If you visit my apartment building in Flushing, you would notice an oddly shaped garden apartment right across the street, sitting on a tiny, rectangular plot of land. The architecture of the building makes no logical sense at first; you have to accept that Mrs. Vanello, who owned the liquor store on Kissena Blvd for twenty years, also owned this property, and despite the wishes of the community-at-large, wanted to build her home there. The original plans called for a normal, rectangular-shaped building, but the untamed plot of land, which we liked to ironically call “The Forest,” contained an important part of local history — a tree dating from the Revolutionary War.
This tree represented an important part of my childhood. Until several years ago, this tiny plot was completely covered with ungroomed, tentacle-like weeds and plants surrounding the large ancient tree, bowing before it, like it was a deity.
When I would walk to elementary school with my friends Rob and Barry, we would trade stories about the tree on “The Forest,” bit and pieces of rumor and gossip about the true meaning of the oldest living member of our community. Our parents rarely talked to us about the tree, just that it was a relic of the Revolutionary War. We were never sure if they were ignorant of the history, or hiding it from us, like a parent avoiding talking about the birds and the bees.
While the tales we heard in school differed depending on which grade we were in at the time, the facts were similar to what we finally discovered by a simple visit to the archives at the Queens College Library, which we visited for a high school report on the Tree (remember, Google didn’t exist yet when I was in high school, so we had to go to a real library).
During the Revolutionary War, there was the Battle of Long Island. The Flushing area where I currently live was primarily farmland owned by the Parsons family. Alexander Parsons lived alone with his daughter and was an ultra-religious man, not caring whether his loyalties went to the British or the colonists. He just cared about hard work and the Bible.
In is younger days, Alexander Parsons was a rabble-rouser, frequently traveling to Brooklyn with his famous cider packed on each side of his saddle, but after the death of his wife, Betsy, his heart grew cold, and he became a hermit.
One night, a group of British soldiers knocked on his door, asking for food and shelter. His daughter, Sarah, cooked them dinner while Parsons entertained the guests by reading passages from the New Testament. As he recited the section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he noticed that the soldiers were more interested in his daughter, with — as Parsons imagined — lurid fantasies of mounting her instead. Parsons was disgusted at the sinful glances, and after dinner, Parsons said that he had to rise early, and quickly shuttled the soldiers to the stables where they would fnd their “beds” of hay. After the soldiers were comfortable, Parsons went the extra step and locked his daughter in the broom closet.
All night, Parsons was awake, a stoic patriarchal sentinel, refusing to release his daughter from the closet, ignoring her knocks and teary cries. He was certain that SHE had been a part of this indecent exchange with the British soldiers. Did she shoot a lustful glance at one of the soldiers to attract him? Perhaps she was intrigued by the powerful commanding officer with the large mustache, strong posture, and attention-getting uniform that snuggly fitted his masculine body? Is it possible that she willing to lie with all of them at once, to give her body freely, wantonly, insulting the image of her perfect late mother, who remained a virgin until her wedding day? And what about the soldiers in the stables? Could he trust them — these men filled with vigor and violence, like stallions eager for battle? What if they rammed through the door in the middle of the night, and demanded to take her at all costs, using force to satisfy their animal urges?
Parsons own mind drove him insane that night, and as the soldiers slept soundly, exhausted from travel, Parsons walked into the stable with his sharp meat knife, and slit the necks of each soldier.
Parsons returned to his house, knife still in hand and opened the closet door. His daughter saw the blood dripping down the knife handle onto her father’s worn, bony hands.
“What have you done?!” she screamed.
“I have sent those sinners to HELL!”
“Why? Why? I don’t understand? Why did you lock me up? Why did you kill those soldiers”
“I know what you wanted to do with those men.”
Parsons eyes were as blood-red as the knife, as he continued screaming, spittle flying from his mouth.
“My own flesh and blood is like a female serpent luring her prey. That’s why they looked at you like that. Wanting to rip off your clothes, to reveal your tender full breasts, to steal your precious womanhood from inside your fiery furnace of decadence!”
Parsons grabbed the arm of his daughter.
“Stop it! You’re hurting me!” she screamed.
He dragged her outside into the dark, cold night where wolves were already howling, smelling blood.
But Parsons did not use his knife. He carried her to the largest tree on his property, and hung his own daughter with a sturdy rope.
The next day, British troops approached, searching for three of their men. They found their bodies in the stable, their heads rolled several feet away, maggots and rats and possoms eating the eyes and brains of their fallen comrades.
Sarah Parsons was hanging from her father’s tree, her eyes still open, a horrified gaze affixed until her last seconds of life, her slanted mouth still forming her father’s name in vain.
Alexander Parsons was in the house, naked, flogging himself with a whip, his back bloody as each self-inflicted crack beat his skin again, bent over as he read from his favorite Bible verses, as if he was in a trance. He never looked up from the Bible, even as he was carried away by the officers. He was forever lost in time and place, awaiting to meet his Maker.
The British Military Tribunal found Alexander Parsons guilty of murder and hung him from the same tree as he had hung his daughter.
Fast forward to 2003. Mrs. Vanello, the current owner of the property, wanted to build her home on the “The Forest” next to “The Hanging Tree.” Local Queens Community Board #27, after a heated discussion, decided that the tree was an important historical landmark to the area, so she couldn’t chop down the tree. Mrs. Vanello, a woman who doesn’t like to say no for an answer, build the home anyway — a triangular monstrosity that avoided the tree, letting it remain standing to the side of her driveway, like an ancient oddity.
Mrs. Vanello was not new to controversy. The Community Board tried to close her liquor store because it was a blight on the neighborhood, serving the bums and the hoodlums. She pulled her daughter out of high school because she was “dating” a Puerto Rican boy. Some hated her for her sense of privilege. Her uncle was a big shot in Queens politics, who always protected her from local outrage.
About three months ago, there was a huge storm in New York City — a tornado even (remember that?!). The epicenter was, of all places, my neighborhood in Queens. Windows were broken. Branches cracked. But the biggest tragedy was after almost two and a half centuries of existence, the famous “Hanging Tree” fell blown over, like a mighty statue which finally turned to dust. It was the last piece of Revolutionary War history in our neighborhood.
As you can see from the included photos, the city still hasn’t taken away the remains of the tree. The Community Board is dealing with the red tape on how to clean up a fallen landmark.
This morning, Halloween, there was a ring at the bell. I cursed under my breath, thinking it was Trick or Treaters already making their rounds at 9AM. Kids are so impatient today. But it was not children in cute costumes; it was my next door neighbor, Lily. She invited herself into my apartment.
“Call your mother,” she said.
My mother came from the bedroom, and Lily took us to the window by the dining room; it faced the Vanello house by the old Parsons Tree. There were several cop cars in front of the Vanello property. This was not unusual, because both Mrs. Vanello and her daughter, Angella, were tempestuous women who had loud arguments that inspired calls to 911. You could sometimes hear the crashing of dishes from the Vanello place from up in my bedroom.
“This time it is serious,” said Lily.
Lily explained that both Mrs. Vanello and her daughter were both found hanging from their ceiling fan. They are dead. The scene was gruesome.
“Who? Why?” asked my mother, trembling.
I was also in shock at the news.
“You know I’m not a superstitious woman,” said Lily, taking a deep breath. “I am a science teacher at Stuyvesant High School, and an avowed atheist.”
My mother and I both nodded. She was even the head of the Queens Atheism Club.
“But the rumor is that when the tree fell down, it unleashed the spirit of old Alexander Parsons.”
It was as if Lily’s hair was turning gray in front of me.
I was still skeptical.
“Are you saying the ghost of Alexander Parsons was the one who hanged Mrs. Vanello and her daughter?”
Down below, on the street, an ambulance had just arrived. Two bodies were being wheeled out of the home, past the stump and the remains of the old Hanging Tree.
“Is it possible?” I thought to myself. “Is it truly possible that there are ghosts among us, some good and some evil?”
I thought back to that report I did in high school. I went into my closet to retrieve it. My mother had kept all of my school report in a neat folder. I was shocked at what I learned.
“Alexander Parsons was hung on October 31, 1777, on All Hallow’s Eve. As the noose was put around his neck, he promised to some day return, when the time was right, and to take revenge on all LUSTFUL SINNERS EVERYWHERE!”
“I think he plans on striking again tonight!” said the terrified Lily.
“But WHO? WHERE?” screamed my mother.
“No one knows,” answered Lily. “But anyone hearing or even reading about this story about the old tree is in a great deal of danger. It doesn’t matter where you live or how far away from Flushing or Queens. It could be ANYONE who has ever lusted or had a sinful thought or had once gone onto a porn site with amateur videos where the brunette looks vaguely like someone you went to graduate school with several years ago. Everyone is in danger of the Flushing Halloween Hangman!”