The Curious Life of Isaac Parker, the Old West’s “Hanging Judge”
The life and legacy of Isaac Parker, the “Hanging Judge,” was more complicated than his name suggests.
The Old West is often associated with the idea of frontier justice.
That is to say: individuals who, usually at the barrel of a gun, bring about happy outcomes where there is no — or a very weak — authority. This includes just about any Western movie where the lone hero has to take down nefarious outlaws, since there are no formal lawmen in town.
You get the idea.
The fact is that the Old West really did have laws and enforcement agencies, though at some times because of the frontier’s breadth and depth it was hard to bring justice to bear.
That is where the figure of Judge Isaac Charles Parker steps in. He used his bench in Fort Smith between 1875 and 1896 to bring federal authority to the Western District of Arkansas. The district was quite large, comprising, according to the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, eleven counties in western Arkansas, as well as the whole of Indian Territory, which was essentially current day Oklahoma.
Because of Parker’s dedication to bring swift and some might say Hammurabiesque justice to those who came to his court, he became known as the “Hanging Judge.”
Let’s find out why.
1. Isaac Parker made his own way through school.
Isaac Parker was no pioneer nor was his family. The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture places his birth on October 15, 1838 near Barnesville, Ohio, to farmers Joseph and Jane Shannon Parker. The Arkansas Historical Quarterly notes that he had a limited education, having gone to elementary school.
Parker’s true ambition was the law. His obituary, which was transcribed by the National Parks Service, states that at age 17 he started to attend the Barnesville Academy while also teaching school.
To prepare himself for a legal career, he obtained books himself and studied independently. His acumen and intelligence was such that he was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1859. It must have been a banner year for Parker, since that same year he also married his wife, a woman named Mary O’Toole.
The new couple settled in St. Joseph, Missouri, where he set to practice. However, the Civil War intervened, and although Parker had backed Stephen Douglas in the 1860 election, Parker stayed with the Union during the conflict.
In fact, by 1864 Parker had switched his political parties from Democrat to Republican, and was selected to be one of the state’s electors for Abraham Lincoln. Parker spent most of the war being a city and circuit attorney.
After the war, at only 30 years old he was elected to his first bench position, judge of the Thirtieth Judicial District of Missouri.
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The Branch and the Scaffold: The True Story of the West’s Hanging Judge
“The characters are fascinating. The parts about the professional hangman are wonderful and strange. Highly recommended.”
– Amazon review
2. Parker was a developed politician.
Even though Parker was a judge at age 30, his career would take a diversion. In 1870, he was elected to Congress for Missouri in the first of two terms to the House of Representatives.
One article in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly examines these two terms in which he notably tried to appropriate Indian Territory as Oklahoma. Parker argued that the territory needed to be organized and given the law and order that a formal government could bring.
The bill, which met strong Native American opposition, had critics that said it would show how Americans reneg on their treaties. The bill went nowhere and Oklahoma would not be created until 1890.
Other activities that Parker engaged in while a Congressman included, according the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, sponsorship of a bill that would allow women to vote and hold office in American territories, as well as lend support to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Parker’s political career came to an end in 1874, when he unsuccessfully ran for the Senate. It was at this point that he didn’t see much of a political future. Thus, he approached the Grant administration for a judicial posting.
Grant offered him an appointment in Utah, but ultimately Parker was given Fort Smith. It seems that he chose Arkansas over Utah since the Utah posting was territorial and not secure.
The appointment at Fort Smith was a lifetime appointment, though much later in life, Parker would state that he originally thought the appointment at Fort Smith was a temporary one.
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3. Judge Parker inherited a court rife with corruption.
In March 1875, Parker assumed his post as the judge of the Arkansas Western District. He was quite young for a federal judge, being only 36 at the time. He also was challenged, according to the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, with a highly disrupted court.
During Reconstruction, corruption and chaos were commonplace throughout the South. This was especially true in Fort Smith, where problems were heightened by its position on the frontier.
In the immediate years preceding Parker, five marshals had been forced out of office, federal commissioners and clerks where implicated for embezzlement, and three attorneys fired. To cap it all, Parker’s predecessor, William Story, illegally handled court funds and accepted bribes.
He resigned under threat of impeachment. In such a situation, the residents of the district deeply mistrusted the court and routinely ignored jury and witness summons.
Parker in those early years did much to restore the dignity of and trust in the court. He arranged for federal land to be turned over to Fort Smith for a school, he joined the school board and coordinated the county fair, and various charities.
Much of this shows his own political acumen. Yet what really helped the citizens regain trust in the government was Judge Parker’s commitment to swift justice and order.
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4. Isaac Parker earned his reputation as a “hanging judge” very early in his tenure.
It didn’t take long for Judge Parker to become known as the “Hanging Judge.”
The Arkansas Historical Quarterly explains that his very first case was that of Daniel Evans, who was accused of murdering his 19-year-old friend for his boots. The evidence was apparently overwhelming and in sentencing Evans to death, Parker was overcome by emotions and wept.
But Parker could not hope to be an effective judge if he cried at each sentence, especially when considering the lawlessness in the district. He quickly grew inured to grim sentencing.
Within his first few months, five more men were sentenced to death. This included the horse thief James Moore, who had killed a deputy in a shootout, drunken murderer John Whittington, Sam Fooy, who robbed and murdered a teacher, Smoker Mankiller, a Native American who killed a white man, and Edmund Campbell, an African American who murdered his neighbor.
Parker ordered Evans and the other five to be hung together on September 3, 1875, a mere four months after he assumed his appointment. This public execution drew people from all over the region and went without a hitch, as a doctor pronounced each man dead as they dropped below the gallows stand.
This macabre event was followed by another execution of five convicts on April 21, 1876. Through the years, Judge Parker would order further mass executions, which were generally received favorably by a public that demanded order.
5. Parker believed in equal and exact justice.
If Isaac Parker was the “Hanging Judge,” a person might expect to find him fiery, vindictive, or at least temperamental. But it was not so.
One historian even went so far as to say he may have been a “trifle dull.” He was also reportedly friendly and humorous in private life.
However, Parker in court was all business, and carefully instructed jurors in their charge. To his mind, Parker had a sacrosanct duty to bring justice and deliver it quickly. This meant that the guilty must be punished for the sake of the innocent.
To Parker, this was how criminals were deterred, mob rule avoided, and trust in the government restored. It should be noted that most of Parker’s cases were not capital; instead, they mostly involved enforcement of postal, revenue, and liquor laws.
But it was his capital trials that drew the public’s attention.
The National Park Service transcribed an interview with Parker, who said:
I have ever had the single aim of justice in view. No judge who is influenced by any other consideration is fit for the bench. ‘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.’”
6. Parker’s cases ended in a guilty verdict more than 70% of the time.
Parker spent 21 years as a federal justice and during that time racked up some impressive statistics. The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America states that in those years he tried 13,490 cases.
To get to this astonishing figure, Parker would often hold court six days a week, for up to ten hours per day. Of these cases, 9,454 ended with a verdict of guilty. Of those, he sentenced 156 men and 4 women to death and of this number, 79 (some sources say 88) ultimately met their end on the gallows. Most of these were hung by executioner George Maledon, called the “Prince of Hangmen.”
Parker never took personal responsibility for these executions. He once reportedly said, “I’ve never hanged a man. It is the law that has done it.” This is true. Parker and the juries had no choice. Congress had mandated that capital punishment be given in cases of first degree murder.
7. Parker judged a rough crowd.
It was common knowledge that Parker’s judicial district was one of — if not the — roughest in the country. Parker routinely saw vile characters pass through his court.
One story was that in 1883, a man named Matt Music, who had been charged with the rape of a seven-year-old girl, was standing trial in Parker’s court. At one point, he saw a chance to escape and flung himself toward an exit.
The account then reads, “He had cleared the guards but not Judge Parker. His honor reached out, grabbed the fleeing prisoner and sent him hurtling to the floor.”
Perhaps the most infamous criminal was Crawford Goldsby, also known as Cherokee Bill, who murdered at least seven men. He was hanged in 1896 after an attempted jailbreak in which he murdered a guard.
Another group of truly appalling outlaws was the Rufus Buck gang who raped, murdered, and plundered through the Indian Territory in 1895. They were all hanged under Parker’s watch.
8. Parker was sympathetic toward Native Americans.
One surprising fact about Judge Parker was that he became sympathetic toward Native Americans in his court. This was especially impactful since he had jurisdiction over Indian Territory.
According to the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, because of federal treaties with various Native American tribes, Parker had the authority to only hear cases between different tribes, or those involving non‐Native Americans.
This meant that Parker learned a great deal about the differences between the tribes and their individual laws. It also altered his earlier feelings about them that he had exhibited while in Congress.
Many of the cases where Parker defended Native Americans had to do with white encroachments into the Indian Territory, or the sale of liquor in it, which had become an endemic problem.
Some have theorized that this sympathy came from Parker’s assumption that Native Americans did not understand white law. Whatever the reason, Parker was an ally who helped to protect their land and in some instances lobbied the federal government — including the president — to commute sentences.
9. The Supreme Court came into conflict with Judge Parker.
Parker’s relationship with the federal government evolved during the course of his career at Fort Smith. According to The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America, during the first 14 years of Parker’s appointment any sentence he laid down was the final one, including in death penalty cases.
This would change in 1889, when Congress passed legislation that expanded the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction so that it could review, and even reverse, death penalty cases.
This resulted in about two-thirds of the cases in the latter part of his term being sent back for retrials.
10. Judge Parker had the largest funeral in Fort Smith to that time.
After Cherokee Bill’s hanging in March 1896, Judge Parker had one more death sentence to deal out. The Arkansas Historical Quarterly relates that James Cashrago was convicted of killing his boss while horse trading. He hung on July 1, 1896.
Yet for all the hangings, Parker was essentially nuanced and saw the humanity even in those he condemned.
In one 1885 interview he stated:
I have in the last 10 years sentenced to prison and when I looked in the faces of these men, the impression filled my mind that not one of them, no matter how depraved, had entirely lost that better part of human nature which makes a man a good citizen, and a faint spark of which lingers in the nature of the worst and most depraved convict.”
Parker would die shortly thereafter, on November 17 at the age of 58. Parker’s tireless work ethic had undoubtedly compromised his health and he had developed Bright’s disease as well as heart ailments.
Being a prominent and beloved citizen of Fort Smith, Parker had the largest funeral in that city’s history to that time. Another justice, F.F. Bryant eulogized that Parker “was eminently a man for the time and place, and seemed providentially called to the duty he performed.”
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- The Branch and the Scaffold: The True Story of the West’s Hanging Judge, Loren D. Estleman
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- Isaac C. Parker: Federal Justice on the Frontier, Michael J. Brodhead
- Hangin’ Times in Fort Smith: A History of Executions in Judge Parker’s Court, Jerry Akins
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Joseph A. Williams is an author, historian, and librarian based in Connecticut. He has authored three books: The Sunken Gold, Seventeen Fathoms Deep, and Four Years Before the Mast.