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Issac Parker, the Hanging Judge

"I have ever had the single aim of justice in view... 'Do equal and exact justice,' is my motto, and I have often said to the grand jury, 'Permit no innocent man to be punished, but let no guilty man escape.'"
- Judge Isaac Parker

Isaac Parker was a federal judge that brought “white man’s law” to a previously lawless land in what was once known as Indian Territory and is today known as Oklahoma. He was the judge in Fort Smith, Arkansas and it sat on the border of Indian Territory and Arkansas. Murderers, rapists, horse thieves, robbers all sought refuge in the Indian Territory because there was no law there to speak of and it became Judge Parker’s mission to clean it up.

Isaac Parker was admitted into the bar at the ripe young age of twenty-one and over the years, developed a reputation as being an honest lawyer and was much respected in the communities he resided in. When he passed the bar exam in 1859, he dedicated his life to law. By the time he was thirty six and took the position as federal judge, Isaac Parker had already had a lifetime of different positions in the law field as a lawyer, a prosecutor, a judge and even a congressman. He was a very outspoken proponent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and his outspokenness and captivating speeches, garnered him national attention. So much so in fact, that President Grant appointed him to the position of Federal Judge for the Western District in 1875.

On September 3, 1875, Judge Parker sentenced eight men to die on the gallows at the same time. However, it would only be six as one man was killed in an escape attempt and because of his young age, the other would have his sentence commuted to life in prison. The hanging was a spectacle as more than five thousand people would converge on Fort Smith that day to witness the event. Isaac Parker had already garnered the reputation as the “hanging judge” and his court would be given the eerie moniker of the Court of the Damned by his critics. Of the six men being hung, three of them were white, one was black and two were Native Americans. One famous, or infamous, criminal who felt Parker’s cold sting of death was Cherokee Bill. One famous deputy marshal that worked for Parker was Bass Reeves, one of the first black deputy marshals.

Isaac Parker served as the federal judge at Fort Smith for twenty-one years until his death due to complications from Bright’s disease. One hundred sixty men were sentenced to death by hanging during his tenure; however only of about seventy-nine were actually hung. The rest had their sentences commuted to life and some even won their freedom on appeals. Although he was famous for hangings, he was a fair judge and was also against the death penalty. However, he followed the letter of the law and in the end, when the death penalty was supposed to be given, it was. Judge Parker also watched every single hanging from the window of his chambers. He has been immortalized in books and movies with one of my favorites as a Judge Parker-like character in the Clint Eastwood western, “Hang ‘Em High” where Clint portrayed a U.S. Marshal hired by the judge.











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