I get Powder Mill and Gunpowder roads and where they got their names. I’m scared to ask about Gallows Road in Fairfax. I’m hanging on for your response.
— Don Croft,
Enjoyed your story behind Powder Mill Road and Old Gunpowder Road. I moved to Ashburn about six years ago, coming from Syracuse, N.Y. There is one road name in this area that has always appalled me. That is Gallows Road. Do I dare ask about its history?
— Cora Parsons,
When Answer Man was a mere Answer Boy, his father was fond of Peter, Paul and Mary, whose songs he would sing while playing the guitar. A favorite was “Hangman,” the lyrics of which included “Slack your rope, hangman, slack it for a while. I think I see my father coming, riding many a mile. Oh father have you brought me hope, or have you paid my fee, or have you come to see me hanging from the gallows tree?”
Answer Man now realizes this is somewhat redundant, written to fit the meter and rhyme of the song. If you have a tree, you don’t need a gallows. If you have a gallows — a structure that is built for the express purpose of breaking necks and crushing windpipes — you don’t need a tree.
But we digress. It would seem reasonable that Fairfax County’s Gallows Road — which runs from Tysons Corner to Annandale — is named after the execution device. After all, if you visit the Virginia Room in the Fairfax City library, request the “Gallows Road” vertical file and leaf through its contents, you will find a 1968 Washington Post clipping in which a reporter opines: “Commuters and shoppers traveling along Gallows Road in Alexandria may be startled to learn that the road once actually led to a gallows.”
Penciled at the top of the clipping, in a librarian’s careful hand, is this: “Use caution — much unproven and wrong.”
Where would we be without librarians?
Fairfax librarian Elaine McHale said that two or three times a year, patrons come to the Virginia Room and inquire about Gallows Road. This happens so often that she has prepared a document that sits in the vertical file that explains how little we are sure of.
Fairfax County was created in 1742 when it was carved out of Prince William County. A courthouse was established at the intersection of what were known as New Church Road and Ox Road (today’s Route 7 and Route 123). The court was moved to Alexandria in 1752 (more on that in a bit), but its memory lives on in the name Old Courthouse Road in present-day Tysons Corner.
If there was a court, where was the gallows? Well, there probably wasn’t one.
McLean writer Eleanor Herman visited the Fairfax court archives and pored over the files from 1749 to 1752 — the only years available. (Others may have been burned or stolen by Union troops during the Civil War.)
She found all sorts of interesting tales, including how residents were paid at the courthouse for each wolf they killed. But she found not a single reference to a hanging at the original Fairfax courthouse.
Please note that the Fairfax County court did not hear murder cases involving white defendants. Those cases were tried in Williamsburg, Va. It’s possible that cases involving African American defendants were heard in Fairfax, and that they were put to death there, but no gallows is mentioned at the first court, though there is a mention of other punishments being meted out, including whipping and ear-cropping.
Answer Man supposes it’s possible that slaves were executed at Tysons Corner, though surely that would have merited a mention. And given the shameful way so many blacks were killed in America — hanged from a tree — Answer Man doubts a gallows would have been built.
The first printed mention of Gallows Road that Eleanor found is from 1843, and it’s spelled “Gallo.” That’s not unusual, given the more relaxed spelling of the day.
“If they had hanged people at the Tysons location, there would have been a gallows,” said Eleanor, who wrote about her findings last year in Viva Tysons magazine.
After the courthouse moved to Alexandria in 1752, a gallows was built. It stood in Market Square.
In 1800, the courthouse moved again, this time to its present location in Fairfax City. Alexandria had just been incorporated into the capital of the United States, and it made no sense for the county courthouse not to be in the county.
A booklet prepared in the 1950s for Fairfax public school teachers said: “There is a legend concerning Gallows Road which narrates that it was named for the first hanging in Fairfax County. It is said that however hot the day the traveler feels a deathly chill as he reached the spot where this gruesome event took place.”
Perhaps when summer returns, Answer Man will set up a search grid and methodically walk Tysons Corner, noting any change in his galvanic skin response. Until then, we must not proclaim with any certainty that Gallows Road is named for a gallows.
Said Eleanor: “I think history should have some mysteries, something to leave to the imagination.”
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