(Thanks to Caitlin at Vast Public Indifference for the guest post -ed.)
On June 26, 1885, two Cherokee men — James Arcene and William Parchmeal — were hanged at Fort Smith, Arkansas. Moments before their deaths, both men made statements, though it is unlikely that their last words were intelligible to many witnesses at the military outpost, owing to the heavy rain and the fact that Parchmeal spoke little English.* Under the eye of Federal Judge Isaac Parker, the notorious “Hanging Judge” of the old Southwest, Arcene and Parchmeal had their limbs bound and their faces covered before being “launched into eternity.”**
In February, Arcene and Parchmeal had been convicted of a murder committed 13 years previously. On November 25, 1872, someone had killed a Swedish immigrant named Henry Feigel on the road near Fort Gibson in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). The case remained unsolved for over a decade.
In 1884, 12 years after Feigel’s death, a U.S. Deputy Marshall named Andrews arrested Arcene and Parchmeal in connection with the murder. Though documents describing the evidence used to obtain the arrest warrant are not readily available, Andrews was able to convince a judge (probably the same Judge Parker who presided over the trial) that the trail had not gone cold after so many years. Arcene “denied having knowledge of the killing,” but Parchmeal made a statement through an interpreter “admitting being present, but said that he was there under duress and that Arcine did the killing.”†
After both men were convicted, Arcene made a confession stating that he had “shot [Feigel] six times, then both took rocks and mashed the man’s head” before dragging him off the road and robbing him of his boots and 25 cents. Judge Parker sentenced both men to hang.
At first glance, there is little to distinguish this case from the 77 other executions presided over by Judge Parker during his tenure at Fort Smith.‡ Parker had been appointed to the bench in the hope that he would make Indian Territory feel the full might of the federal government, and he did not disappoint. According to one chronicler of the Fort Smith court under Judge Parker,
“Tried, found guilty as charged, sentenced,” was the tale repeated until the mere fact of arrest meant almost certain conviction. The sentence “To die on the gallows” was passed upon more men here than anywhere in history. So numerous were the executions [Parker] ordered and so commonplace the thunderous crash of the gallows trap that street urchins playing outside the old walls would gleefully shout: “There goes another man to hell with his boots on!”
But this execution was peculiar in one significant detail: James Arcene claimed to have been “only a boy [about] 10 or 12 years old” at the time of the murder.† If true, he was one of the youngest criminals in American history to have his crime punished by a federally-sanctioned execution.
It is difficult to verify James Arcene’s age with any degree of certainty. Census records for Indian Territory in the 1870s and 1880s are spotty at best, and few other vital records survive. It is possible that Arcene may have hoped to obtain a pardon by falsely pleading youth, but he did not revise his statement, even when it became apparent that it would do him no good. We may never know how old James Arcene really was — all we can know is that he claimed to have been a child in 1872 and that Judge Parker ignored this information and sentenced the adult who stood before him.§
If James Arcene was a juvenile offender, he looked very much like the other children and adolescents executed in the United States since the era of the American Revolution. Those offenders executed for crimes committed before the age of 18 have disproportionately been African American, Native American, or Hispanic teenagers who have committed crimes against white victims. This is true of the 20th century as well as the 19th: of the 22 juvenile offenders executed for murder in the US between 1976 and 2004, 77% had killed a white victim, though only 50% of homicides perpetrated by juvenile offenders involved a white victim. As of 2004, 9 of the last 10 juvenile offenders executed in Texas, the state responsible for 59% of all juvenile executions, were black or Hispanic. (Figures from the Death Penalty Information Center.)
In March of 2005, the Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 ruling in Roper v. Simmons declaring that states could no longer execute criminals who had committed their crimes while under the age of 18.
* See “Murder for Money,” Daily Arkansas Gazette, 27 June 1885 on rain, and “Hanged on the Gallows,” New York Times, 27 June 1885 on Parchmeal’s need for an interpreter.
** “Murder for Money,” Daily Arkansas Gazette, 27 June 1885.
† “Hanged on the Gallows,” New York Times, 27 June 1885.
‡ Judge Parker sentenced 156 men and 4 women to death. Of these, 79 were actually executed, the rest having died in prison, had their sentences commuted, or were pardoned.
§ It should be noted that many books make the erroneous claim that Arcene was 10 at the time of his execution. This is not the case — all available primary documents agree that he was an adult in 1885. I made this same mistake in my earlier guest post on the case of Hannah Ocuish, having relied on Dean J. Champion’s The American Dictionary of Criminal Justice: Key Terms and Major Court Cases (2005).