Judge Isaac Parker - The Hanging Judge of Indian Territory
He was only one man, but this one man wielded his power like a razor sharp sword.
It had been ten years since the end of the American Civil War. Ten years for lawlessness to spread across Indian Territory like an inferno. The territory had been set aside in 1834 as a refuge for Native Americans, a place where they could rebuild their homes and societies. These Native Americans established their own law; the laws of the United States ceased to exist once those borders were crossed.
Indian Territory was saturated with pioneers migrating from the east in search of a better life. Along with these pioneers, horse thieves, whiskey peddlers, and vagrant outlaws roamed freely across the future state of Oklahoma. After the Civil War ended in 1865, the number of outlaws flourished, devastating the relative peace that the Five Civilized Tribes had created. The only law in Indian Territory at this time for non-Indians was what was administered from Ft. Smith, Arkansas. The Indian Territory was so vast, and the political corruption in Ft. Smith so rampant that it seemed the outlaws had free reign.
All of that changed in 1875. The age of the wild west outlaw was ending in Indian Territory. A new law had arrived, and it arrived with one man.
Judge Issac Parker: A Man of Integrity
Judge Isaac Parker, better known as the “Hanging Judge,” was nominated as judge for the Western District of Arkansas by none other than President Grant. It was March 18, 1875, and even though Judge Parker was a formidable man, he still had a lot to prove.
Born in a log cabin outside of Barnesville, Ohio on October 15, 1838, Judge Isaac Parker would come to value the ethics brought about by a strong family and hard work. As most children in Ohio did in those early days, Isaac Parker helped on the farm, but was never one for working outside. He was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1859 when he was only 21 years old.
After passing the bar exam, Parker traveled to St. Joseph, Missouri and went to work for his uncle, D.E. Shannon. D.E. Shannon was a partner in the Shannon and Branch legal firm, and inspired Parker to achieve more with his life. By 1861, Judge Isaac Parker was working in both the municipal and county criminal courts. In April, he won the election as City Attorney. He served at this post for the next two years. During this time, he met and married Mary O’Toole and the couple had two sons soon after, Charles and James. In 1864, Judge Isaac Parker ran for county prosecutor of the Ninth Missouri Judicial District. 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 six-year term as judge of the Twelfth Missouri Circuit. Judge Isaac Parker would soon gain the necessary experience that he would need as the ruling Judge over the Indian Territory. As the years passed, Isaac Parker built a reputation for being an honest lawyer and a leader of the community.
On September 13, 1870, Judge Isaac Parker was nominated on the Republican ticket for the Seventh Congressional District. Parker resigned his position in the Missouri Circuit in order to pursue his political ambitions and devote all his energy to the campaign. The campaign became heated and Parker’s opponent withdrew from the race two weeks prior to the election. Parker easily defeated the replacement candidate in the November 8, 1870 election. In November 1872, he easily won a second national attention for speeches delivered in support of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Towards the end of 1874, the political tide had shifted in Missouri. As a Republican, Isaac Parker had no chance of reelection to Congress. Knowing that he could not gain reelection, he sought presidential appointment to public office. He submitted a request for appointment as the judge of the federal district court for the Western District of Arkansas.
The Hanging Judge
By the time Judge Isaac Parker arrived in Ft. Smith, the lands known as Indian Territory were in disarray. Crime was rampant; outlaws and bootleggers freely roamed across the future state. The previous judge over the Indian Territory was Judge William Story. Story’s tenure had been marred by corruption, and Judge Parker was not that kind of man. At 36, Judge Parker was the youngest Federal judge in the west, and set out to prove himself.
His first order was toward US Marshal James F. Fagan. He told Fagan to hire 200 deputies to bring in all of the robbers, murderers and thieves they could find.
On his first day holding court, eight men were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. This would begin a trend that would earn Parker the title of “The Hanging Judge.” He held court six days a week, working up to ten hours a day. He tried 91 defendants in his first eight weeks on the bench. Of those 91, eighteen were charged with murder, and 15 were convicted. The eight were sentenced to die on the gallows on September 3, 1875; however, only six would be executed. One was killed trying to escape, and a second had his sentence commuted to life in prison because of his youth.
The hangings became an astonishing media event bringing in reporters from as far away as Little Rock, St. Louis, and Kansas City. A week before the hanging, Ft. Smith was soon filled to the brim. As more arrived, places for these reporters to stay soon became scarce, not to mention all of the curious bystanders who traveled just to watch the event. On September 3, 1875, more than 5,000 people watched as the six men were marched from the jail to the gallows.
Seated along the back of the gallows, the death warrants for each of them were read in turn. The six were lined up on the scaffold while executioner George Maledon adjusted the nooses around their necks. There was a loud boom as the trap was sprung. Almost instantly, all six died at once at the end of the ropes.
This single event proved that the crime and corruption of the previous administration was at an end. Newspapers from all across the country quickly dubbed Judge Isaac Parker as “The Hanging Judge.”
The nation was outraged at such an event. Newspapers around the country reported, “Cool Destruction of Six Human Lives by Legal Process!” Judge Parkers court was soon called the “Court of the Damned.” Still, most of these critics didn’t understand the full nature of events; they couldn’t fathom the depth of lawlessness that reigned throughout the Indian Territory. The local people approved, of course, feeling like the complete cruelty of the crimes merited the sentences imposed.
From these first six hangings, there would be seventy-three more until his death in 1896.
Death of a Legend
Even though the “Hanging Judge” was hard on killers and other hardened criminals, he was also known as a fair main. Judge Isaac Parker was known to grant retrials that occasionally resulted in acquittals. In fact, despite the seventy-three hangings he ordered, Parker favored abolition of the death penalty. Still, he was a man who strictly adhered to the letter of the law.
As more courts were given authority over parts of Indian Territory, Judge Parker’s jurisdiction began to shrink. Towards the end of his career, he became increasingly frustrated by the restrictions of the court’s once vast jurisdiction. The thing that irked him the most were the Supreme Court reversals of capital crimes tried in Fort Smith. Nearly two-thirds of the cases appealed to the higher court were reversed and sent back to Fort Smith for new trials. In 1894, the “Hanging Judge” gained national attention in a dispute with the Supreme Court over the case of Lafayette Hudson. Enraged with the Supreme Court’s decision to have Lafayette retried, Parker went into a public rage.
Judge Isaac Parker again came into conflict with his superiors following the escape attempt of Cherokee Bill in the summer of 1895. He blamed the Justice Department and the Supreme court for the incident, which resulted in the death of a jail guard. Cherokee Bill was eventually hanged in Fort Smith on March 17, 1896. A very public argument was carried on between Judge Parker and the Assistant Attorney General even after Cherokee Bill’s death.
In 1895, the government officially terminated Parkers jurisdiction over Indian Territory, effective September 1, 1896. When Parkers new term began in 1896, he was a worn down and mentally exhausted soul. He had spent twenty-one years of fighting crime, and the effort had him bed-ridden. Just a few short months after the change in jurisdiction, Judge Isaac Parker, the “Hanging Judge”, passed away from a heart attack. His death came on November 17, 1896.
In the 21 years that Judge Isaac Parker sat on the bench, he tried 13,490 cases, 344 of which were capital crimes. 9,454 of those cases resulted in guilty pleas or convictions. In total, Judge Parker sentenced 160 men to death by hanging, though only 79 of the executions were ever carried out. The rest either died in jail, had their cases appealed, or received pardons.
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© 2010 Eric Standridge