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Isaac Charles Parker
Painting of Judge Isaac Parker, circa 1896.
Born (1838-10-15)October 15, 1838
Barnesville, Ohio,
United States
Died November 17, 1896(1896-11-17) (aged 58)
Fort Smith, Arkansas,
United States
Predecessor William Story
Successor John Henry Rogers
Spouse(s) Mary O'Toole,

Isaac Charles Parker (October 15, 1838 – November 17, 1896) was a United States District Judge who presided over the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas for 21 years. He served in this capacity during the western expansion of the United States and is remembered today as the "Hanging Judge" of the American Old West. He also served as a Congressman for Missouri's 7th District.

In 21 years on the federal bench, Judge Parker tried 13,490 cases—344 of which were for capital offenses. Suspects pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial in 9,454 cases. Of the 160 sentenced to death by hanging (156 men, and 4 women), 79 were hanged. The rest died while incarcerated, appealed, or were pardoned.

Early life[edit | edit source]

Parker was the youngest son of Joseph Parker and his wife Jane Shannon. He was raised on the family farm near Barnesville, Ohio. He attended Breeze Hill primary school, followed by the Barnesville Classical Institute, a private school. He taught in a county primary school to pay for his secondary education.

When he was 17, Parker decided to become a lawyer. He combined an apprenticeship with a local lawyer with his own self studies. He passed the bar exam in 1859.

Marriage and family[edit | edit source]

After getting established as a lawyer, on December 12, 1861 Parker married a woman from Saint Joseph, Mary O'Toole. They had two sons, Charles and James.

Career[edit | edit source]

Upon passing the bar at 21 years old, Parker traveled west by steamboat to St. Joseph, Missouri. 'St. Joe' was a bustling Missouri River port town and offered many possibilities for a young lawyer, as the Ninth Missouri Circuit Court was held there. Parker's maternal uncle D.E. Shannon operated a law firm in Saint Joseph with his partner H.B. Branch. In the firm of Shannon and Branch, Parker began his legal career in earnest.

By 1861, he had built his own practice, working with clients in the municipal and county criminal courts. The local courts afforded Parker not only experience but community recognition.

Political career[edit | edit source]

In April 1861, Parker won election as a Democrat to the post of city attorney. Four days after Parker took office, the American Civil War began. The war caused Parker to reevaluate his political beliefs. He enlisted in a pro-Union home guard unit, the 61st Missouri Emergency Regiment. He was reelected as city attorney in 1862 and 1863.

In 1864, Parker formally split from the Democratic party when he ran as a Republican for county prosecutor of the Ninth Missouri Judicial District. In the fall of 1864, he served as a member of the Electoral College, casting his vote for Abraham Lincoln.

In 1868, Parker sought and won a six-year term as judge of the Twelfth Missouri Circuit. The new judge gained experience and habits in this position that he would put to good use in the years to come.

Parker was nominated as the Republican candidate for the Seventh Congressional District on September 13, 1870. Backed by the Radical faction of the Republican party, Parker resigned his judgeship and devoted his energy to the campaign. The heated campaign ended with Parker's opponent withdrawing from the race two weeks prior to the election. Parker easily defeated the replacement candidate in the November 8, 1870, election.

Photo of Isaac Parker as a Missouri congressman, 1874.

The first session of the Forty-second Congress convened on March 4, 1871. Parker worked to resolve constituent issues while sponsoring domestic legislation. Representative Parker assisted veterans of his district in securing pensions, and lobbied for the construction of a new federal building in Saint Joseph. He sponsored legislation that would have allowed women the right to vote and hold public office in United States territories. On several occasions, Parker sponsored legislation to organize the Indian Territory under a formal territorial government.

He handily won a second term in November 1872; a local paper wrote of him, "Missouri had no more trusted or influential representative in ... Congress during the past two years..."[citation needed] In his second term, Parker gained national attention for his speeches supporting the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He concentrated on Indian policy, and the fair treatment of the Tribes residing in the Indian Territory.

By the fall of 1874, the political tide had shifted in Missouri. As a Republican, Parker had no chance of reelection to Congress. Like many others, he sought a presidential appointment to public office.

Appointed District Judge[edit | edit source]

In early March 1875, President Grant forwarded Parker's nomination as chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Utah Territory. By this time, Parker had submitted a request for appointment as the judge of the federal district court for the Western District of Arkansas, in Fort Smith. On March 18, 1875, the President nominated Parker for that post. The new judge arrived in Fort Smith on May 4, 1875, having traveled aboard the steamboat Ella Hughes, while his family stayed behind in Missouri for a time. Parker held court for the first time on May 10, 1875 and had to re-establish the court's reputation following the corrupt tenure of his predecessor, William Story. The court prosecutor during Parker's entire tenure was W.H.H. Clayton, appointed by Grant as United States Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas. Clayton was the brother of Powell Clayton, former governor of Arkansas and then one of its US Senators.

In the first term of court, Parker tried eighteen persons who were charged with murder; 15 were convicted in jury trials. Eight of these men qualified for a mandatory death sentence according to federal law. Parker ordered six of the men to be executed at the same time on September 3, 1875; their joint hangings were a symbol of the court's intentions to carry out the law. One of those sentenced to death was killed trying to escape, and another's sentence was commuted to life in prison because of his youth.

The jurisdiction of the Western District of Arkansas included the Indian Territory, which today composes much of the present-day state of Oklahoma. While the legal systems and governments of the Five Civilized Tribes and other Native American tribes in the Indian Territory covered their own citizens, federal law applied to non-Native American United States citizens in the territory. During the Parker court, notable lawmen served as deputy marshals, including Old West gunman Frank Canton, Zeke Proctor, Frank Eaton, Bass Reeves and Heck Thomas.

With respect to the Indian Territory, during this period the Western District was the court of final jurisdiction. From 1875 until 1889, statutory law did not provide for appeals of Indian Territory cases from this court to any court of appeal.

The changing court[edit | edit source]

According to Congress, the federal court for the Western District of Arkansas was to meet in four separate terms each year; in February, May, August, and November. The court had such a large case load that the four terms ran together. To ensure that the court tried as many cases as possible each term, Judge Parker held court six days a week, and often up to ten hours each day.

In 1883, Congress reduced the jurisdiction of the court, reassigning portions of the Indian Territory to federal courts in Texas and Kansas. The decreased size provided some relief to the Western District caseload; however, the continued influx of settlers into the Indian Territory, and the resulting conflicts and other frontier issues, contributed to an increased crime rate. On February 6, 1889, Congress made a sweeping change to the federal court in Fort Smith. It stripped the court of its concurrent circuit court authority and allowed appeals to or reviews of its capital cases by the United States Supreme Court. The Western District was no longer the court of last resort for capital cases.

As a federal judge, Parker occasionally was called to testify to the US Congress. He sometimes substituted for other federal judges in the western region. Besides the capital offenses, the court in the 1880s tried several important civil cases. The most famous was against David L. Payne, an "Oklahoma Boomer" who illegally settled on lands in the Indian Territory.[Who?] Parker received the nickname "the hanging judge" because of the numerous criminals who were convicted and executed by his court. The US Congress had established the death penalty for certain capital crimes in the territory and Parker and other federal judges had to carry out the law.

Civic activities[edit | edit source]

During these years, Parker began to play an active role in the community of Fort Smith. For instance, in 1884 he helped arrange the transfer by the federal government of the 300-acre (1.2 km²) Fort Smith military reservation to the city for redevelopment in order to help fund the public school system. Parker served on the school board.

He also served as the first board president of the Saint John's hospital (known today as the Sparks Regional Medical Center). The Parker family was involved in the community as well; Mary participated in many civic activities, and their two sons Charles and James went to the public schools.

Later years[edit | edit source]

In 1889 and 1890, the judge had the opportunity to take different positions within the federal judiciary; either position would have provided the judge with a reduced caseload. But, as he had established himself in Fort Smith, he removed his name from consideration.

Keeping up with continued settlement in the West, the Courts Act of 1889 established a federal court system in the Indian Territory; this decreased the jurisdiction of the Western District Court at Fort Smith. Parker was bothered by United States Supreme Court reversals on review of capital crimes tried in Fort Smith. Two-thirds of the cases appealed to the higher court were reversed and sent back to Fort Smith for new trials. In 1894, the judge gained national attention in a dispute with the Supreme Court over the case of Lafayette Hudson.

Present day image of the reconstructed gallows now located at the Fort Smith National Historic Site.

In 1895, Congress passed a new Courts Act, which removed the remaining Indian Territory jurisdiction of the Western District, effective September 1, 1896. Following the escape attempt of Crawford Goldsby (a.k.a. "Cherokee Bill") in the summer of 1895, which resulted in the death of a jail guard,[1] Parker blamed the Justice Department and the Supreme Court for the incident (the killer was convicted and executed March 17, 1896). In the spring of 1896, a very public argument was carried on between Parker and the US Assistant Attorney General.

When the August term of 1896 began, Judge Parker was at home, too sick to preside over the court. He suffered from Bright's Disease. When the jurisdiction of the court over lands in the Indian Territory came to an end on September 1, 1896, reporters wanted to interview him about his career and had to talk to Parker at his bedside.

During his tenure, Parker tried 13,490 cases, 344 of which were capital crimes. Juries convicted suspects in 9,454 cases. Parker sentenced 160 people to hang, though only 79 sentences were carried out. As a reflection of the frontier violence, as many as 109 deputy marshals were killed in the line of duty during that time.[2]

The judge died on November 17, 1896. He was buried at the Fort Smith National Cemetery in Fort Smith, Arkansas.[3]

Representation in media[edit | edit source]

Judge Parker is featured prominently along with Bass Reeves in the historical fiction novel, "The Nations" by Ken Farmer and Buck Stienke.

  • Pierre Watkin played Judge Parker in a 1955 episode, "Cherokee Bill" of the syndicated television series Stories of the Century, starring and narrated by Jim Davis. Parker sentences Crawford Goldsby of the Indian Territory to forty-five years at hard labor for a single murder, but after a prison escape and the commission of more killings, Parker sentenced the 20-year-old Goldsby to be hanged in Fort Smith.[4]
  • Thomas Browne Henry (1907–1980) portrayed Parker in the 1960 film Oklahoma Territory, with Bill Williams cast as Temple Houston.[5]
  • Charles Portis features Judge Parker in his novel, True Grit, which has twice been adapted as films of the same name. Parker is a featured character in the sequel to the first film. Parker was portrayed by James Westerfield in the 1969 movie and by John McIntire in the sequel. He was played by Jake Walker in the 2010 remake of True Grit.
  • The character played by Pat Hingle in Hang 'Em High has a different name and operates out of a fictional Fort Grant, but the figure has many of the characteristics of Judge Parker.
  • Larry McMurtry's 1997 novel Zeke and Ned tells the story of Zeke Proctor, one of Parker's deputy marshals.
  • Loren D. Estleman's 2009 novel The Branch and The Scaffold relates to Parker's tenure at Fort Smith.
  • In the Steve Earle song, "Tom Ames' Prayer," the narrator Ames is sentenced to death by Parker.
  • In the midseason finale of Warehouse 13, Evil Artie uses an artifact called Judge Parker's Noose to magically suspend a room full of museum visitors.
  • Judge Parker appears in the Lucky Luke album "Belle Starr", in which he helps Luke bring down Belle Starr's gang and takes over the role of town judge from the previous, corrupt judge, who was actually in league with Belle Starr. At the end of the album, he sentences multiple criminals to death by hanging.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Sources[edit | edit source]

  • Brodhead, Michael J. Isaac C. Parker: Federal Justice on the Frontier. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003.
  • Burton, Jeffrey. Indian Territory and the United States, 1866–1906: Courts, Government, and the Movement for Oklahoma Statehood. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.
  • Harman, S.W. Hell on the Border: He Hanged Eighty-Eight Men. Fort Smith: Phoenix, 1898; reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
  • Harring, Sidney L. Crow Dog's Case: American Indian Sovereignty, Tribal Law and United States Law in the 19th Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
  • Harrington, Fred Harvey. Hanging Judge, Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1952; reprint, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.
  • Tuller, Roger. "Let No Guilty Man Escape": A Judicial Biography of Isaac C. Parker, Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001

External links[edit | edit source]

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Joel F. Asper
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Missouri's 7th congressional district

Succeeded by
Thomas T. Crittenden

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