In 1989, Someone Tried to Murder a 600-Year-Old Oak Tree in Texas

Getty Images
Getty Images

A Southern live oak that presides over Baylor Street in Austin, Texas predates the city itself. For centuries, the Treaty Oak awed onlookers with its mighty trunk and sweeping branches that covered an area nearly 130 feet across. Its elegance was celebrated far beyond Austin: In 1927, the American Forestry Association named it the most perfect specimen of a North American tree.

Then, in 1989, residents noticed something peculiar about the 600-year-old landmark: A patch of dead grass had popped up beneath it, and soon after the tree began showing signs of disease. But it wasn’t the victim of a virus or an unfortunate mistake; someone had saturated the roots with large quantities of plant poison with the intention of taking the tree’s life.

Former Austin forester John Giedraitis was one of the first people to learn of the crime. Hoping to get to the bottom of the oak’s symptoms, he sent soil samples to the Department of Agriculture for analysis. Tests revealed that the dirt contained Velpar, an aggressive liquid herbicide used by pine foresters to kill any non-pine plants that invade their plantations. A few ounces of the compound is enough to kill a full-grown tree; the Treaty Oak had been poisoned with up to a gallon of the stuff. “We knew there was no accident,” Giedraitis told the Criminal podcast years later. “There was absolutely no reason to put this stuff at the bottom of this tree unless you wanted to kill the tree.”

When news of the poisoning spread throughout Austin, residents were outraged. The tree was a treasured part of the region’s history: Before European-Americans settled the land around it, the tree was revered in Tejas, Apache, and Comanche culture. A plaque beneath the site tells the (unsubstantiated) story of Texas settler Stephen F. Austin negotiating a border treaty with Native Americans on that very spot in the 1830s.

In an attempt to save the dying tree’s life, the city launched a full-blown recovery campaign. The contaminated soil was replaced with fresh dirt and the damaged roots were treated with sugar. A sprinkler system was installed in Treaty Oak Park to provide the tree a steady supply of revitalizing spring water. Other efforts were less practical: a Dallas-based psychic named Sharon Capehart tried healing the tree by transferring energy into it. (In the process, she allegedly discovered that its spirit had once belonged to an ancient Egyptian woman named Alexandria.) Without any supposed psychic gifts or tree expertise to offer, some Austin citizens responded with good vibes. Visitors made small gifts and “get well” cards that quickly piled up beneath the tree’s canopy.

As the public processed the shock and grief, the Austin police worked to nab the perpetrator. On June 29, 1989—a few months after the crime had been committed—they arrested their primary suspect: a 45-year-old local named Paul Stedman Cullen. He was convicted on a second-degree criminal mischief charge nearly a year later. His motive? Cullen poisoned the tree as part of a mystic ritual. “Prosecutors said he used the herbicide in an occult ritual to kill his love for his counselor at a methadone clinic, protect her from another man, and pay back the state for outdoor work he was forced to do while he was in prison,” The New York Times reported in 1990.

Before pouring the Velpar on the oak’s roots, Cullen had placed objects that belonged to his counselor in a circle around the trunk. He told an acquaintance that every time he passed the tree and saw it dying he would “see his love for the counselor dying.” The jury had the option to sentence him to life in prison, but in the end they settled on a sentence of nine years (which he served a third of) and a $1000 fine.

Cullen only lived to age 57 after he was released from prison. The Treaty Oak, however, endured: Though it’s only a third of the size it was in its prime, the tree remains a thriving and beloved part of the community. Acorns gathered from the tree’s first post-poisoning germination in 1997 were planted around Texas and the greater U.S., creating opportunities for the Treaty Oak’s legacy to live on for centuries to come.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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The Time Larry David Saved a Man from the Death Penalty

HBO
HBO

In 2003, 24-year-old machinist Juan Catalan faced the death penalty for allegedly shooting a key witness in a murder case. Catalan told police that he couldn’t have committed the crime, as he was at a Los Angeles Dodgers game at the time. He had the ticket stubs and everything to prove it.

When police didn’t buy his alibi, Catalan contacted the Dodgers, who pointed him to an unlikely hero: misanthropic comedian Larry David. On the day in question, David had been filming an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm at Dodger Stadium. It was a long shot, as there were 56,000 people at the game that day, but maybe Catalan could be seen in the background. So his attorney started watching the outtakes ... and found the evidence he needed. In fact, it took just 20 minutes to find shots of Catalan and his daughter chowing down on ballpark dogs while watching from the stands.

Thanks to the footage, Catalan walked free after five months behind bars. And Larry David found one more thing to be self-deprecating about. “I tell people that I’ve done one decent thing in my life, albeit inadvertently,” David joked.

In 2017, Netflix released a short documentay, Long Shot, about the incident.