See biographies by F. Harrington (1951) and H. Croy (1952); G. Shirley, Law West of Fort Smith (1957, repr. 1968).
Isaac Charles Parker (October 15, 1838 – November 17, 1896) served as a U.S. District Judge presiding over the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas for 21 years. He served in that capacity during the most dangerous time for law enforcement during the western expansion. He is remembered today as the legitimate "Hanging Judge" of the American Old West.
In 21 years on the bench, Judge Parker tried 13,490 cases, 344 of which were capital crimes. Guilty pleas or convictions were handed down in 9,454 cases. Of the 160 (156 men and 4 women) sentenced to death by hanging, 79 were actually hanged. The rest died in jail, appealed, or were pardoned.
At the age of seventeen, Isaac Parker decided to study law. His legal training consisted of a combination of apprenticeship and self directed study. Isaac read law with a Barnesville attorney, passing his bar exam in 1859.
By 1861, he was operating on his own, working in the municipal and country criminal courts. The local courts afforded Parker not only experience but community recognition. In April 1861, he won election to the post of city attorney as a Democrat. Just four days after Parker took office as city attorney, the American Civil War began. The war caused Parker to reevaluate his political beliefs, and he broke with the Democrats, enlisting in a home guard unit, the 61st Missouri Emergency Regiment.
In 1864, Isaac Parker formally split from the Democratic party when he ran for county prosecutor of the Ninth Missouri Judicial District as a Republican. In the fall of 1864, he served as a member of the Electoral College, casting his vote for Abraham Lincoln.
In 1868, Parker sought and won a six-year term as judge of the Twelfth Missouri Circuit. The new judge gained experience and habits in this position that he would put to good use in the years to come.
Political ambition would catapult Parker from a Missouri judgeship to Congress in 1870.
The first session of the Forty-second Congress convened on Saturday, March 4, 1871, with Isaac Parker taking his seat as a freshman representative in the chamber. His congressional career was a balance of resolving constituent needs while sponsoring domestic legislation. Representative Parker assisted veterans of his district in securing pensions, and lobbied for the construction of a new federal building in Saint Joseph. He sponsored legislation that would have allowed women the right to vote and hold public office in United States territories. On several occasions Parker sponsored legislation that would have organized the Indian Territory under a formal territorial government.
Representative Parker handily won a second term in November 1872, one local paper saying of him, "Missouri had no more trusted or influential representative in ... Congress during the past two years..." In his second term, Parker gained national attention for speeches delivered in support of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. His second term saw his concentrating on Indian policy, and fair treatment of the Tribes residing in the Indian Territory.
By the fall of 1874, the political tide had shifted in Missouri, and as a Republican, Isaac Parker had no chance of reelection to Congress. Like many others, he sought a presidential appointment to public office.
The federal court for the Western District of Arkansas was initially established in 1851, having jurisdiction over the western counties in Arkansas, and all of the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Until 1871, the court was based in Van Buren, Arkansas. In 1871, Judge Parker's predecessor, William Story was appointed to the bench. The tenure of Judge Story was marred by serious corruption, and in 1874, Judge Story resigned.
The new judge arrived in Fort Smith on May 4 1875, having traveled aboard the steamboat Ella Hughes. His family stayed behind in Missouri and joined him in Arkansas later. The judge held court for the first time on May 10 1875. In the first term of court, eighteen persons came before him charged with murder and 15 were convicted. Eight of these men qualified for a mandatory death sentence according to federal law. On September 3, 1875, six men were executed at once on the Fort Smith gallows; an indication that the once corrupt court was functioning once again. One of those sentenced to death was killed trying to escape, and another was committed to life in prison because of his youth.
The jurisdiction of the Western District of Arkansas included the Indian Territory, which today composes much of the present-day state of Oklahoma. While the legal systems and governments of the five tribes in the Indian Territory covered their own citizens, the federal court protected the rights of American citizens, those of non-Indian heritage, both white and black. Several famous lawmen served as deputy marshals during the Parker court, including Old West gunman Frank Canton, Zeke Proctor, Frank Eaton and Heck Thomas.
During these years, the judge began to play an active role in the community of Fort Smith. In 1884, the government gave most of the 300 acre military reservation to the city to fund the public school system, largely at the judge's urging. Parker served on the school board and also served as the first board president of the Saint John's hospital (known today as the Sparks Regional Medical Center). The Parker family was involved in the community as well; Mary participated in many social activities, and their two sons Charles and James went to the public schools their father helped to establish. As a federal judge, his duties occasionally called him to testify in front of Congress, and he also substituted for other federal judges in the area.
Besides the capital offenses, several important civil cases were tried by the court in the 1880s. The most famous of these was against David Payne, an Oklahoma Boomer illegally settling on lands in the Indian Territory.
On February 6, 1889, Congress made a sweeping change to the federal court in Fort Smith, when it stripped the court of its concurrent circuit court authority and allowed the United States Supreme Court to review all capital crimes. This law went into effect on May 1, 1889, and would have a drastic effect on Judge Parker's final years.
The Courts Act of 1889, coming a month after Congress authorized the Supreme Court review, established a federal court system in the Indian Territory, further decreasing the Fort Smith court's jurisdiction.
The restrictions of the court's once vast jurisdiction were a source of frustration, but what bothered the judge the most were the Supreme Court reversals of capital crimes tried in Fort Smith. Fully two-thirds of the cases appealed to the higher court were reversed and sent back to Fort Smith for new trials. In 1894 the judge gained national attention in a dispute with the Supreme court over the case of Lafayette Hudson.
In 1895 a new Courts Act was passed which would remove the last remaining Indian Territory jurisdiction of the court effective September 1 1896. Following the escape attempt of Crawford Goldbsy (a.k.a. "Cherokee Bill") in the summer of 1895, which resulted in the death of a jail guard , Judge Parker again came into conflict with his superior when he blamed the Justice Department and the Supreme court for the incident. (The killer was hanged March 17, 1896.) In the spring of 1896 a very public argument was carried on between Judge Parker and the Assistant Attorney General.
When the August term of 1896 began, Judge Parker was at home, too sick to preside over the court. Twenty years of overwork had contributed to a variety of ailments, including Bright's Disease. When the jurisdiction of the court over lands in the Indian Territory came to an end on September 1 1896, the Judge had to be interviewed by reporters at his bedside. Scarcely two months after the jurisdictional change took effect, the Judge died on November 17 1896. During his tenure as judge, Isaac Parker tried 13,490 cases, 344 of which were capital crimes. 9,454 resulted in convictions. Judge Parker sentenced 160 people to hang, though only 79 sentences were carried out. 109 of his Marshals were killed in the line of duty during that time frame, in addition to at least that many outlaws being killed by his marshals.