Posts filed under 'Arkansas'

1896: The Rufus Buck Gang, heaven-dream’t

Add comment July 1st, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1896, the Rufus Buck Gang was hanged at Fort Smith, Arkansas for a two-week spree of violence against white Oklahoma settlers.

More about this novelization is available on this companion website.

After doing a 90-day turn in Judge Isaac Parker‘s jail for selling liquor, the half-Creek, half-Black teenager Rufus Buck emerged violently politicized — “enraged by what he considered the theft of Indian lands. He decided it was his duty to rid the land of those who, in his eyes, did not belong”

If his theory of resistance was naive, the grievance was real enough. Earlier that century the Creeks of the American Southeast had been made to quaff humiliation by the emerging United States, and expelled with many other indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands to present-day Oklahoma; in Buck’s own lifetime, this remnant Indian Territory was itself being positioned for takeover by white settlement.

Buck gathered four other youngsters to his banner and from July 28, 1895 — when they slew a U.S. marshal — until their capture on August 10 they gave vent to rage and despair in a spree of robberies, murders, and rapes consciously directed at white settlers. This hopeless paroxysm of violence, almost precisely contemporary with suppression of the Ghost Dance movement and the official closing of the American frontier, marks the passage of an era; even the famous Judge Parker was in his dotage and would pass away a few months after the Buck gang’s own execution.

After the young men went to the gallows for rape on July 1, 1896, a poem was discovered in Buck’s cell, scribbled on the back of a photograph of his mother.

Mi dreAM —
i, dremP’T i, wAs, in, HeAven,
Among, THe Angels, FAir:
i, d, neAr, seen, none, so HAndsome,
THAT TWine, in goLden, HAir:
TheY, Looked, so, neAT,
And; sAng, so, sweeT
And, Play, d, THe, THe, golden, harp
i, was, ABouT, To, Pick, An Angel ouT,
And, TAke, Her, To, mY HeaRT:
BuT, THe, momenT, i, BegAn
To PLea,
i, THougHT, oF, You, mY, Love,
THere, Was, none, I, d seen
so, BeAuTiFul,
On, eArTH, or, HeAven, ABove.
gooD! By, My Dear, Wife..anD MoTHer
All. so. My SisTers.
Rufus, Buck
Youse Truley

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arkansas,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Oklahoma,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,U.S. Federal,USA

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1845: John Burnett, failson

Add comment December 26th, 2018 Headsman

At the Fayetteville (Arks.) Court on the 8th inst., John Burnett was sentenced to be hung on the 26th inst., for the murder of Jonathan Selby.

-Newark (N.J.) Daily Advertiser, Dec. 29, 1845

John Burnett, the son and collaborator of murderers Lavinia and Crawford Burnett — a case we addressed in a previous post — belatedly shared his parents’ fate on this date in 1845.

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1880: A day in the death penalty around the U.S.

Add comment July 9th, 2018 Headsman

A half-dozen murderers hanged in five different U.S. states on this date in 1880.


Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, July 10, 1880. We make the count six, not four.
George Allen Price (Pennsylvania)


Harrisburg (Penn.) Patriot, July 10, 1880.

George Sanford and Richard McKee (Arkansas)


Columbus (Ga.) Daily Enquirer, July 13, 1880.

Alexander Howard (North Carolina), Daniel Washington (South Carolina), and Henry Ryan (Georgia)

(Note: Henry Ryan’s execution is missing from the Espy File of U.S. executions.)

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1895: A day in death penalty around the U.S. (McTeague edition)

Add comment June 7th, 2018 Headsman


Headline from the Tacoma (Wash.) Daily News, June 7, 1895.

On this date in 1895, the hangman noosed for the cycle with single, double, and triple executions in three different U.S. states.

Arkansas

In Morrilltown, William Downs or Downes for criminally assaulting a woman called Pauline Bridlebaugh.

“On the scaffold Downs declared that he was guilty of part but not all he was charged with,” according to multiple newspaper reports. The eight-foot fall failed to snap his neck, and Downs strangled to death over 15 agonizing minutes.

Alabama

“Lee Harris and Abe Mitchell, colored murderers, highwaymen and thieves, were hanged here [Birmingham] today before 2000 people for the murder of Grocerymen Merriweather and Thornton. Both bodies were turned over to the undertakers, who purchased them several weeks ago for $18 from the men themselves.”


From the Oakland Tribune, June 7, 1895.
California

Three Californians hanged, sequentially, at San Quentin prison on the morning of June 7 in an affair timed to ensue the arrival of the 7:40 train from San Francisco, carrying about 100 official witnesses.

Emilio Garcia stabbed and slashed to death a San Bernardino old timer whom he believed to possess a hoard of gold.

Anthony Azoff fatally shot a Southern Pacific detective in the course of a botched robbery of that railroad firm’s offices; he was balked of a suicide attempt in the hours before his execution.

And Patrick Collins acquired more lasting infamy than any of his scaffold brethren by sensationally stabbing to death his estranged wife at the kindergarten where she worked when she refused his demand to hand over her wages.

Collins’s guilt was very apparent, so his trial gave the horrified public ample rein to sketch the brute in terms of the era’s crackpot racist typologies. In one Examiner article tellingly titled “He Was Born for the Rope,” it was postulated that “if a good many of Patrick Collins’ ancestors did not die on the scaffold then either they escaped their desert or there is nothing in heredity … Seeing him you can understand that murder is as natural to such a man when his temper is up as hot speech is to the anger of the civilized.”


Various newspaper images of Patrick Collins, from The Construction of Irish Identity in American Literature.

Be they ever so headline-conquering in their time, such crimes are like to fade speedily from the public memory. Collins, the man who slaughtered his tightfisted wife, and Collins, the savage ethnic archetype, have improbably survived his moment of notoriety, by imparting to literature the inspiration for San Francisco novelist Frank Norris‘s 1899 offering McTeague.

In McTeague, a vicious husband murders the wife he has abandoned when she refuses him money. The murderer here presents as an overpowering ancestral beast within — attributable, says Christopher Dowd, to Norris’s “study of criminal anthropology, particularly the school of thinking developed by Cesare Lombroso regarding atavism, hereditary criminality, degeneration, and criminal physiognomy. According to Donald Pizer, by the time Norris wrote McTeague, he had developed a ‘preoccupation’ with the themes of atavism and reversion, and ‘particularly with the role of heredity in causing either an obvious physical or mental devolution or a return to an earlier family condition’. Suddenly, Norris had a way to explain the behavior of his murderous protagonist — he was born a criminal, having inherited the degenerate traits and predilections of his Irish ancestors. Combined with the newspaper reports of the Collins murder, criminal anthropology gave Norris all the tools he needed to write, what Pizer calls, ‘that mythical creature of literature, a naturalistic tragedy'”. For example, Norris zooms through the disordered mind of McTeague as he struggles to control himself on one occasion.

He was disturbed, still trembling, still vibrating with the throes of the crisis, but he was the master; the animal was downed, was cowed for this time, at least.

But for all that, the brute was there. Long dormant, it was now at last alive, awake. From now on he would feel its presence continually; would feel it tugging at its chain, watching its opportunity. Ah, the pity of it! Why could he not always love her purely, cleanly? What was this perverse, vicious thing that lived within him, knitted to his flesh?

Below the fine fabric of all that was good in him ran the foul stream of hereditary evil, like a sewer. The vices and sins of his father and of his father’s father, to the third and fourth and five hundredth generation, tainted him. The evil of an entire race flowed in his veins. Why should it be? He did not desire it. Was he to blame?

McTeague does not exit upon the gallows as did his real-life inspiration; instead, having murdered and robbed his wife, the fugitive flees to the scorching desert of Death Valley where he faces a fight to the finish with a friend/rival who has pursued him. McTeague overpowers this foe, but the man’s dying act is to handcuff himself to McTeague — condemning the latter to sure death.

McTeague has long been in the public domain; it can be perused here; a Librivox audio reading of the book is available here. It’s also been adapted to at least two films in the silent era — including one of the genre’s greats — plus a more recent PBS radio drama, an opera, and miscellaneous other media.

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2017: Ledell Lee

2 comments April 20th, 2017 Headsman

Moments before his death warrant expired at midnight U.S. Central Time, after a last meal consisting only of communion, Ledell Lee was executed by the U.S. state of Arkansas.

Lee spent 24 years awaiting execution for the bludgeon murder of Debra Reese on February 9, 1993, but he was done to death in a rush that left unanswered some of the most fundamental questions in the case.

Trial is the forum designated for contesting this question, of course. At Lee’s, he was represented by an unwilling defense team that repeatedly sought its own removal from the case, citing an “intolerable conflict” with their client, a conflict that paled in comparison to that of the judge, who was having an affair with a prosecuting attorney. (Multiple separate rape cases were pending against Lee at the same time, and those same conflicting attorneys were removed from those cases.)

A quarter-century on death row suggests claims litigated to the point of exhaustion, but this is not how the death penalty game is played in America. The art of execution lies in expediting a conviction and then fighting hammer and tong to maintain that verdict as a fait accompli against any attempt on appeal to litigate issues that the jury never heard. Mostly, the clocks runs for years on useless waiting or epicycles of procedural do-overs that never reach the most salient topics. The Innocence Project reports that outright exonerees (not limited to condemned prisoners) serve an average of 14 years before winning release on their various evidentiary trump cards. (Arkansas’s most famous death row exoneree,* Damien Echols, waited 17 years.)

By the time one reaches the end of the glacial death penalty process, the very refusal of the law to probe the questions it never bothered asking will have become the fault of a prisoner’s own dilatory appeals, leading — in this instance — to victim’s kin at Lee’s clemency hearing “asking you and begging you to please let us have some closure.”

In the name of closure, end-state cases must also insist on renouncing one of the potential benefits of all that time-wasting, the perspective of passing years. DNA tests that were not available when Lee stood trial for his life — and the discredited “forensic evidence” of matching hair samples was invoked against him — could have been used to examine blood spots on Lee’s shoes.** Because the prisoner maintained his innocence in the case from the time he was arrested until the very end, one of his late appeals vainly implored Arkansas to test that DNA sample. There are many cases, death penalty and otherwise, meeting this description, and most U.S. jurisdictions compulsively resist any calls to revisit testable tissue in the light of emerging DNA science as so many affronts to the majesty of law.

So what has everyone been up to while not testing DNA all those years? The Fair Punishment Project report on Lee’s post-conviction road makes depressing reading.

Lee’s first state post-conviction attorney had substance abuse problems that left him “impaired to the point of unavailability on one or more days of the Rule 37 hearing.” The Arkansas Supreme Court noted several examples of his lawyer’s “troubling behavior,” including “being unable to locate the witness room;” “repeatedly being unable to understand questions posed by the trial court or objections raised by the prosecution;” “not being familiar with his own witnesses;” and “rambling incoherently, repeatedly interjecting ‘blah, blah, blah,’ into his statements.” Unsurprisingly, Ledell lost his state-post conviction petition. Eventually, the Arkansas Supreme Court recognized that Lee received grossly inadequate representation and withdrew its opinion, giving him new counsel.

Unfortunately, his new counsel were not much better. First, they missed the filing deadline for the appeal. Then, the Arkansas Supreme Court twice, sua sponte, ordered the attorneys to submit a new brief because their filings failed to comply with Court rules — the second time, the Court referred the attorneys to the Committee on Professional Conduct. The attorneys also appear to have refused to accept their client’s phone calls and ignored his letters.

At one point, Ledell received a glimmer of hope when the Arkansas court appointed the Arkansas Federal Defender to his case. They tried to litigate a claim that Ledell is intellectually disabled. In response, the state argued that Ledell — with all of his competent representation — had procedurally defaulted this claim by not raising it before.† But before the parties could complete litigation on the claim, the Federal Defender was removed due to a conflict.

In 2016, Ledell’s local habeas attorney moved to withdraw from the case because she was retiring. She made clear that in ten years, she had done little work on the case. “I have no file on [Ledell],” she stated, despite having argued at least one of Ledell’s appeals before the Eighth Circuit. “I have no working relationship with [Ledell]. I have not seen [him] for several years. I have no relationship with [his] present counsel and have not had any working relationship with them for some time.”

In June of 2016, one of Lee’s federal habeas lawyers, Gary Brotherton, voluntarily surrendered his legal license “to prevent possible harm to clients” because he was suffering from bipolar disorder with psychotic features and anxiety. One month later, the Missouri Supreme Court suspended him from the practice of law. So, just seven months ago, in the eleventh hour of his case, Ledell received yet another lawyer on his case.

All in all, a shambolic proceedings crowned by the indignity of Arkansas’s cramming Lee into a raft of eight proposed executions — many of them now stumbling on late appeals — slated together for the last days of April for the tawdry expedient of using up the state’s lethal injection drugs before their imminent expiry. It’s a very not normal situation, and yet, it is also all too normal.

Ledell Lee was the first person executed by Arkansas since 2005.

* As we’ve previously noted, Arkansas forced Echols to make an Alford plea as the price of his release, allowing it to claim on a technicality that it had not wrongfully imprisoned an innocent man for two decades.

** The crime scene was a bloodbath, so the supposition is that the murderer would certainly have imbrued his clothes with Reese’s blood.

† Reese’s alleged intellectual disability ought to have been raised by his unwilling defenders at the trial’s mitigation stage; it appears they barely investigated it.

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1946: Twice double executions around the U.S.

Add comment November 22nd, 2016 Headsman

On November 22, 1946, American executioners recorded a double-double with twin killings in both North Carolina and Georgia.

North Carolina

Charles Primus, Jr., and Wilbert Johnson carjacked a couple in Raleigh, forced them to drive six miles into the country,

got out and ordered the occupants to do likewise, demanded their pocketbooks, commanded them to go down a road in the woods; the defendants then held a whispered conversation, after which Johnson, with gun in hand, directed Miss Lipscomb to “stay there,” with Primus and marched Guignard approximately 200 feet down a path and demanded to know where his money was. While the parties were thus separated, Primus had intercourse with the prosecutrix after threatening to kill her if she did not submit. She says, “I submitted to Primus on account of fear.” The defendants were over 18 years of age; and the prosecutrix was 25 years old at the time of the assault.

Soon after the rape was accomplished the defendants freed the prosecutrix and her companion and allowed them to make their way to a house in the neighborhood.

The defendants admitted in statements in the nature of confessions that they obtained $650 from Guignard and $38 from Miss Lipscomb. Each originally claimed the other committed the rape, but finally Primus admitted he was the one who actually assaulted the prosecutrix. Johnson was tried on the theory of an accessory, being present, aiding and abetting in the perpetration of the capital offense. He was referred to by Primus as “the boss” of the hold-up conspiracy.

The specification abut “submitt[ing] on account of fear” — obviously, right? — mattered because Primus and Johnson took an appeal all the way to the state Supreme Court that this submission made intercourse no longer legally “forcible.”

Georgia

Johnnie Burns and Willie Stevenson were both electrocuted at Georgia State Prison November 22, 1946 for the ax murder of a man named Lucius Thomas, a crime that netted the pair $27.14.

Stevenson was only 16 years old at the time of the murder, and 17 when he was executed.

Arkansas

There was also a fifth, singleton execution on the same day in Arkansas: Elton Chitwood was electrocuted for murdering Mena pharmacist Raymond Morris during an armed robbery.

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1884: Henry Rose

Add comment April 4th, 2014 Headsman

Special dispatch to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat (April 5, 1884), which perhaps accounts for the outsized interest in the provenance of the rope.

MEMPHIS, TENN., April 4. — Henry Rose was hanged to-day at noon at Osceola, the county seat of Mississippi County, Ark., for the killing of Dempsey Tyler, a well-to-do negro who resided near Osceola. The preparations for the hanging were made by Sheriff W. Huskins some two weeks ago. The scaffold was newly built, as it was the first execution there for several years. The rope used was made at St. Louis of hempen material, and was 18 feet long and three-fourths of an inch in diameter. In ordering the rope Sheriff Haskins said he wished it to be good and strong, as the culprit weighed 200 pounds. A large crowd of negroes witnessed the execution. Rose, who is a negro, made a full confession of his guilt, and in a rambling speech on the scaffold told his listeners to be warned by his fate. His neck was broken by the fall.

THE CRIME.

The murder was a cold-blooded affair, as Taylor was killed while seated at his fireside one dark and stormy night, a load of buckshot being fired into the back of his head through a window only a few feet distant with fatal effect. The murderer escaped for the time being, but he left tracks which led to his discovery, arrest and conviction. He had gone to Taylor’s house in his stocking feet, and Sheriff Haskins, suspecting him of being the guilty party, inquired of a little girl at his residence for the stockings Rose wore on the night of the killing. The girl in reply to the Sheriff said, “Dey am under de bed, hid.” The tell-tale objects were found, and they led to further developments, which fixed the deed where it properly belonged. The man killed was popular with his race, but was regarded as an impudent and overbearing person by his white neighbors. It was for some slight or fancied wrong that Rose sought to revenge himself by slaying Taylor in the manner he did.

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1886: Joseph Jackson and James Wasson, at Fort Smith

Add comment April 23rd, 2013 Headsman


St. Louis Globe-Democrat, January 31, 1886

America’s most notorious “hanging judge” Isaac Parker issued the sentences resulting in this date’s double hanging at Fort Smith, Ark.

A much more prodigious body count had been ordered initially by the court, but clemencies straight from the hand of U.S. President (and former hangman) Grover Cleveland averted five of seven death sentences on their eve of execution. All the killers under sentence, spared or no, committed their murders in Indian Country.

In February, 1886, seven men were sentenced to be hung on April 23, 1886, but before that day arrived the sentences of all but two had been commuted. The two unfortunates were Joseph Jackson, a negro, convicted of killing his wife at Oak Lodge, Choctaw Nation, on March 9, 1885, and James Wasson, a white man, who participated in the murder of Henry Martin in 1872, but was not apprehended until he took a hand in the killing of a man named Watkins in 1884.* (Source)

Jackson slashed his own throat with the shard of a vase in an unsuccessful bid to cheat the hangman, and sported a terrible gash on his neck when he hanged.

* According to the Atchison (Ks.) Daily Globe of April 30, 1885, Watkins was a cattle baron, whose widow wife then put a $1,000 price on Wasson’s head. The killer’s arrest ensued promptly. Although Wasson hanged for the earlier murder and not for that of Watkins, the aggrieved Texan woman “was here [at Fort Smith] every term of court after Wasson was brought in, and employed counsel to assist the District Attorney in prosecuting him, having, it is said, spent over $7,000 in bringing him to justice.” (St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 24, 1886.)

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1999: Double execution in Arkansas

2 comments September 8th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1999, Arkansas went retro with the double execution of Mark Gardner and Alan Willett.

Time was that the multiple-execution format was one of the standard guises of capital punishment in America as elsewhere in the Anglo world back to the Tyburn tree and well before.

Not uncommonly a party of malefactors — like the Lincoln assassination conspirators, the Rosenbergs, or Sacco and Vanzetti — would all get their deserts together, symbolically tying up the crime. So too the convenience of the state, or its interest in an impressive show of force, could put together a group hanging just for the whole effect.

The scaffold scaled up easily, of course, but even some more modern devices — like the two-seater California gas chamber — were constructed with committee sessions in mind.

For whatever reason, Arkansas really cottoned to this format in the Nineties. It carried out a double execution on May 11, 1994, and two separate triple executions on August 3, 1994 and January 8, 1997. Volume packages account for nearly half of the 21 Arkansan executions in that decade.*

But the operational efficiency of killing people in multiples inevitably bowed in the more deliberate modern era to the overriding inefficiency of its supporting judicial process. Rare would be the day — especially for a smaller state like Arkansas — when more than one prisoner exhausted remedies at the same time, even if they’d begun their legal journey as parties to the same crime.

In this late degenerate age, whatever rationales may once have existed for group executions have faded well away. The double execution this date in 1999 was at best a minor public relations flourish, and there wasn’t any symbolic import at all. The two culprits were completely unconnected:

  • Mark Gardner, a career criminal out on parole who had slaughtered a family in order to rape their daughter and steal their valuables (last meal: fried shrimp, grilled salmon, garden salad, and chocolate cake with a Coke);**
  • Alan Willett, a guy who killed his own son and mentally impaired brother, then dropped appeals to volunteer for execution (last meal: beef jerky, barbecue-flavored potato chips, onion dip, garlic dip, buttered popcorn, and Pepsi)

The volunteer aspect helped make the twofer scheduling happen, but to what end? A “double execution” here really means two individual executions back-to-back, each one with its own witness room, its own set of last-minute appeals, its own dose of poison. So why bother coordinating execution dates when there are already so many other moving pieces in the machinery of death? It’s just bad engineering

So this date’s exercise was the last multiple execution in the United States save one. In 2000, the absolute high-water mark for execution pace in the country’s busiest death chamber, Texas injected Oliver Cruz and Brian Robertson on the same day, Aug. 9. That’s the last multiple-execution to date in the U.S.

Arkansas actually made a bid to conduct another one in 2004. Condemned prisoner Karl Roberts, like Willett a volunteer, picked up his appeals at the last moment and remains on death row to this day; the state had to settle for one out of two.

* All these dates and figures per the Death Penalty Information Center’s handy searchable executions database.

** Gardner piously anticipated “a never-ending feast” at “the Lord’s supper” in his last statement, but his worldly appetites were less transcendental. He was accused of rape by his neighbor on death row: Damien Echols.

Echols was one of the West Memphis Three convicted for a supposedly occult triple homicide during the late gasps of America’s infantile Satanism panic. This case became a cause celebre (literally so: Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, and other glitterati were among his vocal supporters), and the convictions were debunked to such an extent that Echols and his two friends (both serving prison terms) were all released earlier this year.

Echols is not offically “exonerated” since ass-covering prosecutors negotiated an Alford plea as the price of his liberty. He remains a convicted killer in the eyes of the state and among some holdout defenders of the original verdict. This polarizing case is the subject of the HBO documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and its sequel Paradise Lost 2. A third installment of the series is in post-production as of this writing.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arkansas,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lethal Injection,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,USA,Volunteers

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1875: Six in Fort Smith under Hanging Judge Isaac Parker

7 comments September 3rd, 2011 Headsman

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.’

Judge Isaac Parker

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, around the time he arrived at Fort Smith

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.

Parker arrived at Fort Smith on May 4, 1875, the youngest federal judge in the west and a man whose jurisdiction included the lawless Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).

This expanse of land, the final destination of the Trail of Tears, had once been preserved for tribes forcibly “removed” from eastern North America.

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.

  • Evans, white
  • 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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arkansas,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Milestones,Murder,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Oklahoma,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft,U.S. Federal,USA

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