There is an old story that is sometimes set in Yorkshire, England, sometimes in San Francisco, California and sometimes in Adelaide, Australia that goes something like this: one summer night in the year 1750, 1850 or 1950, a wealthy landowner, rancher or industrialist by the name of Timothy Lance, Thomas Read or Lance Thompson came home to find his wife and two children shot to death in their beds. The murderer was the estate’s head gardener, groundsman or gamekeeper, whose name was Harold Logan, Henry Fish or Logan Henriksen, who was seen fleeing the grounds with a pistol in hand and blood spattered on his clothes. For the rest of his life the wealthy man (we’ll call him Tom for the sake of simplicity) was haunted by the loss of his family and by the fact that the murderer (let’s call him Logan) was never caught and punished for his brutal crime. Tom let his business sink slowly into bankruptcy and spent his final years in an asylum, a mere shadow of his former self. In its day, this was a crime that shocked the nation (whatever nation that really was), but in modern times it’s been all but forgotten except by trivia and history buffs. At least that’s the official version. The truth of what happened that fatal night has never been made public. You see, it’s not true that Logan escaped. He was in fact chased down and apprehended by Tom and his servants on the very night of the murders. The reason that Logan was never seen again is that Tom hanged him from the tallest tree on his estate – an ancient sycamore that afterwards earned the ominous title of the Murder Tree.
But there’s more. Tom didn’t just kill Logan. He’s also the one that really killed his wife and children. He shot them in a fit of rage when he discovered that Logan had been having an affair with his wife – and that the children were Logan’s, not his own. With Logan gone, no one would dare to suggest that a well-respected member of the community had murdered his own wife and children. The few servants who knew the truth took the secret to their graves. Tom never confessed, though the guilt he felt ensured that the rest of his long life was miserable. The story did not end there, though. Tom’s estate became a public park after his death and at its centre was the Murder Tree from which Logan was hanged. This was no ordinary tree, however, even leaving aside the grisly use to which it had once been put. It was also a reservoir of great spiritual power – power which, once tainted by the stain of murder, became poisoned and corrupt. The tree was transformed into a trap, a snare for souls that held fast to the ghosts of Logan and Tom’s murdered family. Every so often, so the story goes, the Murder Tree craves the taste of another murdered soul and when this happens it sends one of its ghosts to take the life of someone nearby. Each new victim is trapped with the other spirits in the tangled branches of the ancient sycamore, doomed never to pass on to the next life.
You won’t find the estate with the Murder Tree on any map. But the next time you’re in the countryside on your own, or visiting a dilapidated National Trust property, or trespassing on private land, look out for an old sycamore tree of immense size and extreme vigour for its age, whose only oddity is that one of its larger, lower limbs is completely without leaves. This is the limb from which Logan was hanged all those years ago. If you see this tree (and if you have a grain of good sense), you’ll run for your life.