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Judge Isaac Parker - Page 2

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Fort Smith Hanging

Fort Smith Hanging




When the fateful day of September 3, 1875 arrived the hanging became an extraordinary media event when reporters from Little Rock, St. Louis and Kansas City flocked to the city. Other newspapermen traveled far from eastern and northern cities to catch the "scoop.” Beginning a week before the hanging, the city began to fill with strangers from all over the country, anxious to view the hangings. On the day they were to be condemned more than 5,000 people watched as the six men were marched from the jail to the gallows.


The Fort Smith Independent was the first newspaper to report the event on September 3, 1875 with the large column heading reading: "Execution Day!!"  Other newspapers around the country reported the event a day later. These press reports shocked people throughout the nation. "Cool Destruction of Six Human Lives by Legal Process" screamed the headlines.


Of the six felons, three were white, two were Native American and one was black. Seated along the back of the gallows, their death warrants were read to them and each was asked if they had any last words.


When the preliminaries were over, the six were lined up on the scaffold while executioner George Maledon adjusted the nooses around their necks. The trap was sprung all six died at once at the end of the ropes.


Though the hangings were an indication that the once corrupt court was functioning again, Parker's critics dubbed him the "Hanging Judge" and called his court the "Court of the Damned." However, most of Parker's critics didn’t live in the frontier and did not understand the ethics (or lack thereof) of the untamed Indian Territory. Most of the local people approved of Parker's judgments, feeling like the utter viciousness of the crimes merited the sentences imposed. From these first 6 hangings in 1875, there would be 73 more until his death in 1896.


Though Parker was hard on killers and rapists, he was also a fair man. He occasionally granted retrials that sometimes resulted in acquittals or reduced sentences. Though Parker actually favored the abolition of the death penalty, he strictly adhered to the letter of the law. At one time he said, "in the uncertainty of punishment following crime, lies the weakness of our halting justice." However, Parker reserved most of his sympathy for the crime victims and is now seen as one of first advocates of victim's rights.


George Maledon, the Prince of Hangmen

George Maledon, Judge Parker's Executioner, earned the moniker of the Prince of Hangmen.

This image available for photographic prints and

 downloads HERE!


Parker's jurisdiction began to shrink as more courts were given authority over parts of Indian Territory. The restrictions of the court's once vast jurisdiction were sometimes a source of frustration to Parker, but what bothered him the most were the Supreme Court reversals of capital crimes tried in Fort Smith. Fully two-thirds of the cases appealed to the higher court were reversed and sent back to Fort Smith for new trials. In 1894 the judge gained national attention in a dispute with the Supreme Court over the case of Lafayette Hudson.


In 1895 a new Courts Act was passed which would remove the last remaining Indian Territory jurisdiction effective September 1, 1896. Following the escape attempt of Cherokee Bill in the summer of 1895, which resulted in the death of a jail guard, Judge Parker again came into conflict with his superior when he blamed the Justice Department and the Supreme court for the incident. Cherokee Bill was eventually hanged in Fort Smith on March 17, 1896. But the debate was not yet over and a very public argument was carried on between Judge Parker and the Assistant Attorney General.


When the August 1896  term began, Judge Parker was at home, too sick to preside over the court. Twenty years of overwork had contributed to a variety of ailments, including Bright's Disease. When the jurisdiction of the court over lands in the Indian Territory came to an end on September 1, 1896, the Judge had to be interviewed by reporters at his bedside. Scarcely two months after the jurisdictional change took effect, the Judge died on November 17, 1896.


Judge Parker in the Sixth Street Courtroom, circa 1894

Judge Parker in the Sixth Street Courtroom, circa 1894, courtesy Fort Smith National Historic Site


In 21 years on the bench, Judge Parker tried 13,490 cases, 344 of which were capital crimes. 9,454 cases resulted in guilty pleas or convictions. Over the years, Judge Parker sentenced 160 men to death by hanging, though only 79 of them were actually hanged. The rest died in jail, appealed or were pardoned.


© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated December, 2012.



Also See:

Fort Smith National Historic Site

George Maledon - Prince of Hangmen

"This is as good a day to die as any."

Cherokee Bill, March 17, 1896, as he stepped into the courtyard at Fort Smith and saw the gallows


Judge Isaac Parker before his death in 1896

Judge Isaac Parker before his death in 1896


Cherokee Bill

Cherokee Bill was sentenced by Judge Parker and

hanged at Fort Smith on March 17, 1896.


Judge parker's court room

Judge Parker's Court Room at Fort Smith, October, 2007,

Kathy Weiser. 


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