Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Isaac Charles Parker -- The Hanging Judge

Dear Friends,

Many of us who are into Old West history and Western movies have heard of Judge Isaac Parker, the "Hanging Judge." And since a reader wrote to ask why he was called the "Hanging Judge," I decided to share my research on him.

I also wanted to ask the question if his being called the "Hanging Judge" was justified or not? After reading this, ask yourself if the moniker that was pinned on him was justified for the period and the length of time he said on the bench?

Isaac Charles Parker was born on October 15th, 1838. He was a judge and a politician. He actually served as the United States Congressman for Missouri's 7th congressional district for two terms, and presided over the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas for 21 years.

Parker was born 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 which was a private school.

He actually taught school in a county primary school to pay for his secondary education. And believe it or not, at the young age of 17, he started in an apprenticeship in law and then passed the Ohio bar exam in 1859 at the age of 21.

Parker moved to St. Joseph, Missouri between 1859 and 1861 and worked at his maternal uncle's law firm of Shannon and Branch. While there, he met and married Mary O'Toole, with whom he had sons Charles and James. By 1862, Parker had his own law firm and was also working in the country courts.

In April of 1861, Parker ran as a Democrat for the St. Joseph part-time position of city attorney. He served three one-year terms from April 1861 to 1863. Of course the Civil War broke out in 1861 just four days after Parker took office. 

He decided to enlist in a pro-Union the 61st Missouri Emergency Regiment which was a home guard unit. While I would have thought that he would have been an officer because of his being an attorney, he was an enlisted man and reached the rank of Corporal by the end of the war.

During the early 1860s, all through the Civil War, Parker continued both his legal and political careers. Then in 1864, he formally split from the Democratic Party over conflicting opinions on slavery. We should remember that Democrats started the Civil War after efforts of keeping slavery legally failed.  

So now as a Republican, he ran for county prosecutor of the Ninth Missouri Judicial District. By the fall of 1864, he was serving as a member of the Electoral College and voted for the re-election of Abraham Lincoln.

In 1868, Parker won a six-year term as judge of the Twelfth Missouri Circuit. And just two years later in 1870, Judge Parker was nominated for Missouri's 7th Congressional District. Backed by those who were called the "radical faction" of the Republican party, "radical" because they wanted to give Civil Rights to black Americans, he then resigned his judgeship to campaign. He won the election after his opponent withdrew two weeks prior to the vote.

The first session of the Forty-second Congress convened on March 4th, 1871. During his first term, Parker helped to secure pensions for veterans in his district and campaigned for a new federal building to be built in St. Joseph. He sponsored a failed Republican bill designed to give women equal rights. 

The Democrats did not only fight to preserve slavery during the Civil War, they also fought the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which was an Act of the United States Congress which empowered the President to suspend the writ of habeas corpus to combat the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and other Democrat militia organizations.

The act was passed by the 42nd United States Congress and signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on April 20, 1871. The act was the last of three Enforcement Acts passed by the United States Congress from 1870 to 1871 during the Reconstruction Era to combat attacks on the rights of black Americans.

The Democrats at the time vehemently opposed women's rights or to allow them to hold public office. Parker fought them and also sponsored legislation to organize the Indian Territory, modern day Oklahoma, under a territorial government.

Parker was again elected to Missouri's 7th district in the forty-third Congress. It was during this time that he fought for the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Though fought against by Democrats, Republicans passed it so that black Americans would be guaranteed equal treatment in public accommodations, public transportation, and to prohibit exclusion from jury service. Yes, 80 years before Rosa Parks refused to move from a seat on a bus, Republicans were fighting Democrats so that black Americans weren't discriminated against.  

As for Isaac Parker's conduct in Congress, a local paper wrote of him, "Missouri had no more trusted or influential representative in ... Congress during the past two years". 

In his second term, besides Civil Rights issues, Parker concentrated on Indian policy, including the fair treatment of the tribes residing in the Indian Territory. It's said that his speeches in support of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the fair treatment of the tribes gained national attention.

In 1874, Parker was the caucus nominee of the Republican Party for a Missouri Senate seat. But, Missouri was going Democrat at the time so it seemed very unlikely that he'd be elected to the Senate. Knowing this, he sought a presidential appointment as judge for the Western District of Arkansas.

On May 26th, 1874, Republican President Ulysses S. Grant nominated Isaac Charles Parker as Chief Justice of the Utah Territory. He was to replace James B. McKean. But after requesting that President Grant instead nominate him for the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas to replace William Story who was facing impeachment proceedings due to allegations of corruption, Isaac Charles Parker go the job.

Judge Parker arrived in Fort Smith on May 4th, 1875, without his family. His appointment at 36 years of age made him the youngest Federal Judge in the West. And yes, without wasting any time, he got right to work with his first session as the district judge was on May 10th, 1875.

As a side note, the court prosecutor was W. H. H. Clayton. He remained the United States Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas for 14 of Judge Parker's 21 years on the court.

On May 10th, 1875, his first day on the job, Judge Parker tried 18 men. That was during his first session of court, and all were there charged with murder. All toll 15 of them were convicted in jury trials. Parker sentenced eight of them to a mandatory death penalty. He ordered six of the men to be executed at the same time on September 3rd, 1875. And yes, one of those sentenced to death was killed trying to escape. He commuted another's sentence to life in prison due to his youth.

That first group of prisoners to hang as a result of going in front of Judge Parker, were three white men, two Indians, and one black man all of whom had been convicted of murder.

On September 3rd, 1875, the prisoners were seated together on a bench along the back of the gallows and had their death warrants read to them. Each was asked if he had any last words. They were then lined up on the traps. Then George Maledon, the man who was known as the "Prince of Hangman," adjusted the nooses around their necks and drew the black hoods over their heads.

At the signal from Judge Parker, Maledon pulled the lever to release the trap through which they fell. Maledon was said to take great care to get it done right. His prisoners usually died of a broken neck rather than by strangulation. Maledon also carried out another six man hanging later in his career.
Judge Parker's first hanging attracted huge media coverage for its day. Reporters came from Little Rock, St. Louis and Kansas City. Many of the large Eastern and Northern daily newspapers also sent reporters to cover the event. More than 5,000 people had turned out to watch the prisoners march from the jail to the gallows.

His court had final jurisdiction over the Indian Territory from 1875 until 1889. And no, there was no court available for appeals. Because of this, the governments of the Five Civilized Tribes, along with other tribes in the Indian Territory, actually had a legal system that covered their own citizens.

At the time, federal law applied to non-Indian United States citizens in the territory. And yes, Parker's court sat six days a week in order to ensure that he would be able to try cases. He is said to have thoroughly believed that citizens had the right to a speedy trial. And frankly, he gave a speedy trial to as many cases as possible each term. He often kept court going up to ten hours each day. 

And while in 1883, Congress attempted to reduced the caseload on the district courts by reducing the jurisdiction of the court and reassigning parts of the Indian Territory to federal courts in Texas and Kansas, the increase of settlers moving into the Indian Territories actually increased Parker's caseload.

In his time on the court, Parker presided over a number of high-profile cases, including the trial of Crawford Goldsby, alias Cherokee Bill, and the "Oklahoma Boomer" case involving David L. Payne who illegally settled on lands in the Indian Territory.

In 1895, Parker heard two cases involving Crawford Goldsby. The first time it involved Goldsby killing a bystander during a general-store robbery in 1894. He was convicted in that case which lasted from February 26th to June 25th, 1895. Parker sentenced him to death. 

But while awaiting execution, Goldsby attempted to escape prison. During his attempted escape, he killed a prison guard. Because of that, he was again brought before Parker who promptly gave him a second death sentence on December 2nd, 1895. Goldsby was eventually hanged on March 17th, 1896.

As for Parker's clashes with the Supreme Court? It is said that he did so on a number of occasions. In 1894, Parker gained national attention in a dispute with the Supreme Court over the case of Lafayette Hudson who was convicted of assault with intent to kill. Parker sentenced him to four years imprisonment.

Hudson appealed to the Supreme Court and was granted bail. Parker refused to release Hudson on the grounds that statute law did not provide the Supreme Court with the authority to demand Hudson's release. Imagine that.

And of the 44 cases which Parker imposed the death penalty which were appealed to the Supreme Court, 30 of them were overturned and ordered to be re-tried.

In 1895, Congress passed a new Courts Act which removed the remaining Indian Territory jurisdiction of the Western District. So effective September 1st, 1896, the federal court for the Western District of Arkansas was closed. 

Parker's health deteriorated in the 1890s just as the jurisdiction and power of his court were reduced by Congress. Then in September of 1896, Congress effectively closed the District Court for the Western District of Arkansas by removing its jurisdiction.

A month early in August of 1896, Judge Parker was at home when the term began. He was already too sick to preside over the court. It is said that even thought that was the case, reporters wanted to interview him about his career but had to talk to him at his bedside.

Judge Parker died on November 17th, 1896, of a number of health conditions which included heart disease and Bright's disease which is a disease involving chronic inflammation of the kidneys.

His funeral in Fort Smith had the highest number of attenders up to that point. He is buried at the Fort Smith National Cemetery.

During his time, Judge Isaac Charles Parker became known as the "Hanging Judge" due to the large number of convicts that he sentenced to death. But frankly, I don't know if he really deserved that moniker.

Fact is, in 21 years on the federal bench, Judge Parker tried 13,490 cases. In more than 8,500 of those cases, the defendant either pleaded guilty or was convicted at trial. And out of those more than 8,500 cases, Judge Parker sentenced 160 people to death. Out of those, 79 of them were actually executed. Of the others on "death row" awaiting the hangman, they either died while incarcerated or were acquitted, pardoned, or their sentences were commuted to life.

Now, if my math is right, I figure that over his 21 years on the bench, with 160 sentenced to death, he actually sentenced 8 men a year to the death penalty in accordance with what the law demanded at the time. And since only 79 were actually hanged, he hanged about 4 a year in those 21 year. So for me, while looking at the numbers, I really don't know if his being called the "Hanging Judge" is really fair.

And there you have it, there so goes the story of one of the West's most interesting people. From everything that I've read about him, he stood for what was right and did his duty. And that, well that to my way of thinking is really all that one can do in the big picture of things.

And yes, that's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa 


  1. Tom;
    A great article and real close to the facts or as close as one can come. I am involved with the Fort Smith National Historic Site and presently going thru what remains of Parker's law books and papers. Thank You for this great article.

  2. Interesting fact. Judge Isaac Charles Parker's final execution was of the Rufus Buck Gang on July 1, 1896. They were legally hanged for robbery, rape, murder, and horse rustling. They were all 19 and three of the members were African-American while Rufus Buck and Maoma July were Creek Indian. Later on, Judge Parker retired from the bench as he was suffering from the effects of diabetic ketoacidosis. He later died on October 17, 1896, at age 58. That was the thing about Judge Parker. Just like Samuel Colt and Nathan Bedford Forrest, Parker suffered from diabetes. Colt and Forrest as well as Parker later developed gout and died young from diabetic ketoacidosis. The problem was that they simply loved to eat. That's why people such as myself have to watch their weight. If they don't, they end up like Judge Parker, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Sam Colt. But hey, we don't get to live forever. But if we're gonna live, we have to take care of ourselves. I only wish Judge Parker would have listened. He would have lived much longer that way. Rest in peace, your honor. Court is adjourned.

  3. My bad. I meant to say that Judge Parker died on November 17, 1896. There, I fixed it.


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