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‘Hanging Judge’ Gets Bum Rap, Town Says

December 18, 1995

FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) _ Isaac C. Parker was the law in these parts in the late 1800s, a ``hanging judge″ who sent 79 people to their death. As many as six people at one time swung from the gallows when he was on the bench.

Locals nowadays regard Parker as a civilizing influence in the Old West, and they don’t take kindly to outsiders who say his name doesn’t belong on Fort Smith’s federal courthouse.

Parker was the federal judge for western Arkansas and the vast expanse that eventually became Oklahoma, then a region roamed by bandits, horse thieves and fugitives. During his 21 years on the bench, he sent more people to the gallows than any other judge in U.S. history, according to the National Park Service.

Parker defended his actions as ``equal and exact justice″ to stop rampant violence and thievery. His heavy workload _ some 13,000 cases during his career, 1875-96 _ was unheard of at the time. His deputy marshals were the only ones who had law enforcement authority in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.

``Cruel they have said I am, but they forget the utterly hardened character of the men I dealt with,″ he once said. ``They forget that in my court jurisdiction alone 65 deputy marshals were murdered in the discharge of their duty.″

Whatever his intentions, he’s often remembered today from depictions in modern-day fictional Westerns like ``True Grit″ and ``Lonesome Dove″ that have given him a bloodthirsty image.

That reputation didn’t help when a small group of city and county officials and historians decided recently that it was time to honor the judge.

In Washington, the House earlier this month passed a bill to rename in Parker’s honor the local federal building, a red brick edifice put up in the 1930s and simply called the United States Post Office and Courthouse.

But before going on to the Senate, the bill introduced by Rep. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., drew 40 votes against.

``He was a racist and hung blacks just because they were black,″ said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, who is black. She and other black representatives were joined by opponents of capital punishment.

Some Fort Smith residents don’t agree.

``I was stunned. I absolutely could not believe that anybody could make a statement like that,″ said a local historian, 89-year-old J. Fred Patton, who has written a history of Fort Smith and helped begin the effort to rename the courthouse.

Parker appointed the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi and employed several other blacks, Patton said. Parker’s bailiff was an ex-slave. And he showed compassion toward Indians.

``He established law and he determined what law was in a time and a territory that was completely lawless,″ said Fran Bedell, an economics teacher at Westark Community College.

When Parker arrived in Fort Smith, it was a town of about 3,000 people, mostly merchants and farmers who had settled around an Army fort on the Arkansas River. Now it’s a manufacturing city of 78,000.

The red brick Army barracks where he set up his court, and the commissary where he had his office, are still standing at the fort, now the Fort Smith National Historic Site. His courtroom has been reproduced with period furniture and his original bench.

Parker actually preferred giving sentences of life without parole when he could.

``I do not desire to hang you men, it is the law,″ he once said, referring to federal law that required the death sentence for rape or murder convictions.

And he didn’t like the idea of hangings becoming a public spectacle.

``Parker was so upset with the crowds that he ordered a privacy fence,″ said Julie Galonska, parks historian for Fort Smith National Historic Site, pointing at a modern replica of Parker’s gallows.

``People have said that I am a cruel, heartless and bloodthirsty man,″ Parker once told a reporter, ``but I have ever had the single aim of justice in view.″

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