how history recorded Colonel Benjamin Cleveland had hung Loyalist militia leaders who opposed America’s independence from Britain. Other notables were hung from the tree, but probably the best known was Tom Dula (Dooley) who was hanged for the murder of his fiancée, Laura Foster. Tom Dooley’s story was made into a movie, plus the Kingston Trio turned his story into a top selling ballad titled: ‘Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley.’
At the time I saw the old hanging tree it was no longer in use and a fence around it kept people at a safe distance as its trunk was decaying in spots and its days were numbered. Arborist, tree surgeons, and maintenance men had tried various methods to stop the decay, but no doubt it would soon have to be taken down before a strong wind blew it down and caused extensive property damage. No other little boys would be climbing onto its limbs to watch a hanging, and no more community gatherings and picnics under the tree or no watching such notables as Tom Dooley and the Loyalists hang.
Wilkesboro was a small town, but to me it was a bustling metropolis with people and cars running everywhere. Inside the courthouse with it high ceilings and marble staircases, it was to an eight year old, mind boggling. The hustle and bustle with people running back and forth amazed me. Many soldiers returning from World War II were being greeted and honored. Daddy met a soldier he knew from school who was returning home after twenty five years of military service. Daddy introduced me saying, “Son, this is Cecil Washburn. Cecil and I went to school together until I moved away and not many years afterwards he joined the army.”
The courtroom was crowded as was the custom for a big trial, people came from all around to attend this sensational trial and to see the by now notorious, Max Mull. Daddy found us a seat near the back and in a few minutes Mr. Mull was brought into courtroom. Daddy said more to himself than to me, “That’s Max; I would never have recognized him.”
I noted he had chains on both his arms and legs. I didn’t say anything, but I thought as he looked out over the courtroom, He looks dangerous. He looked to be around fifty, ruggedly handsome, tall, slim, and needing a haircut. He looked around without indicating recognition of anyone in the audience; his face registered only hate or was it fear?
The judge then entered the courtroom and the sheriff ordered everyone to stand, and Daddy signaled me to join those standing up. Once the judge sat down we did also. The judge with his long black robe scared me more than did Max Mull. He glared out across the courtroom failing to smile, and his look was as if he was expecting trouble. I thought about my fourth grade teacher, Miss Boger, who made us stand up when she entered the classroom and remain standing until she was seated. The other boys and I called her, behind her back of course, ‘Miss Booger.’
Once the trial got underway, pictures of the victim were passed to the jury, and some were enlarged and placed on a stand for the audience to see. One picture was of the bank clerk who was killed with her two children, and one was mug shots of Max Mull. A third picture showed blood on the floor from the murder scene. The testimony and pictures were very frightening, and Daddy, without saying anything, handed me his pen and a piece of paper. I knew he didn’t think I should be hearing the testimony and seeing the pictures, and while I did scribble on the paper I listened to every word of the trial, and by glancing up every so often I didn’t miss a thing. I noticed a lady on the jury was crying and I wondered why. One man seemed to immediately fall asleep, but most watched and listened attentively to the testimony presented as evidence. During a recess, I slipped away from Daddy and joined several onlookers who studied the pictures.
From the testimony, it seemed as if Max had robbed a bank, and killed a bank clerk, the mother of two young children. According to testimony from the bank President, James Sims, Max took $254.00, property of the Wilkesboro Citizen Bank, and as he was leaving the bank turned and without any reason fired two shots one of which hit and killed the clerk.”
Max was soon captured and this trial today was to determine his punishment. Seated on his right was an attorney, but he didn’t ask a single question, seemingly just taking a few notes.
The bank guard identified Max as one who had robbed the bank where the bank clerk was killed. During the remainder of the trial, other testimony only served to further convict Max of the murder of the bank teller and bank robbery.
No evidence was presented on Max’s behalf. Not even a character witness. Daddy never told me why he didn’t testify on behalf of Max Mull. I did notice that Daddy seemed shocked hearing the shocking details and seeing the pictures presented during the trial. Mr. Mull was accused of committing a gruesome murder of the bank teller, the mother of two children, plus the robbery, such that Daddy, after that, didn’t offer to testify. I guess he realized Max was no longer the friend he knew as a boy.
We stayed for the entire trial which lasted only two days. The jury only deliberated a couple of hours before finding Mr. Mull guilty of first degree murder, for killing the bank clerk, and for bank robbery, but sentencing was delayed for a week so we didn’t hear the judgment. If Daddy heard later, he didn’t share the punishment with me.
Daddy did say, “I’m afraid Max will get the death sentence.” I cynically thought, Will they hang him from the hanging tree? I would like to see a hanging.