You've heard about "hanging judge" Isaac Parker, but did you know he held court in Arkansas? In 1875, Parker volunteered to be judge in Fort Smith, Arkansas. In his first 8 weeks, he tried 91 defendants. In 21 years on the bench, Judge Parker tried 13,490 cases, 344 of them were capital crimes. Nine thousand, four hundred fifty-four cases resulted in guilty pleas or convictions. One hundred and sixty men were sentenced to death by hanging. Only 79 were actually hung. The rest died in jail, appealed or were pardoned.
Isaac Charles Parker was born in a log cabin in Belmont County, Ohio on October 15, 1838. He was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1859 at the age of 21. He soon met and married Mary O'Toole. The couple had two sons, Charles and James. Parker built up the reputation for being an honest lawyer and a leader of the community.
In May of 1875 Parker was named the judge over Western District of Arkansas and all of Indian Territory (the court was located in Fort Smith) by President Grant. At the age of 36, Judge Parker was the youngest Federal judge in the West. His opponents called him the "Hanging Judge" and called his court the "Court of the Damned." He was hard on killers and rapists. However, Parker was a fair man. He occasionally granted retrials. Sometimes, these even resulted in acquittals or reduced sentences. He reserved most of his sympathy for the victims of crimes and is called one of the first advocates of victim's rights.
Most of Parker's critics did not live in the frontier and did not understand the ethics (or lack thereof) of the Indian territory. Most locals approved of the Parker's judgements. "Outlaws" thought the laws did not apply to them in the Territory. Lawlessness and terror reigned. Most citizens felt the utter viciousness of the crimes merited the sentences imposed.
Parker actually favored the abolition of the death penalty. He was for strict adherence to the law and a clear standard for punishing crime. He said, "in the uncertainty of punishment following crime lies the weakness of our halting justice."
Parker's jurisdiction begin to shrink as more courts were given authority over parts of the Indian Territory. In September 1896 Congress closed the court. Six weeks after the court was closed, on November 17, 1896 he died. He left behind a legacy that is often misunderstood.
The Fort Smith National Historic Site allows tours of Hanging Judge Issaac Parker's restored court room, the "Hell on the Border" jail, a partial reconstruction of the 1888s jail cells and a reconstructed gallow.
Admission is $4. The visitor center (with the courtroom) is open daily, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. They do close December 25 and January 1.
Located in Fort Smith (Google map), about 2 hours from Little Rock.