The Hanging Judge
By Steve Goldman
In the year 1875 there existed in the United States a wild and largely untamed land where outlaws ruled. (NO, this was not Detroit or the South Bronx!) This vast region was known as the Indian Territory and was located in the area which is now the state of Oklahoma. This territory was populated by a mixture of cattle thieves, horse thieves, prostitutes, desperados, whiskey peddlers and numerous unsavory characters who sought refuge in a region free of "White Man's Court" and without laws which could be used to extradite them for trial.
The Civil War wrecked the relative peace of the five civilized tribes of Indians that lived in the territory. It created a storm of racial hatred and unbridled vice. This was the American frontier at its very worst. Folks, this was a baaa-aaad place!
The only court with jurisdiction over the Indian Territory was the U. S. Court for the Western District of Arkansas located in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Fort Smith was situated on the border of Western Arkansas and Indian Territory. To this court came Judge Issac Parker who was named to replace a corrupt judge at Fort Smith in May of 1875. A severe and able Federal Judge, Issac Parker was nicknamed "The Hanging Judge" because of the many men he sent to the gallows.
During his 21 years on the bench at Fort Smith, Judge Parker sentenced 160 men to die and hanged 79 of them. It didn't take Parker long to get going. On May 10, 1875 -- only 8 days after he arrived at Fort Smith -- he opened his first term of court. Eighteen persons came before him charged with murder and 15 were convicted. Eight of them were sentenced to die on the gallows on September 3, 1875. One was killed trying to escape and a second had his sentence commuted to life in prison because of his youth.
The hanging of the remaining 6 became an extraordinary media event for its times. Newspapermen came from Little Rock, St. Louis and Kansas City. Many of the large Eastern and Northern daily newspapers sent reporters to cover the event. Even strangers from abroad filtered into the city a week before the execution. More than 5,000 persons saw the condemned men marched from jail to the gallows. There were 3 Whites, 2 Indians, and one Negro. The 6 felons were seated on a bench along the back of the gallows and their death warrants were read to them. Each was asked if he had any last words. The preliminaries over, the 6 were lined up on the scaffold while executioner George Maledon adjusted the nooses around their necks. The trap was sprung and the 6 died all at once at the end of the ropes.
The Fort Smith Independent was the first newspaper to report the event. Its extra of September 3, 1875 was a 12 inch by 12 inch broadside with the large column headings reading: "Execution Day!!" In smaller type the paper explained: "Large Crowd -- 6 Murderers Hanged -- Details of the Execution -- Brief Sketches of the Convicts and the Crimes for Which They Suffered."
Other newspapers around the country reported the event a day later. These press reports shocked people throughout the nation. "Cool Destruction of Six Human Lives by Legal Process" screamed the headlines.
From these first 6 in 1875 through 73 more up until 1896, Judge Issac Parker became famous for his stern brand of justice in a wild and untamed land. For the first 14 years of his 21 at Fort Smith, Parker's judgments were final and irrevocable. He was hard on killers and rapists but was not a cruel man. He reserved most of his sympathy for the victim and his family. Most of Parker's critics lived in civilized communities and did not appreciate the raw frontier conditions of the Indian Territory. Most local citizens approved of the hanging judge.
So it was that the Fort Smith Independent scooped the world for Parker's hanging "debut". It would be his first but certainly not his last.