Archived Story

He was ‘The Hanging Judge’ of Fort Smith

Published 8:42am Friday, January 21, 2011

Column: Between the Corn Rows

It’s sure strange how the television and film writers, authors and historians keep discovering and exploiting one of the really legendary characters of the Old West. Sometimes the portrayals aren’t too accurate, and in other instances the man named Judge Parker isn’t even represented under his real name. Some people also tend to get him mixed up with Judge Roy Bean, the “law west of the Pecos” man and the town clown of Langtry, Texas, in the late 1800s. There’s even a scene in the film, “Blazing Saddles” based on Judge Parker’s actvities.

As I indicated in the last column, my interest in Judge Parker came about because he was a distant relative. This was confirmed with genealogical research. Our common ancestors came from the Belfast area of Ireland to Pennsylvania about 1750. The judge was a fourth generation descendant. I am of the eighth generation of this family in the U.S.

This research resulted in articles I wrote in 1981 for New York’s Irish Echo, the nation’s largest Irish-American publication, and for the weekly Barnesville (Ohio) Enterprise newspaper.

Isaac Charles Parker was born on Oct. 15, 1838, near Barnesville. He became a schoolteacher, then like so many of his relatives, a lawyer. He moved to St. Joseph, Mo., just before the Civil War. Parker served as the city attorney and later as a circuit judge. In 1871, he was elected to the first of two terms as the Congressman representing his district in northeast Missouri.

He was the third member of his family to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Two great uncles, brothers Thomas and Wilson Shannon, had been Congressmen from Ohio. Wilson was also elected governor of Ohio for two terms and later appointed to be the governor of Kansas Territory.

President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Parker in 1875 to be the judge for the Western District of Arkansas, which then included a large lawless area called the Indian Territory (now a part of Oklahoma). The court was based in Fort Smith, Ark., located at the western border of this state. The president told Parker to bring law and order to his vast jurisdiction. The judge accomplished this seemingly impossible task with firmness, and with a power base of one-man authority no other American judge has ever possessed.

During his 21-year tenure. Judge Parker sentenced 161 people to death by hanging and actually saw 80 of these convicted criminals swing from the gallows. (Another set of figures say he sentenced 172 persons to die and watched as 88 were hanged.) It’s no wonder he was called “The Hanging Judge,” and his other known characteristics such as compassion, conviction, courage and total commitment to law and order were overlooked.

Parker was aided by a special group of U. S. Deputy Marshals. Sixty-five of these men were killed in the line of duty.

Judge Parker’s one-of-a-kind court ended its distinctive part in history when his jurisdiction over the Indian Territory was terminated in September 1896. Judge Parker died just a few months later on Nov. 17,1896. He’s buried in the Fort Smith National Cemetery.

The judge’s courtroom has been completely restored and is now one of the major features of the Fort Smith National Historic Site. Another structure not too far away seems to draw even more sightseers and tourist attention. This is the reconstructed gallows.

Ed Shannon’s column has been appearing in the Tribune every Friday since December 1984.