Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Isaac C. Parker, the Hanging Judge of Fort Smith, Arkansas

The years following the Civil War were a time of great violence and turbulence in the Indian Nations of today's Oklahoma.

Hundreds of outlaws converged on the Nations, convinced they would be safe there from apprehension by law enforcement officers. They preyed on the innocent citizens of the Nations with impunity, also striking across the borders of Arkansas, Texas, Kansas and Missouri to rob, rape, murder and pillage.

To bring law and order to the region, a former militia officer and Congressman from Missouri was named the U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Arkansas. His name was Isaac C. Parker and he became remembered in Western lore and legend as the "Hanging Judge" of Fort Smith.

Parker recruited a brave and daring team of deputy U.S. marshals who rode far and way through the frontier region to bring justice to the unfortunate people preyed upon by the outlaw gangs. These lawmen were memorialized on the big screen in such films as "True Grit" and "Rooster Cogburn" starring John Wayne and "Hang Em High" starring Clint Eastwood. The Hanging Judge was a key figure in all three of those films, as well as in many others.

Parker earned his legendary title because he sent more than 70 outlaws to the gallows in Fort Smith, more than any other Federal judge in U.S. history. Most people do not know, however, that the judge was actually an opponent of capital punishment. Parker didn't believe that it stopped crime, but he imposed the sentences because under Federal law of the time, death was the only legal sentence for many of the crimes tried in his court. Modern generations have also all but forgotten that more than 60 of Judge Parker's officers lost their lives in the line of duty.

The legend of Judge Isaac Parker remains very much alive in the charming and historic city of Fort Smith today. His gallows have been reconstructed and numerous artifacts from the judge's battles against such outlaws as the Dalton gang, the Rufus Buck gang, Cherokee Bill and even Belle Starr can be seen today at Fort Smith National Historic Site. To learn more, please visit

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