Federal Judge Isaac Parker
“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
Since the 1940s, Wild West stories of Fort Smith, Arkansas, have been showcased in books and movies such as True Grit, Rooster Cogburn, and Hang’em High.
While the stories of Hollywood are entertaining, dramatic license does not always shine a light of total truth. Let’s take Isaac C. Parker of Fort Smith, for example. He held the bench of the U.S. Court for the Western District of Arkansas.
Parker is remembered in Western novels and films as the “Hangin’ Judge” because he sentenced more people to hang than any other judge in American history. But his real career and accomplishments merit much more than his nickname.
His term was different than most other U.S. district judges because he presided over thousands of criminal complaints while they overheard civil cases. Most of the criminal cases involved problems between American Indians and non-Indians.
He served 21 years, a tenure longer than most other judges. Other jurisdictions returned as many death sentences but under several judges. And, Parker’s jurisdiction was large. Also, until 1897, federal law mandated the death sentence for convictions of rape or murder. For 14 years he did so while the condemned had no right of appeal.
“I never hung a man. It is the law,” stated Judge Parker in 1896. “Cruel they have said I am, but they forget the utterly hardened character of the men I dealt with…[A member of] the Starr gang, was one of the men I sentenced to death. It did not appear to me to be an act of cruelty to sentence that fellow to hang by the neck until he was dead.”
The executions forever overshadow the fact that he advocated the rights of the Indian nations and contributed to rehabilitating offenders and reforming the criminal justice system.
A reproduction of Parker’s courtroom and the gallows the guilty were sentenced to is located at the Fort Smith National Historic Site in downtown Fort Smith. The site embraces the remains of two frontier forts and the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas.
Judge Parker's courtroom contains reproduction 1880s court furnishings. The reproduction of Judge Parker’s chair is based on one located in the Fort Smith Museum of History, which is located a block from the historic site. It is believed to be the chair he used in the courtroom. There are no known drawings or photographs of Parker’s courtroom. The reproductions of historic furnishings made for the courtroom are based on written descriptions in inventories and newspaper articles as well as historical knowledge of what was available at that time.
Next to the courthouse and jail building stand the gallows, which are a reconstruction of the one used during the time of Judge Parker. The original burned down a year or so after the court closed in 1896. This reconstruction was built in the 1980s.
The National Historic Site commemorates a significant phase of America’s westward expansion, and today stands as a reminder of 80 turbulent years in the history of Federal Indian policy.
For more information, call 501-783-3961. Visit the park’s website at http://www.nps.gov/fosm/.