IF YOU WRITE a history of Seattle, then you must include the story of the three bodies hanging here between two of Henry and Sara Yesler’s maples on the afternoon of Jan. 18, 1882. The trees were planted in 1859, and they appear first as saplings in the earliest extant photo of Seattle, which was recorded that year. By 1882 the shade trees were stout enough to lynch James Sullivan and William Howard from a stanchion prepared between two of the maples.
As ordered by the judge, the accused couple expected to be returned to jail when their preliminary trial in Yesler’s Hall at First Avenue and Cherry Street was completed. Instead, the vigilantes in attendance covered Territorial Supreme Court Judge Roger Sherman Green with a hood, bound the guards and dragged the doomed couple up the alley to James Street. Soon after, Sullivan and Howard were swinging lifeless from the trees; they had been prime suspects in the killing a day before of a young clerk named George B. Reynolds.
The hungry mob then went to the jail and dragged off a “loafer” named Benjamin Paynes, who was accused of shooting a popular policeman named David Sires weeks before. For a while the hanging bodies of the three were raised and lowered over and over in time to the mob’s chanting, “Heave Ho! Heave Ho!” Children who had climbed the trees to cut pieces of rope from the bodies tied them to their suspenders or, for the girls, to their braided hair. It was, we are told, for “show and tell” in school.
Although there were several photographers in town, none of them took the opportunity to record — or expose — the lynchings. A few weeks later, Henry Yesler was quoted in Harper’s Weekly saying, “That was the first fruit them trees ever bore, but it was the finest.”
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In Andrew William Piper’s cartoon of the event, the easily identified Yesler stands in the foreground busy with his favorite pastime: whittling wood.
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