Next week marks 136 years since Judge Isaac Parker arrived to hold court in Fort Smith. Barely in town a week, Parker banged his gavel to start his first trial term on May 10, 1875.
The judge established his penchant for a prolific docket right off, trying 91 defendants in his first eight weeks on the bench. Among those were 18 murder cases, of which 15 were convicted.
Eight of the murderers were sentenced to die on the gallows, but one condemned man was killed while trying to escape and another had his sentence commuted due to his youth.
That left an even half dozen who were all hanged at once just a few weeks later, on September 3, in front of a large crowd estimated to be in the thousands.
The “Hanging Judge” had his nickname. And the moniker would stick.
There’s little doubt that the breakneck pace of Judge Parker’s first-term executions came as a shock to all parties-from the outlaws accustomed to a corrupted federal court to the crime victims accustomed to frontier lawlessness to the more civilized cities casting a wary (and woefully ignorant) eye westward.
Two factors get lost amidst the notoriety of Judge Parker’s sobriquet. The first is the criminal situation just prior to his appointment and arrival to preside over the U.S. District Court at Fort Smith, and the second is his subsequent 20-year judicial record.
The “Wild West” was no exaggeration in the 1870s when referring to the lands just beyond Arkansas’ western border. The Missouri, Kansas, and Texas railroad line running south across the Indian Territory about 80 miles west of Fort Smith was a demarcation known as “the dead line.”
Federal marshals charged with policing the 74,000 square-mile jurisdiction, which included western Arkansas in addition to the entire territory, knew that crossing that line meant taking their lives into their own hands.
Outlaws had become so brazen that they posted small cards on trails warning deputies they would be killed if they encroached beyond the dead line.
Furthermore, U.S. and Indian jurisdictions clashed clumsily at times, as Indian courts handled Indian transgressions and U.S. courts oversaw American settlers. One such example is the Going Snake Massacre, in which a posse of two marshals and eight deputized men were sent to attend the Indian trial of a Cherokee man named Proctor accused of shooting an American man and his Indian wife.
Assigned to monitor the Indian verdict, and arrest the accused if he wasn’t convicted, the 10-man posse was ambushed before the marshals reached the door.
Seven lawmen died at the scene, another deputy died hours later. The next day, the Indian jury acquitted Proctor.
Incredibly, of the 200 or so federal marshals killed in the line of duty, more than half died in the Indian territory.
U.S. Attorney General (and former Arkansas Governor) Augustus Garland estimated in the late 1880s that of the 20,000 or so settlers in the territory, 15,000 were criminals.
Thus there was no shortage of business for court awaiting Judge Parker, which possibly explains the first three multiple hangings he handed down. After the fall 1875 executions, Parker sentenced five more murderers to die in the spring, and then another four the following September.
That totaled 15 murderers hanged in his first 15 months on the bench. But Parker would serve another 20 years, during which time only 64 more criminals convicted in his court would be executed, roughly three per year.
Of the 13,490 cases tried in Parker’s court, 360 (2.5 percent) were capital cases, and only 79 (barely a half-percent) resulted in hangings.
Judge Parker was certainly a Hardworking Judge (he held court six days a week, from 7:30 in the morning to 6 at night), and he was an Effectual Judge (with a lifetime 70 percent conviction rate).
But a Hanging Judge? Going by the territory crime figures—in which half-again more marshals were killed than murderers hanged, and homicides often outnumbered hangings by multiples of 10, 20 or more—Parker didn’t hang nearly enough.
In truth, he opposed the death penalty. What he strongly proposed was what he called the “certainty of punishment.”
That, he believed, was far more effective than the punishment itself, whether it was execution or imprisonment. It’s quite telling that a man with Parker’s reputation would blame “halting justice” on the uncertainty of punishment following crime.
If justice was faltering then, it’s utterly dysfunctional now. It would take a tachometer to register the RPM with which Parker would spin in his grave today could he see the second half of his own guiding philosophy—“permit no innocent man to be punished, but let no guilty man escape”— trampled at the expense of grieving victims of our myriad violent crimes.
As an early advocate of victims’ rights, and a true believer in justice, Isaac Parker deserves better from our history books than his name tied with the gallows. He was what all judges should be: a Just Judge.