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date: 22 October 2020

Parker, Isaac Charlesfree

(15 October 1838–17 November 1896)
  • Larry D. Ball

Parker, Isaac Charles (15 October 1838–17 November 1896), lawyer, politician, and judge, was born near Barnesville, Ohio, the son of Joseph Parker and Jane Shannon, farmers. He attended the local public school and the Barnesville Academy. He taught school and read law. In 1859 he opened a law office in St. Joseph, Missouri, and married Mary O’Toole two years later. They were the parents of two children. Parker entered politics as a Stephen A. Douglas Democrat but joined the Republican party at the outset of the Civil War. Labeled a Radical Republican, he held various offices, the city attorneyship of St. Joseph, as well as prosecuting attorney and presiding judge of the local circuit court.

From 1871 to 1875, Parker served as U.S. congressman from the Seventh Congressional District but lost a bid for a seat in the Senate in 1874. While in Washington, D.C., he spoke out in favor of some controversial issues, including woman suffrage in the territories and the rights of Indians. As a member of the Committee on Territories, he introduced a bill to provide a civil government for Indian Territory (Okla.). Although called a “territory,” this region remained under tribal governance and lacked the usual presidential appointees—a governor and U.S. marshal, among others. While the ambitious politician may have believed that an American regime would better serve the interests of the Native-American inhabitants of Indian Territory, neither the Indians nor their white supporters in the East agreed. They succeeded in defeating the Parker proposal. His expressions of sympathy for the indigenous North Americans did not preclude Parker’s adherence to the prevailing notions of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority. After completing his second congressional term, Parker sought a new position through presidential preferment. President Ulysses S. Grant offered him the post of chief justice of Utah Territory but then withdrew the appointment. On 19 March 1875, Grant appointed Parker to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, with its seat at Fort Smith.

Parker’s new position accorded him considerable authority. Not only did he preside over several counties in Arkansas, but the Indian Territory as well. Congress had attached this region of more than 70,000 square miles to the federal tribunal in Arkansas. The inhabitants—Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole Indians—were permitted to try cases arising among themselves in their own courts, but suits arising between Indians and whites were heard in the U.S. court in Arkansas.

The reputation Parker earned for stern dispensation of justice arose as a consequence of his efforts to suppress lawlessness in the attached Indian lands, where several races—Indian, black, and white—coexisted unsteadily. Parker blamed the desperate white element for much of this crime. The difficulty of extraditing Anglo criminals from Indian Territory made this region attractive to many desperadoes. In Parker’s twenty-one years on this bench, from 1875 to 1896, his court docketed 13,490 cases, resulting in 9,454 convictions. Parker could not have compiled this remarkable record without the support of a corps of deputy U.S. marshals who undertook the dangerous—and many times fatal—task of arresting fugitives in Indian Territory. In the popular literature about Parker, which accords him larger-than-life stature, the presiding judge supervises the deputies—hence the expression “Parker’s deputies.” This was not the case. The U.S. marshal for the Western District was the executive and disbursing officer of the court. He appointed deputies and was responsible for the dispatch of these subordinates and their posses into Indian Territory. The fact that the marshal’s office was located in close proximity to that of the imperious judge—elsewhere, the two officials often worked far apart—may have enabled Parker to interfere more easily in the affairs of the marshal.

While the majority of these cases concerned lesser crimes in Indian Territory—violations of the liquor laws, counterfeiting, arson, and other offenses—Parker’s imposition of the death penalty in murder cases made this tribunal legendary. Seventy-nine men died on the gallows in his twenty-one years on the bench. (The traditional figure of eighty-eight is erroneous.) On one occasion Parker sent six men to the scaffold at one time; on two other occasions five men were hanged simultaneously. Parker was sensitive to the public belief that he enjoyed imposing the death sentence. In an interview with a St. Louis Republic reporter on 1 September 1896, he attempted to correct this misconception. “I never hung a man,” he protested, “it is the law.” Nonetheless, Parker is best known by the regrettable title of the “Hanging Judge.” Persons convicted and sentenced in the Western District Court had no right of appeal until 1889, when Congress corrected this omission in the statutes governing the powers of the Parker court. In the meantime, the defendants possessed the right to make direct requests for presidential pardons or commutations of their sentences.

The enforcement of the federal laws in Indian Territory proved to be an extraordinary and expensive burden on the Western District Court at Fort Smith. In 1883 Congress reassigned the western portion of Indian Territory to federal courts in neighboring Kansas and Texas. This piecemeal reduction of the court’s jurisdiction continued through the remainder of Parker’s long tenure. He died in Fort Smith of complications arising from Bright’s disease.

Parker projected a stern image on the bench, and attorneys sometimes complained that he unfairly influenced juries. Outside the court he demonstrated an interest in civic affairs and served on the local schoolboard. Throughout his life, he spoke out on behalf of the Indians and expressed regret that the United States failed to provide the inhabitants of Indian Territory with adequate protection from the criminal element.

Judge Isaac C. Parker occupies a prominent place among America’s frontier personalities. He acquired this exalted place through the writings of countless “wild west” authors and Hollywood scriptwriters, who betray a perverse nostalgia for the heyday of the forceful federal judge who pronounced the death sentence without fear or the convicted’s right of appeal. These same authors have exaggerated the uniqueness of criminal problems in Indian Territory, although the degree of mayhem in this region was alarming enough. Other frontier regions, such as the territories of New Mexico and Arizona, experienced serious outbreaks of lawlessness. At least ninety-five persons (including one woman) were legally hanged in these two territories combined between 1846 and 1912. However, the U.S. marshals and county sheriffs in these large districts strived to enforce the law with much smaller staffs than the larger corps of deputy marshals who patrolled the much smaller Indian Territory. There were several reasons for this presumed favoritism toward the latter region. Indian Territory contained the largest concentration of Native Americans in the nation, and the federal government was obligated by treaty to protect them. This was sometimes difficult because many of the native inhabitants wanted to preserve their traditional ways of life and resisted white encroachments. The attachment of Indian Territory to Parker’s tribunal in Fort Smith—while a very clumsy procedure—was one means of providing some federal protection. In all of the frontier territories, including Indian Territory, lawmen were often constrained to call upon the U.S. Army for assistance during serious disturbances.

Bibliography

The official papers of the Western District Court—largely unexplored by scholars—make up record group 21 in the National Archives, Southwest Region, Fort Worth, Tex. Additional material is located in record group 60 in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The foundation for the image of the “Hanging Judge” is Samuel W. Harman’s Hell on the Border: He Hanged Eighty-Eight Men (1898; repr. 1992, with an introduction by Larry D. Ball). Popular biographies of Isaac Parker include Homer Croy, He Hanged Them High: An Authentic Account of the Fanatical Judge Who Hanged Eighty-Eight Men (1952); Fred Harvey Harrington, Hanging Judge (1951); and Glenn Shirley, Law West of Fort Smith: A History of Frontier Justice in the Indian Territory, 1834–1896 (1957). For scholarly studies of some aspects of the Western District Court see Ball, “Before the Hanging Judge: The Origins of the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 49 (1990): 199–213; Charles D. Stephan, “The United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas and Judge William H. Story, 1871–74” (master’s thesis, Arkansas State Univ., 1985); Mary Margaret Stolberg, “Politician, Populist, Reformer: A Reexamination of ‘Hanging Judge’ Isaac Parker” (master’s thesis, Univ. of Virginia, 1986); and James Oakley Murphy, “The Work of Judge Parker in the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, 1875 to 1896” (master’s thesis, Univ. of Oklahoma, 1939). Obituaries are in the New York Times, 18 Nov. 1896, and the (Little Rock) Arkansas Gazette, 17 and 18 Nov. 1896.