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A gnarled reminder in old downtown Louisville of why it is unwise to piss off a witch.

The Witches Tree

The Witches Tree on the corner of 6th and Park Avenue | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb​

Located at the corner of what is now Park Avenue and South 6th Street in the historic Old Louisville neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky, stands a gnarled and ominous cautionary tale of the perils of crossing a witch.

Old Louisville, located south of downtown, is sometimes called “America’s most haunted neighborhood.” It boasts one of the highest concentrations of Victorian homes in America, within 1,200 acres and 48 square blocks, as well as a slew of spooky stories. I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate location for “The Witches’ Tree.”

The Witches Tree

"Witches Welcome" at the Witches' Tree | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb​

Looking like a prop straight out of a Tim Burton film, this twisted and misshapen tree is adorned with beads, trinkets, and baubles strewn among the branches and secreted away between the nooks and crannies of the trunk. It's referred to as the Witches' Tree and the juxtaposition of the sundry ornaments among the twisted limbs recalls a time in the Derby's City's history when witches would meet under these branches to cast spells, brew potions, and even exact revenge.

According to legend, a tall, majestic maple tree stood in this spot in the 19th century, and a coven of witches and even voodoo practitioners would gather beneath its branches. Maple trees have been revered for their longevity, with some species living for over 300 years, making them a symbol of endurance and strength in folklore.

The witches went about their business without troubling outsiders until 1889 when city festival planners decided that the perfectly straight maple tree where the witches would gather would be cut down to serve as the pole for the annual May Day celebration.

There is not as much emphasis on May Day in modern times, but in the 19th century it was a very popular holiday meant to mark the beginning of summer. 

Traditionally, people would gather wildflowers and green branches, weave floral garlands, and put together baskets of spring flowers and sweets to leave on one another’s doorstep. Dancing, singing, and cake are usually part of the festivities, and it is generally a jubilant event. The centerpiece of any May Day celebration is a tall, straight tree that has been stripped of its bark and decorated with garlands and greenery called the Maypole.

When the witches found out about the plans for their beloved tree, they were understandably upset and warned the festival organizers not to fell the tree. Despite warnings from the angry witches, authorities went ahead with their plan, bringing down the large maple and erecting it as a maypole. The witches were said of have fled the city, relocating to the western part of town where there were still large forests, but before they left, they vowed revenge on the city that had wronged them. In less than a year, they warned, their revenge would be exacted; “Beware the eleventh month!”

The Witches Tree

A collection of gifts and offerings that have been left at the Witches' Tree | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb​

Exactly eleven months to the day that their tree was cut down, the warning that the townspeople had disregarded came roaring back in the form of a tremendous tornado. On March 27, 1890, one of the deadliest tornadoes in American history churned through Louisville. Believed to have been sent by the vengeful witches, the twister cut a path right along Maple Street and flattened more than half of downtown, destroying mansions, schools, bourbon and tobacco warehouses, churches, and the railroad station.

As it decimated everything in its path, the tornado made a sharp right turn and roared into what is now known as Old Louisville. Over 100 people lost their lives in the March 1890 tornado, including many members of the May Day Celebration Committee. Following the storm, it was generally believed that the witches had made good on their threat, summoning up the cyclone to enact their vengeance.

As the deadly tornado had passed by the site of the Witches' Tree on that day, a large bolt of lightning shot out from the storm and struck the stump that was all that remained of the old maple. Following the devastating storm, a new tree sprung up, but instead of growing large and lush, this new tree emerged gnarled and twisted in its place.

The Witches Tree

Strings of colorful beads and a witches hat are just some of the things adorning the branches of the Witches' Tree | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb​

Whether there is any veracity to the story or not, it seems that the local community has chosen to err on the side of caution. Though the tree is now on private property, colorful strings of beads dangle from bare limbs and coins and charms are placed within the niches of the trunk. Locals and visitors alike come to the Witches' Tree to leave small tributes and trinkets on and around the tree in order to stay on the witches’ good side – or in some cases commend the witches on their successful vengeance against those who had wronged them.

There is even a Facebook group dedicated to the Witches' Tree where good luck spells thank those who have left tokens and offerings. However, sticky fingers will get you stuck with more than you bargained for. It's believed that anyone who removes any of the offerings placed on and around the Witches’ Tree will be met with a curse of their own. Given the history of the follow through on curses regarding this mysterious mangled maple, visitors would do well to mind their manners.

The baleful branches of the Witches’ Tree rattle in the breeze and present an ominous looking silhouette even in broad daylight, all the while serving as a reminder that it is unwise to slight a witch.

The Witches Tree

Some of the gifts left by visitors around the base of the Witches' Tree | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb​

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