Virginia Is for Legends - "The Hanging Tree." - WSET.com - ABC13

Virginia Is for Legends - "The Hanging Tree."

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Reporter: Len Stevens | Videographer: Dan Heffner

Altavista, VA -- It's a Virginia Legend in Altavista: A tree there has a storied past. That story is about violence, murder, and the American Revolution 332 years ago. You may have heard a lot about it, but is what you heard true?

It happened on land that's now part of the Avoca Museum. In 1780, Colonel Charles Lynch gave British sympathizers harsh punishment, or Lynch's Law, under a tree.  Lots of people have asked Avoca Director Frank Murray about it.  Even Hollywood has called about the blood-soaked tale of men being hanged, murdered, to protect our emerging country.

"They wanted to," said Murray. "I was told they were going to make such a movie."

Except the story so many have heard about the tree, part of which is on display at the Avoca museum, is wrong.

"The hanging tree.  And it just, every time I hear that, it's like 'no, no, no, no.' No one was hung here, especially under this tree," said Murray.

Murray says many people are shocked or upset when they hear that.

"Oh, they want the blood," he said. "And it's a better story if people were hung."  

The real story goes as follows: Colonel Lynch, now buried at Avoca, was a fierce patriot and supporter of the new America. He was also a justice of the Peace.  And he heard about some devious plans.

"The Tories were on the way to Bedford County, New London area, to rob an arsenal.  They were coming to Altavista to get gunpowder and then they were going to march to Charlottesville to free 4,000 British soldiers. And then march to Yorktown," said Murray.

But that never happened because Lynch had them arrested and taken to that tree.

"And under this tree, they had a trial," said Murray. "Some of those were released.  Some were thrown in jail.  Most of them were simply, per the custom of the day, were hung by their thumbs and they were given 39 lashes, until they renounced their allegiance to the King of England.  And contrary to popular myth, no one was ever hung or killed in any manner here."

But what did happen quite possibly helped save our country. So many times during the war, Washington's army was close to defeat.  Suddenly having to face another 4,000 Redcoats could've ensured it.

"Had that happened, George Washington would've been between this army of 4,000 and Cornwallis.  So, you just never know.  It could've definitely.  I'm sure it saved lives," said Murray.

After the war ended, the state legislature granted Colonel Lynch and his helpers a pardon to protect them against any potential civil action against them by those loyalists who'd been tried, jailed, or whipped under that tree. Thomas Jefferson actually wrote a personal letter to Colonel Lynch, thanking him for his actions.

Many people think the term "Lynching" comes from Lynch's Law. It doesn't. Many scholars say it actually originates from 1400s Ireland, not Virginia.

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