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Judge Parker

Department of Arkansas Heritage - Monday, June 15, 2015

This is Isaac Charles Parker (1838–1896) who served as federal judge for the Federal Court of the Western District of Arkansas in Fort Smith. 

He tried 13,490 cases, with 9,454 of them resulting in guilty pleas or convictions. His court was unique in the fact that he had jurisdiction over all of Indian Territory, covering over 74,000 square miles. He sentenced 160 people to death, including four women. Of those sentenced to death under Parker, 79 men were executed on the gallows. 

 Parker is often called the “Hanging Judge." At the time, capital offenses of rape and murder were punished by death. However, it was not for the judge to decide guilt. Determining guilt was left up to the jury. 

Parker actually had no say in whether a person was to be hanged; in an interview published on September 1, 1896, in the St Louis Republic, Parker is quoted as saying, “I never hung a man. It is the law.” He, in fact, was against capital punishment, adding, “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.’” His court did, however, sentence some of the most notorious outlaws to hang. Outlaws such as Cherokee Bill, Colorado Bill, and the Rufus Buck Gang are some of the well-known who were sentenced to death and executed during Parker’s tenure. Visit the Fort Smith National Historic Site to see the gallows and Judge Parker’s courtroom. To learn more about Judge Parker, read the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.