The Great Elm: Boston’s Hanging

Boston Pirate Trail

The Great Elm: Boston’s Hanging

Boston, Massachusetts 02115, United States

Created By: Simmons University


Located within the Boston Common and a short distance away from the Freedom Trail that runs through the Common is a plaque commemorating the historic Great Elm,. The Great Elm was an American Elm tree that embodied Boston’s particular reputation and cultural association with colonial development, Revolutionary history, liberty, and justice, as the plaque describes the tree’s usage as an assembly place for the revolutionary Sons of Liberty as well as a site for some of the first Methodist sermons in Massachusetts.[1] The honorable history and usage for the Great Elm, however, is contrasted by its common public use as a hanging tree. Its reputed size and public accessibility made it an icon of the townspeople during Boston’s development. Among those who were punished by death here were pirates, religious “convicts,” indigenous Americans, punished enslaved people, those accused of witchcraft, and other felons.[2]

Rachel Wall, who followed in the piratical tradition of the two most famous women-pirates, Ann Bonney and Mary Read, was just one of the pirates executed at this tree, but she notably was the last woman in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to be subjected to death by hanging. On October 8, 1789, a crowd of thousands gathered to watch her public execution, which demonstrated the popularity of such events prior to the 19th century. Rachel Wall had a history of theft but only engaged in piracy between 1781 and 1782 off the New Hampshire coast, when she had admitted to assisting in the capture of 12 ships and killing their crews with her husband and fellow pirates. Although Wall was caught and tried for robbery in Boston, she requested that she be tried as a pirate despite the certainty that she would be sentenced to death. Her loyalty to the title of a pirate exemplifies an attitude both of a pirate’s pride in their actions and the popular notions of piracy as lawless and anarchic. Rachel Wall being the last woman hanged by law in Massachusetts for being a pirate as opposed to her other felonies reflected how American governing forces opposed the havoc on law and commerce committed by pirates.[3]

Although there is no exact age for the Great Elm, it was reported to have been standing in Boston since at least the 17th century during the settlement and initial building of the town.[4] The Great Elm was a familiar presence in old Boston, and high traffic in the Common stressed the Great Elm’s sociopolitical importance from a rallying place for revolutionary heroes to a place of everyday leisure and social activity, including capital punishment. At the point in which the Great Elm was too weathered and weak to support hangings from the tree itself, scaffolds and gallows were built next to the tree to continue public executions. Though used for important activities, the accessibility of Boston Common as a shared public space and later as a public park was stressed. “The rising ground from which the view is given is a short distance West of where the State House now stands, and was then a few rods from the old Hancock estate.”[5] With the rise of tourism, attention to the Great Elm increased so much that the tree suffered damage in addition to natural weathering and age, and it finally blew down in 1876 despite years of protective efforts.[6]

The plaque for the Great Elm was placed by the Northeast Methodist Historical Society in the years following the its fall, particularly for the interest of preserving Methodist history where some of the largest early sermons were conducted at the Great Elm. The plaque placed there today reads:

“Here the Sons of Liberty assembled
Here Jesse Lee, Methodist pioneer, preached in 1790,
The landmark of the Common, the Elm blew down in 1876
Placed by the N.E. Methodist Historical Society.”

While the Great Elm is commemorated with a plaque, its historic significance as a hanging site is all but forgotten.

—Christina Jang

[1] Wagner, Grace. “The Beehive. The Official Blog of the MHS.” The Tree on Boston Common | Beehive, 24 Feb. 2017
[2] Harris, John, and Erica Bollerud. The Boston Globe Historic Walks in Old Boston. Globe Pequot Press, 2000. 10-11
[3] Edward Rowe Snow, Piracy, Mutiny, and Murder (New York: Dodd, Mead. 1969). 68-76.
[4] Kaitlin Connolly, “The Great Elm on Boston Common.” The Great Elm on Boston Common, 1 Jan. 1970,
[5] Jesse Lee, Memorial of Jesse Lee and the Old Elm. Eighty-Fifth Anniversary of Jesse Lee's Sermon under the Old Elm, Boston Common, Held Sunday Evening, July 11, 1875. With a Historical Sketch of the Great Tree” 1845-1934. (Boston, J. P. Magee, 1 Jan. 1875). Internet Archive.
[6] Kaitlin Connolly, “The Great Elm on Boston Common.” The Great Elm on Boston Common, 1 Jan. 1970,
[7] Grace Wagner, “The Tree on Boston Common," The Beehive. The Official Blog of the MHS, 24 Feb. 2017,

Pictured: The Great Elm, 1813. Though Anne Bonney and Mary Read are the most famous woman pirates from the Golden Age of Piracy, Rachel Wall was hanged for the crime. (Bonney & Read from A General History of Pyrates, London, 1725).

**To go to the African Meeting House (Site 15), continue on the path and take a right and then a left towards Joy Street. Continue on Joy Street and take a left onto Smith Ct. where the destination will be on the left.**

This point of interest is part of the tour: Boston Pirate Trail


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