Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Cow Rustler Ghosts of Pelham Road


Halloween soon will overshadow Pelham.  In the ghoulish spirit of the time, for the next few days Historic Pelham will recount previously untold Pelham ghost stories (and provide new twists on old Pelham legends).

Perhaps no other town the size of our little Pelham (population 12,000) has more ghost stories, more haunted territory, or more ghoulish legends.  That is no surprise.  Pelham is an ancient hamlet, with European settlement as early as 1654 and Native American settlement extending back thousands of years before that.  

Nearly four dozen different ghost stories arising from the old Manor of Pelham have been documented so far, with many more, undoubtedly, yet to be uncovered.  Today Historic Pelham recounts the tale of "The Cow Rustler Ghosts of Pelham Road."

The Haunted Spy Oak

Its gnarled limbs once stretched silently above Pelham Road, reaching as though each limb sought to grab horses, riders, or others who passed.  All who passed and knew its lore hurried a little more quickly as they passed the ancient tree.  It was the Haunted Spy Oak of Pelham Road.

For nearly 250 years, the story has been told of the local wanderings of the ghost of a British spy hung during the Revolutionary War from a massive limb of the giant, ancient Haunted Spy Oak of Pelham Road.  See, e.g., Fri., Sep. 16, 2005:  The Legend of the Spy Oak on Pelham Road.

The Spy Oak on Pelham Road once stood not far from the Village of Westchester (today's Westchester Square in the Bronx, part of the original Manor of Pelham).  During the early years of the 20th century, the ancient tree was a massive, spreading tree.  It was more than twenty-two feet in circumference at its base.  It was more than one hundred feet high, about the height of a ten-story building.  It had a massive limb that extended directly over Pelham Road.  From that limb, according to legend, a British spy (some say two) reputedly was hung during the Revolutionary War.  The limb was about twenty feet above the roadway and nearly a foot in thickness where the limb joined the trunk of the old tree.  The limb had an ominous name.  It was known by all as "Gallows Limb."

Undated Photograph of the Ancient Spy Oak Adjacent
to Pelham Road.  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

Few today know that the British spy was not the first to be hung from the massive limb of the tree that came to be known as the Haunted Spy Oak.  Indeed, seven Englishmen who rustled a local cow were hung from the same limb before the British Spy was killed there.  For many, many years, the ghosts of these Englishmen were seen among the limbs of the ancient tree and beneath its giant boughs.  Some say that the ghosts of the seven rustlers as well as that of the British spy still wander Pelham Road, far and wide.

In 1912, Girard Post "Pop" Doty, a descendant of Mayflower passenger Edward Doty, was 79 years old and living with his nephew, Warren Doty, in a home on Pelham Road about a half mile from the Haunted Spy Oak.  Pop Doty's family had owned and populated the area for more than a century.  Indeed, at the time of the American Revolution, Pop Doty's ancestors owned much of the land between the settlement of Westchester and Throggs Neck.  As Pop Doty often said, he had played beneath the branches of what he called the "Haunted Oak" as a child, just like his mother and her mother had.

Pop Doty's maternal grandmother, whom he called "Grandmother Baxter Stuyvesant," was 105 years old when she died.  According to Pop Doty, she knew the story of the "Haunted Oak" better than anyone since she lived much of her life in a home just "across the way" from the tree.  Grandmother Baxter Stuyvesant often told a chilling story about the Haunted Oak that went something like this.

 The Cow Rustler Ghosts of Pelham Road

When she was a young girl, Grandmother Baxter Stuyvesant's father and her brothers fought with General George Washington during the American Revolution.  At about the time of the Battle at Westchester Creek and the Battle of Pelham that followed almost a week later on October 18, 1776, the area was overrun with British.  Some were said to be deserters from the British army.  Others were said to be British sympathizers who wandered the region, up to no good.  Indeed, it was the very beginning of the so-called "Neutral Ground" period during which so-called "Cowboys and Skinners" marauded throughout the region during the years of the War, decimating the Manor of Pelham and other parts of the region.  

A group of seven hungry "Englishmen" who remained in the area after the Battle of Westchester Creek decided to rustle the Stuyvesants' family cow.  In the absence of the Stuyvesant men who were off fighting with General Washington, the seven Englishmen stole the cow, brazenly, from the matriarch of the family -- the mother of Grandmother Baxter Stuyvesant.  They butchered the cow and feasted on its remains.  Among those who participated in the theft was a young fellow -- a young Englishman Grandmother Baxter Stuyvesant would never forget.

As fate would have it, the very evening of the theft, the matriarch's husband and two of his sons -- the father and brothers of Grandmother Baxter Stuyvesant -- stopped by the home to check on their family.  When they learned the family had been accosted and a cow had been stolen, the three men organized neighbors and went after the rustlers.  They captured all seven in short order.

Though she was a young girl at the time, in her later years Grandmother Baxter Stuyvesant recalled that the seven captured Englishmen were dragged to the foot of the giant oak near her home and told they would be hanged.  The youngest fellow of the lot broke down and asked for paper and pencil to write a final letter -- to whom we'll never know.  He sat forlornly under the giant oak, gathering his thoughts, and writing his last words, knowing that soon he would meet his maker.  

The Americans then strung up all seven Englishmen and hung them from the giant limb, forever known thereafter as Gallows Limb, until they were dead.  Grandmother Baxter Stuyvesant would never forget the young English fellow seated beneath the tree writing what most assuredly was a despondent letter in the last few minutes of his brief life.

Not much later, Americans hung a British spy -- some say two -- from the same Gallows Limb.  Thereafter, Grandmother Baxter Stuyvesant and others in the neighborhood began seeing strange things at the giant oak, particularly during exceptionally dark nights with little or no moonlight.  They plainly saw spirits of seven ghosts on the limbs of the tree at night.  Indeed, it certainly was not just Grandmother Baxter Stuyvesant who saw the seven ghosts.  There were plenty of old folks who admitted they had seen the same sight.

One moonless night as she passed the great oak, Grandmother Baxter Stuyvesant had the fright of her life.  There, seated beneath its branches was the luminous ghostly spirit of the young English fellow, writing his despondent letter all over again.  The luminous spirit looked exactly as she remembered so many years before, writing his letter just before he was hung.

The Haunted Spy Oak long since has died and been removed.  To this day, however, the spirits of seven Englishmen and a British Spy wander the region, back and forth along Pelham Road, forever tied to the place where each of their lives ended.  One of those spirits, however, can still be seen, flitting from tree to tree on particularly dark nights.  It is the luminous spirit of a young fellow, carrying a paper and pencil, searching endlessly for the missing Haunted Spy Oak beneath which he hopes to write his last letter.

*          *          *          *          *

GALLOWS LIMB WAS CUT OFF."  Source:  Cut Off "Gallows' Limb"
The Evening Telegram [NY, NY], Sep. 16, 1912, p. 4, cols. 3-5.  NOTE:
Click on Image to Enlarge.

"Cut Off 'Gallows' Limb' of Westchester's Noted Spy Oak
'Pop' Doty Says Grandmother Baxter Stuyvesant Predicted Loss Seventy Years Ago.
Children Feared the Weather Beaten Trunk, Which Was Said To Be Inhabited by Ghosts.

Of course it was not news to 'Pop' Doty that the gallows limb of Westchester's Spy Oak would have to be cut off.  He told the men who did the work that he had been expecting it for some time, as Grandmother Baxter Stuyvesant had seen a red squirrel gnawing the limb near the trunk of the old tree and she knew that the bough should be trimmed off near the wound.  This was seventy years ago, but even if there had been some delay her idea about saving the old landmark was right.  The limb has been taken off just where she said it should and 'Pop' is happy, because he always wanted the limb cut off anyway.

'Sort of like losing an old friend,' said 'Pop' as he watched the workmen sawing off the gallows limb.  'That tree seems about the only old timer in Westchester besides myself.  My mother played under the tree, and her mother before her.  The folks here in Westchester call it the Spy Oak, but when I was a youngster we just used to call it the haunted tree, and Grandmother Baxter Stuyvesant used to tell us children of the ghosts that came out on its limbs at night and whose ghosts they were.  I never saw the ghosts myself, but there were plenty of old folks who asserted they had, although maybe they were just trying to make us children keep indoor after dark.
Hanged Seven Englishmen.

'Grandmother Stuyvesant was my mother's mother.  She died a good many years ago and was 105 years old when she left us.  She knew the history of this old oak tree just as well as any one, for her home was just across the way from it, and it was through the killing of her mother's cow that the first men were hung on the limb the men have just cut off.

'Grandmother's father and her brothers were fighting with General Washington when the cow was killed.  Only a few days before the General himself had crossed over from Long Island and passed the house.  That was just before the battle near White Plains.  There were a lot of deserters and others left from the British army who remained in our village after the battle, and one day when they got hungry they decided to kill my great grandmother's cow.  They killed it all right, but that night my great grandfather and two of his sons came home.  Grandmother saw them go out and get the neighbors together and they caught seven of the Englishmen and strung them all up from the limb that these men are cutting off.
Ghosts of Cow Killers.

'After that they hung two British spies from the same limb.  It was always supposed that the ghosts the old folks talked of, who were said to wander around the tree, were the spirits of the seven cow killers the farmers lynched.  Grandmother Stuyvesant said she saw the ghost of the youngest of the lot writing a letter under the tree one night just the same as she had seen him do before they hung him.'

'Pop' Doty is seventy-nine years old.  He is a bachelor and does not look within thirty years of his age.  He now lives with his nephew, Warren  Doty, in Pelham road, about half a mile from the famous old oak tree.  The tree stands to the west of Pelham road, just below Appleton avenue, Westchester.  'Pop's' real name is Girard Post Doty, and he is a descendant of Edward Doty, who came to this country on board the Mayflower.  Prior to the Revolution his family owned nearly all the land between Westchester Village and Throgg's Neck.  He is a veteran of the civil war, having served in the Thirty-ninth New York Volunteers.

'Grandmother Stuyvesant always said that the gallows' limb gave her the creeps and wished they would cut it down.  It's too bad she isn't alive to-day to see them doing it,' said 'Pop.'

The Spy Oak is a great, spreading tree.  It is more than twenty-two feet in circumference at the base and about one hundred feet in height.  The gallows' limb that has had to be cut off was itself more than a foot in thickness where it joined the trunk of the old tree."

Source:  Cut Off "Gallows' Limb" of Westchester's Noted Spy Oak -- "Pop" Doty Says Grandmother Baxter Stuyvesant Predicted Loss Seventy Years Ago -- HANGED 7 ENGLISHMEN FROM BOUGH FOR KILLING COW -- Children Feared the Weather Beaten Trunk, Which Was Said To Be Inhabited by Ghosts, The Evening Telegram [NY, NY], Sep. 16, 1912, p. 4, cols. 3-5.  

*          *          *          *          *

I have collected ghost stories and legends relating to the Town of Pelham for more than fifteen years.  To read more examples that now total in the several dozens, see

Bell, Blake A., Pelham's Ghosts, Goblins and Legends, The Pelham Weekly, Oct. 25, 2002, p. 1, col. 1. 

Bell, Blake A., More Ghosts, Goblins of Pelham, The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XIII, No. 43, Oct. 29, 2004, p. 12, col. 1. 

Bell, Blake A., Archive of HistoricPelham.com Web Site:  Pelham's Ghosts, Goblins and Legends (Oct. 2002). 

Bell, Blake A., Bibliography of Pelham's Ghost Stories and Legends (Oct. 2002).

Mon., Oct. 31, 2016:  Pelham Was Overrun by Ghosts for a Few Months in the Winter of 1887-1888.

Fri., Oct. 28, 2016:  The Old Stone House Has At Least One More Ghost -- The Ghost of Mrs. Parrish is Not Alone.

Thu., Oct. 27, 2016:  Did Google Maps Camera Capture the Ghost of the Elegant Lady of the Old Stone House at 463 First Avenue?

Wed., Oct. 26, 2016:  The Ghost of the Murdered Traveler Who Wanders the Bartow-Pell Grounds.

Tue., Oct. 25, 2016:  The Suicidal Specter of Manger Circle.

Mon., Oct. 24, 2016:  The Fiery-Eyed Phantom of Pelham Heights.

Mon., Sep. 19, 2016:  The Dark Spirit of the Devil and His Stepping Stones: A Pelham Legend.

Fri., Oct. 30, 2015:  The Shrieking Ghosts of Execution Rocks: Yet Another Pelham Ghost Story.

Thu., Oct. 29, 2015:  The Apparition of Wolfs Lane:  Another Pelham Ghost Story.

Wed., Oct. 28, 2015:  The Shadowy Specter of James Street:  A Pelham Manor Ghost Story.

Tue., Oct. 27, 2015:  The Ghostly Gardener of Bolton Priory:  A Pelham Apparition.

Mon., Oct. 26, 2015:  The Ghostly Matron of the Manor Club:  Even a Ghost Whisperer's Nightmare!

Fri., Oct. 31, 2014:  Ghosts in Pelham! Yet Another of Many Accounts of the Haunted Cedar Knoll.

Mon., Sep. 08, 2014:  In 1888, The "Ghost of City Island" Upset the Town of Pelham.

Fri., Jan. 17, 2014: The Phantom Bell Ringer of Christ Church in Pelham Manor.

Fri., Jan. 30, 2009:  Article Published in 1901 Detailed Ghost Stories and Legends of Pelham.

Mon., Feb. 19, 2007:  Another Manor of Pelham Ghost Story: The Whispering Bell.

Fri., Aug. 18, 2006:  The Ghost Gunship of Pelham: A Revolutionary War Ghost Story.

Wed., May 03, 2006:  Another Pelham, New York Ghost Story.

Thu., Oct. 13, 2005:  Two More Pelham Ghost Stories.  

Fri., Sep. 16, 2005:  The Legend of the Spy Oak on Pelham Road.

Wed., Oct. 14, 2009:  1879 News Account Provides Additional Basis for Some Facts Underlying Ghost Story of Old Stone House in Pelhamville.

Archive of the Historic Pelham Web Site.
Home Page of the Historic Pelham Blog.
Order a Copy of "Thomas Pell and the Legend of the Pell Treaty Oak."

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