I have ever had the single aim of justice in view … ‘Do equal and exact justice,’ is my motto, and I have often said to the grand jury, ‘Permit no innocent man to be punished, but let no guilty man escape.’
On this date in 1875, the most famous — or infamous, depending on your perspective — “hanging judge” of the American West dropped the trap on his noosing career with his first six hangings at Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Isaac Parker had parlayed a legal career in Missouri into a congressional seat, when the fall of the Arkansas Republican party’s fortunes late in Reconstruction swept him out of office in 1874.
No problem: his co-partisan president, Ulysses S. Grant, appointed Parker to a federal judgeship in neighboring Arkansas. It’s upon that renowned tenure that the man’s reputation, uh, hangs.
But by the post-Civil War years, the frontier was sweeping past on iron wheels … and as long as Indian Territory remained (mostly) protected from white settlement, it remained a sparsely-populated refuge for outlaws.
Pandemonium in the Territory was only exacerbated by the Fort Smith court’s reputation for corruption and inefficiency; the office was open for Parker’s appointment because his predecessor had resigned to avoid impeachment.
Judge Isaac Parker came to clean up the place.
Fort Smith was an unusual portfolio for a federal judge. While most of Parker’s colleagues were confined to the tedium of interstate civil litigation, Parker was the court of first call for many regular criminal cases in the Indian Territory which in other jurisdictions would have been a state matter. He estimated in 1885 Congressional testimony that seven-eighths of his caseload came from Indian Territory.*
And in those cases he quickly established himself a reputation for severity.
“I never hanged a man,” Parker said of himself later in life. “The law hanged him. I was only its instrument.”
But make yourself the law’s instrument to the tune of 79 hangings, and folks are bound to sit up and take notice.
“they nearly hung me for stealin’ a horse
in Fort Smith Arkansas.
Judge Parker said guilty and the gavel came down
just like a cannon shot …”
At his court’s very first sitting in May 1875, Parker death-sentenced a murderer — Daniel Evans, who came straight from frontier central casting and had murdered a man for his boots.
As that year unfolded, he added enough condemned men to the bowels of the miserable jail nicknamed “Hell on the Border” — for an eight-strong hanging date to christen September.
One of the eight had his sentence commuted due to youth.
One was shot trying to escape.
And the other six were the debut crop for the mass-occupancy gallows that Parker ordered constructed at Fort Smith. (Its capacity was a full dozen.)
Modern replica at Fort Smith — today a national historic site — of Judge Parker’s gallows. (cc) image from photoguyinmo.
The clientele was six unconnected murderers, committing various atrocities for various motives and aptly embodying the region’s ethnic diversity.
James Moore, white
Samuel Fooy, quarter Cherokee
Smoker Mankiller, Cherokee
Edmond Campbell, black
John Whittington, white
And the audience? Five thousand or so reportedly on hand in Fort Smith this date, plus a national media audience … and posterity deep into the second century since this sturdy magistrate donned his first black cap and set about putting chaos into order with a rope in his hand.
New York Tmes, September 4, 1875.
Whatever one might have to say about his methods, Parker presents a magnetic personality, a figure so truly of his own time and place that he obligingly died just weeks after his court was finally relieved of its Oklahoman jurisdiction in 1896. He’d never hang around to jolt our anachronism meter by weighing in on trench warfare or cubism.
Parker is undoubtedly a more layered figure than his “hanging judge” reputation would suggest, and even his life’s project to bring his unruly jurisdiction to heel was more complicated than just being a hardass. (He had a significant administrative challenge to manage his chronically underfunded court, and he needed to foster the sense of communal reciprocity and legal integrity that would encourage fellow-citizens to turn up for jury duty and witness testimony that make the law’s everyday business possible.) The judge was famous for the long hours he kept, and capital cases were never more than a tiny fraction of his work.
Parker was notorious (slash-beloved, again depending on perspective) for his prosecution-friendly courtrooms, but even the tough sentences he handed down came in his mind from a place of tough love. He wrote late in life that
not one of [those he suffered to long prison terms for violent crimes], no matter how depraved, had entirely lost that better part of human nature …
The object of punishment is to revive, that in some cases, almost extinct spark, to lift the man up, to stamp out his bad nature and wicked disposition, that his better and God given traits may assert themselves.*
Still, whether you prefer him as the stern avatar of law on an outlaw plain or bloodthirsty yahoo, Parker’s ready amenability to latter-day Hollywood tropes will surely maintain his popularity in the cultural rookery of wild west cutouts.
Among numerous other reference points, the novel True Grit, and the 1969 and 2010 films based on it, use Judge Parker’s Fort Smith as the heroine’s embarkation point — with her dangerous journey carrying her into the untamed Indian Territory on his doorstep.
Pat Hingle’s “Judge Fenton” (from “Fort Grant”) in the Clint Eastwood western Hang ‘Em High also shows an unmistakable debt to the Judge Parker persona.
A few books about Judge Parker
Spare a thought, too, for the man operating the ropes and levers this date.
George Maledon, named Fort Smith’s official hangman just a couple of years before Isaac Parker’s appointment, would enforce the Hanging Judge’s hanging sentences into the 1890s: 60-plus executions in all, plus five other escaping prisoners he gunned down, all in a day’s work for an Arkansas lawman.
Maledon has a sad coda to this story, which wasn’t so upbeat to begin with.
The year after the veteran hangman hung up his hood and opened a grocery store, Maledon’s daughter was murdered. The bereaved father’s friend Judge Parker, still on the bench at that time, condemned the killer to die in a case we’ll suggest might have warranted a recusal by present-day standards. Nevertheless, a successful appeal balked Maledon’s successor of the malefactor, and the disgusted ex-executioner got his species of payback by taking the accoutrement of his late profession on the road as a traveling act.
There, under the billing of “the Prince of Hangmen,” Maledon lectured and exhibited old hanging ropes and pictures of the outlaws they had choked.
People of all classes flocked to the show grounds, crowded about the lecturer and filled the tent, viewing the gruesome relics and listening to the old hangman’s recital of soul-stirring events as he pointed out the…instruments of his vocation. (Source)
* See Mary Stolerg, “Politician, Populist, Reformer: A Reesamination of ‘Hanging Judge’ Isaac C. Parker”, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Spring 1988
Part of the Themed Set: Americana.