I had read about him in fifth grade Arkansas History: Isaac C. Parker, the Hanging Judge. Aware of its existence, but never finding the time to visit the Fort Smith National Historic Site, I decided on that cloudy day in August that it was time to check this place off my Arkansas Bucket List.
Many will think that it’s a bit morbid to dawdle around any form of antiquated execution apparatus; however, for me, this was an opportunity to learn in a way other than from a dusty old textbook.
There was a somber sort of feel to the place; all was hushed outside where, at one time in history, from 1873-1876, folks would gather, spreading blankets and feasting on picnics while waiting for the executions to be carried out.
It’s hard to fathom the fact that these executions were somewhat of a spectator sport, and perhaps things were getting a bit out of hand because in 1878, a sixteen foot wall was built around the gallows, and passes were distributed to doctors, lawyers, newspaper reporters and an occasional family member or victim.
During his twenty one year tenure, 160 men and women were sentenced to hang. Of these, 69 men were executed in the gallows, earning Judge Parker the title of “The Hanging Judge”. What’s interesting about this is that Judge Parker was not an advocate of the death penalty; he merely felt he was charged with the duty of carrying out the law. On the subject of the death penalty, he stated,
“I favor the abolition of capital punishment, too. Provided that there is a certainty of punishment, whatever that punishment may be. In the uncertainty of punishment following crime lies the weakness of our ‘halting crime.’”
This title, with its negative connotation, may have been unfairly given, due to the sheer volume of cases that he heard. His jurisdiction covered 74,000 square miles, and, upon attaining the bench, there was a tremendous backlog of cases to be heard. Court was in session six days a week, ten hours per day.
In 1896, according to the Department of Justice, the Court for the Western District of Arkansas had the largest criminal docket in the world, efficiently handling more than 900 cases in the preceding year. It is estimated that, during his twenty-one years on the bench, Judge Parker disposed of almost 12,800 criminal cases. Lawlessness and ruthlessness were curbed under Parker’s jurisdiction, which was great news for folks that longed to call Arkansas home.
The museum attendants were very informative, willing to answer any questions, and many informational placards were scattered throughout the building. The tour, inside and out, was both interesting and educational, definitely changing my view of Judge Parker. A unique part of Arkansas history, it’s a must see when visiting Fort Smith!