Fort Smith over the years is most famous for one person. Judge Isaac Parker also known as the “Hanging Judge” ruled the Western part of Arkansas and the Indian Territory from 1875 to 1896. Parker’s career and what made him famous will be examined in this article. The “Hanging Judge” nickname will also be explored to determine whether or not it was fair to a man that was the only law over a huge area of land. Parker’s fame today is because of the reputation of being a strict judge and his perceived propensity to send people to the gallows.
President U.S. Grant was responsible for the appointment of Judge Parker to the Western Territory of Arkansas. Numerous outlaws after the Civil War were becoming a huge problem in the Indian Territory and in Western Arkansas. The Indian Territory had simply become a no man’s land which was something that the movie True Grit did a fantastic job of showing. Grant knew that he was going to have to put someone in charge of the territory that would be the law and order. Grant chose wisely in choosing Isaac Parker. Parker would not disappoint Grant with what he did on the bench during his first court case.
Parker started his career in Fort Smith on May 10, 1875. Parker was determined to make an example of what his court would be during his first trial. Parker during that first trial found eight men guilty of murder and sentenced them to the gallows. The day that gave Parker the most fame though was September 3, 1875 when six men that were sentenced to death were executed in front of a crowd of over 5000 people. Most of the nation viewed the executions of the six men as a type of abuse of power but the locals in Fort Smith and the surrounding areas were pleased with Parker’s decision. Parker methods may have been considered to be harsh by some but when one considers the type of criminal he was dealing with it was understandable sending a large number to the gallows.
Not many today realize that Parker was in favor of getting rid of the death penalty. Films like Hang em High and True Grit have not helped his reputation. Parker was committed to the integrity of the law and if the crime warranted death he had no problem at all ordering a person to hang. Parker’s reputation of being the “Hanging Judge” may seem harsh but in Western Arkansas and the Indian Territory it was a fair one. Criminals became more leery about commiting crimes in Arkansas running to the Indian Territory because of Parker’s United States Marshalls. Parker during his career on the bench sent 79 men to the gallows and tried 13,940 cases. Parker’s career not only made him a legend but it also did the same for the city of Fort Smith. How people today view Parker is open to debate but remember it was a different time that he was the law and order.
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