The history of Aurora’s 'Hanging Tree'

By John Kudley Jr.
Aurora’s “Hanging Tree”

In the early 1800s a stately Elm tree stood in the front yard of the red brick home at 60 East Pioneer Trail. It was there that one of Aurora’s most notable murders took place. In the late fall of 1859, the owner of the home was stabbed to death under the Elm. The victim of the stabbing was well known and loved by the townspeople. The perpetrator of the crime was immediately apprehended.

According to reports at that time, a vigilante court was convened and justice was rapidly dispensed with the murderer being hung from the elm. Over time the facts of the murdered and surrounding events have become distorted. There was only one witness to the stabbing and he was a young boy who was traumatized by his experience.

Even at the time of the murder rumors circulated as to the facts of the incident and newspaper reports contradicted one another. The stabbing, the actions of the vigilantes and the “hanging tree” are all the ingredients that make for a fantastic urban legend. The “hanging tree” no longer stands and since has been cut down, milled into lumber and remains stored in a barn in another part of the city.

But it is time to let the facts in the case dispel this ghastly tale. On Nov. 9, 1859, the owner of the “red brick mansion,” Alanson Baldwin, became engaged in a heated argument with a man by the last name of Price who was boarding in the Baldwin home. The man was described as an “itinerant tradesman…wandering from town to town, stopping the while in each spot, transacting such business as was to be had.” This was not an uncommon practice in the early 1800s as skilled craftsman in frontier settlements were in short supply. Price was a shoemaker by trade but by nature was also a “hard drinker, frequently succumbing to the influence of John Barleycorn.”

Baldwin became increasingly unhappy with the man’s drinking and his rough demeanor when intoxicated. Having provided a home for the shoemaker over a period of time, Baldwin finally confronted the man about the “course of his life.” He told Price “that he must either quit the use of intoxicating drinks or leave the premises. Price became enraged and ran into his shop and returned with a “common shoe-knife and madly plunged it into the bowels of his uncle, severing the main artery to the stomach.” As a note, Price was not Baldwin’s nephew. Baldwin was affectionately called “Uncle Lanson” by the members of the community.

The 1826 Alanson Baldwin’s house, 60 E. Pioneer Trail, prior to the addition of a veranda.

Baldwin at first did not realize that he had been fatally stabbed and thought that he had been struck in the abdomen with a closed fist. It wasn’t until he saw blood dripping from the knife that he realized the extent of his injury. Alanson called for help and staggered into the house. A young boy who witnessed the stabbing was too shocked to render assistance. Unable to stop the bleeding Baldwin soon died.

Price did not show any remorse when he was apprehended. In fact he “expressed the hope that he had killed the victim.” Despite the legend that he was hung from the Elm tree, he was taken to Ravenna where he was held in jail until his trial. He was found guilty by a jury of his peers, and not a group of vigilantes. Price was sentenced to life in prison in the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus. Alanson Baldwin’s funeral was held the following Friday and was reported as being the “largest and most impressive ever witnessed in Aurora.” While the Elm tree may have been the sight of town’s most infamous murder, it did not serve as the local “hanging tree.”

Alanson was the youngest of 11 children born to Samuel and Hannah (Northrop) Baldwin of Danbury, Connecticut. He was born on May 28, 1799, the same spring that Aurora’s founder Ebenezer Sheldon began to clear the land for his homestead in the wilderness. Samuel and Hannah and six of their children moved to Aurora in 1807 and were among the first wave of 160 settlers that arrived between 1799 and 1809. Alanson was 7 years old. Henry C. Hawkins in his "Some Thoughts and Recollections of Aurora," written for Aurora’s Centennial celebration, wrote about the Baldwin’s journey from Connecticut. “…Samuel and Hannah were becoming quite restless within the restricted limits of Old Connecticut…were actuated to rise up and journey forth, step by step, towards the setting sun, and, despite misfortunes by day, perils by night, they at length reached, with safety, that far-off region on the border of the boundless west, known as New Connecticut or the Western Reserve…with much joy in their hearts and thankfulness on their lips, they took actual possession of their newly acquired estate.”

Samuel Baldwin purchased Lot 25 for $2 per acre. He provided land to his sons and sold parcels as outlined on the map.

Samuel Baldwin was a land speculator and had purchased the entire lot 25 in the center of the town. The lot 25 covered a square area that ran eastward from the corner of Routes 306 and 82 Silver Creek almost to Eggleston Road. Southward from the corner the lot ran all the way to Aurora-Hudson Road. The lot covered 640 acres for which Baldwin paid $2 per acre. While portions of the land were kept in the Baldwin family for his sons, much of it was sold.

Alanson Baldwin, while a “tiller of the soil,” was also well known as a dealer in cheese and butter. He also partnered with his brother Harvey and S.D. Kelly in operating a store which was later the business run by C.R. Harmon & Sons. A man of wealth, it was apparent that he possessed knowledge of his obligations not only to his own needs and that of his family, but also the community. This was probably an attribute ingrained in him by his father. The first known social gathering in Aurora took place in Samuel’s log cabin honoring the visit of his niece from Buffalo. Sitting around a table of boards placed on saw horses guest were served chicken and potatoes on slices of bread which acted as plates. Tea costing $2 per pound was served in cups without saucers.

Alanson and his daughter Lucy continued the tradition of the Baldwin hospitality. Their red brick house was the center of the community’s social life. It was recorded that “Miss Lucy Baldwin” was the “town’s first social butterfly, who fluttered over local parties. Her ‘lively social nature' made her popular with the young people.” The interior walls on the second floor of their home were hinged at the ceiling making them able to be moved creating a large hall for entertaining.

Future President of the United State James A. Garfiel was a house guest of Baldwin while a student at Hiram College.

Baldwin was not only known for his hospitality, but also for his generous support of the Disciples of Christ Church which was located diagonally across the street in what is now the Aurora Memorial Library parking lot. His house was often used as the headquarters for the Disciples. Yearly, Disciples from the surrounding would gather in Aurora, camping down by the river on land where Alanson’s brother Eliakim operated a sawmill. It was not uncommon during these gatherings that Baldwin would have as many as 40 house guests. One prominent guest was future President James A. Garfield. Travelling from Hiram to Chagrin Falls while a student at Hiram College who also preached at the Disciples’ church wrote in his diary dated December, 1857 “…stayed overnight at Bro. Alanson Baldwin’s of Aurora.”

It has also been speculated that Baldwin’s house was a stop on the Underground Railroad with a hidden tunnel in the basement that connected diagonally across the street with the home known as the “cat house.” Any remnants of a tunnel are long gone and undetectable. Is this just another “urban legend” like that of the “hanging tree?” Or did Alanson and his family play a role in helping escaped slave on their journey to freedom? While the Disciples of Christ was one of only Christian churches that did not split over the issue of slavery, it did allow its members to follow their own beliefs on the issue.

With the tragic death of Alanson in 1859 there was no living male heir to carry on that line of the Baldwin family name. The red brick house built in 1826 by Alanson did pass into the hands of a grandson Harry Harmon and his wife Edith (Straight) in 1905. Harmon added a “palatial porch with a stone floor” to the old manor and completely refinished the interior. The last Baldwin family owners of the property were Nelson and Helen Doubrava. The home has since been owned by former Aurora teacher Dan Dyer and his wife Joyce. The current owners are Jeff and Michelle Clark. The Clarks have been diligent in maintaining the house and preserving its part in Aurora’s history.

Printed with the permission of the Aurora Historical Society which retains all rights to content and photos.