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Isaac Parker - Hanging Judge of Indian Territory

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"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 C. Parker, 1896


Judge Isaac Parker often called the "Hanging Judge,” from Fort Smith, Arkansas ruled over the lawless land of Indian Territory in the late 1800s. In 1875, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) was populated by cattle and horse thieves, whiskey peddlers, and bandits who sought refuge in the untamed territory that was free of a "White Man’s Court.” The only court with jurisdiction over Indian Territory was the U.S. Court for the Western District of Arkansas located in Fort Smith, Arkansas, which was situated on the border of Western Arkansas and Indian Territory.


Judge Isaac Parker

Judge Isaac Parker

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Judge Isaac Parker was born in a log cabin outside Barnesville, Belmont County, Ohio on October 15, 1838. The youngest son of Joseph and Jane Parker, Isaac helped out on the farm, but never really cared for working out of doors. He attended the Breeze hill primary school and then the Barnesville Classical Institute.


To help pay for his higher education he taught students in a country primary school. When he was 17 he decided to study law, his legal training consisting of a combination of apprenticeship and self study. Reading law with a Barnesville attorney, he passed the Ohio bar exam in 1859 at the age of 21. During this time he met and married Mary O'Toole and the couple had two sons, Charles and James. Over the years, Parker built a reputation for being an honest lawyer and a leader of the community.


After passing the bar he traveled west to St. Joseph, Missouri, a bustling Missouri River port town. He went to work for his uncle, D.E. Shannon, a partner in the Shannon and Branch legal firm. By 1861, he was working on his own in both the municipal and county criminal courts and in April he won the election as City Attorney. He was reelected to the post for the next two years.


In 1864, Isaac Parker ran for county prosecutor of the Ninth Missouri Judicial District and in the fall of that same year, he served as a member of the Electoral College, casting his vote for Abraham Lincoln.


In 1868, Parker sought and won a six-year term as judge of the Twelfth Missouri Circuit.  A new judge, Parker would soon gain the experience that he would later use as the ruling Judge over the Indian Territory.


On September 13, 1870, Parker was nominated on the Republican ticket for the Seventh Congressional District. To pursue his political ambitions and devote all his energy to the campaign, Parker resigned his judgeship. The heated campaign ended with Parker's opponent withdrawing from the race two weeks prior to the election and Parker easily defeated the replacement candidate in the November 8, 1870 election.


Civil War Painting

Civil War Painting


As a freshman representative, Parker took his seat in the first session of the Forty-second Congress convened on Saturday, March 4, 1871. In November, 1872 he easily won a second term and gained national attention for speeches delivered in support of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.


By the fall of 1874, the political tide had shifted in Missouri, and as a Republican, Isaac Parker had no chance of reelection to Congress. Instead, he sought a presidential appointment to public office and submitted a request for appointment as the judge of the federal district court for the Western District of Arkansas, in Fort Smith. On March 18, 1875, President Grant nominated Parker as judge for the Western District of Arkansas.


After the Civil War, the number of outlaws had grown, wrecking the relative peace of the five civilized tribes that lived in Indian Territory. By the time Parker arrived at Fort Smith, Indian Territory had become known as a very bad place, where outlaws thought the laws did not apply to them and terror reigned.  


Replacing Judge William Story, whose tenure had been marred by corruption, Parker arrived in Fort Smith on May 4, 1875. At the age of 36, Judge Parker was the youngest Federal judge in the West. Holding court for the first time on May 10, 1875, eight men were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Judge Parker held court six days a week, often up to ten hours each day and tried 91 defendants in his first eight weeks on the bench. In that first summer, eighteen persons came before him charged with murder and 15 were convicted. Eight of them were sentenced to die on the gallows on September 3, 1875. However, only six would be executed as one was killed trying to escape and a second had his sentence commuted to life in prison because of his youth.

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