By 1875 the federal court of western Arkansas was in such scandalous disarray that Congress might have abolished it altogether - except for two factors. In the first place, there was no better alternative available and no time to devise one. In the second place, a thoroughly viable nominee for the vacant and unwanted judgeship was suddenly put forward. He was not only honest, capable and vigorous but actually distinguished. To make this paragon even more incredible, he had volunteered for the $3,500-a-year post.
His name, already well known in government circles, was Isaac Charles Parker, but he was soon to win greater fame as the "Hanging Judge" of Fort Smith.
Parker was only 36 in 1875, but he had behind him a long and varied career. He had served as city attorney in his hometown of St. Joseph, Missouri; as a Presidential elector for Abraham Lincoln; as a judge for a backwoods district of Missouri; and as a two-term Representative to the U.S. Congress. But when he applied for the Fort Smith judgeship in a letter to President Grant, more was involved than dedication to the law. As a member of the House Committee on Indian Affairs, he had become deeply concerned with the Indians' plight; his sponsorship of measures to give them economic aid moved his Congressional colleagues to dub him "the Indians' best friend."
Parker was also a stern Methodist. His upbringing had taught him that life is a constant battle between good and evil, and that the punishment of evildoers was an imperative of divine justice. A position on the bench at Fort Smith would bring him plenty of evildoers in need of punishment, at the same time providing him with a first-hand opportunity to rid the Indians of their ruthless exploiters. In short, Parker and the vacant post were a perfect match. He wanted the job as much as it needed him.
President Grant made the appointment, and Congress confirmed it with unusual haste - as if to prevent Parker from changing his mind. He and his wife and their two sons left their home in St. Joe and at Little Rock took a boat up the Arkansas River to Fort Smith. They arrived on Sunday morning, May 2, 1875.
A small group of townspeople turned out at the dock to take a look at the new judge. They liked what they saw. Parker was an imposing figure - a straightbacked six-footer who weighed about 200 pounds, and whose severely handsome face was dignified by a tawny mustache and a thick goatee. His manner was unmistakably authoritative, and it was easy to believe the deputy marshal who observed, "When an attorney started to argue with him, he just pointed his finger at him. The attorney didn't sit down, he fell down." All the same, Fort Smith people doubted that Parker could do much to improve conditions in the Indian country.
Parker, for his part, was just as skeptical about Fort Smith. The town, named for a military post built there in 1817, was a dusty jumble of unpaved streets and low wooden buildings. It had a population of about 2,500, and 30 saloons that catered to railroad and riverboat men, to transients on their way west, and to Texas cowboys homeward bound after their long cattle drives to Kansas. The fort itself was a large squat structure enclosed by heavy stone walls with cannon bastions on top; but the soldiers had left, and nothing but drabness remained.
As Mrs. Parker looked around, she reportedly said, "We have made a great mistake, Isaac." But her husband replied, "No, Mary. We are faced with a great task. These people need us. We must not fail them."
Parker emphasized his resolve with prompt action. Just eight days after his arrival in Fort Smith, the judge opened his court for business. The courtroom was housed on the first floor of a two-story former barracks in the fort; it reeked of the jail cells in the basement below. Each day as the clerk called the court to order, judge Parker climbed to his seat behind a huge cherrywood desk on a platform. Prisoners brought before him could take little comfort from his stern face, and even less from the dispatch with which he proceeded.
A total of 91 defendants were tried by Parker in the first session of his court, which lasted eight weeks. Of the accused, 18 were charged with murder and 15 were convicted. Eight received long prison terms, one was killed trying to escape and the remaining six were condemned to the gallows. In pronouncing their death sentences, judge Parker bowed his head. "I do not desire to hang you men," he said in a low voice. "It is the law." Then, unaccountably, he wept.
The crimes these six men had committed were fairly typical of those that Parker would try in his 21 years on the bench at Fort Smith. One man had murdered a young cowboy to get his fancy boots and saddle. Another had clubbed and knifed an old friend to death to get his pocket money. A third had borrowed a Winchester from a friend, then used it to kill him on a whim. These defendants were not big-time gunfighters but anonymous men moved by small, sordid motives. For every murder or holdup by a celebrated outlaw, there were scores perpetrated by such lesser men, harrying the frontier by sheer numbers far more than the criminal acts that won national notoriety. The spectators who saw Judge Parker weep had good reason to think that the condemned six before him were not worth his tears. They heartily approved the death penalty for men of this sort, firmly believing that it alone could discourage capital crimes. And as a means of insuring the maximum discouragement, they fully endorsed the ritual of the public hanging.
On the day of execution, more than 5,000 citizens jammed the fort compound to watch the six men die. An immense gallows, built at Parker's orders, stood in the courtyard. The posts and crossbeam were 12-inch-thick oak timbers, and a narrow trap door ran the length of the platform. It was a thoroughly awesome instrument, designed to hang as many as 12 men at one time.
Wagonloads of settlers from 40 or 50 miles around had begun rolling into town at daybreak in order to make the 9:30 a.m. deadline. Townsmen and countrymen alike brought their entire families, and the youngsters climbed the walls surrounding the fort to get a better view of the spectacle. The best vantage points were occupied by reporters, many of whom had journeyed from St. Louis, Kansas City and even all the way from the Eastern Seaboard.
At 9:30 sharp, the six doomed men were escorted to the gallows by a dozen armed guards and four local ministers. After the death sentences were read, the six were allowed to speak their last words. One killer told the crowd, "I am as anxious to get out of this world as you are to see me go."
After prayers by the clergy and a little hymn singing by the throng, the six men were blindfolded with sacklike black hoods and led into position over the long trap door. Then the thin, bearded executioner, George Maledon, adjusted nooses of hand-woven, well-oiled Kentucky hemp rope around the men's necks. Maledon took somber pride in his hangings: only an expert could guarantee that the victim's fall would break his neck, thus sparing him slow strangulation. As Maledon drily remarked years later, "I never hanged a man who came back to have the job done over."
Suddenly Maledon sprang his trap. The six men dropped to quick deaths, and the crowd dispersed. The execution was played up by newspapers from coast to coast. The simultaneous public hanging of half a dozen men horrified many readers, especially in the East, though they might have accepted six separate and well concealed hangings.The charge was voiced - and would grow steadily in volume - that the judge was inhuman and possessed of an insatiable appetite for hangings. In rebutting the charge for the first but not the last time, Parker went to the heart of the matter: "If criticism is due, it should be [for] the system, not the man whose duty lies under it."
But duty kept Parker too busy for philosophical disputation. Since arriving at Fort Smith he had labored tirelessly, not only trying the 91 cases that awaited him, but also organizing ways and means of bringing in more lawbreakers to stand trial. Congress and the President had invested Parker with unique powers to cope with the unique problems of Indian Territory. His marshal, also a Presidential appointee, was authorized to hire a small army of 200 deputy marshals, many more than the complement of any other state or territory. Of far greater importance, Parker was given exclusive jurisdiction and final authority over all crimes committed in Indian Territory. This meant that his decisions could not be appealed to any higher court; the only hope for a man he condemned to death was a pardon or commutation by the President. Moreover, Parker could conduct his trials virtually without regard to precedents established elsewhere by federal law. Very few of these precedents applied to crimes committed in Indian Territory, because it constituted a kind of special legal limbo whose principal inhabitants were members of sovereign Indian nations. And even if a precedent did apply, Parker could choose to flout it, and a defendant's lawyer was powerless to appeal the matter.
Parker, in sum, was the law - the absolute law - for Indian Territory. And so the battle lines were drawn for the West's climactic clash over the issue of law and order: the West's strongest judge against the West's worst concentration of badmen.
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