Hanging Judge of Fort Smith
Judge Isaac C. Parker, seen
here in 1896, sent more than
70 men to the gallows in Fort
Smith, Arkansas.
Isaac C. Parker - The Hanging Judge of Fort Smith, Arkansas
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - Hanging Judge of Fort Smith, Arkansas
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - Hanging Judge of Fort Smith, Arkansas
Gallows of Fort Smith
More than 70 outlaws met their fates on the gallows
at Fort Smith during the years after the Civil War.
Hell on the Border at Fort Smith
His job is better remembered than his name.
Isaac Parker was the U.S. District Judge for
the Western District of Arkansas, but in Old
West legend as well as modern movies, he
was the "Hanging Judge" of Fort Smith.

During his career, more than 70 men found
guilty in Parker's courtroom were executed on
the gallows at Fort Smith. Contrary to legend,  
however, the executions were generally
carried out away from public view and there
is no evidence that Parker himself ever
watched any of them.

It may be surprising to learn that the man
remembered as the "Hanging Judge" was
actually opposed to capital punishment. In
many of the cases tried before him, however,
there was no other sentence he could have
handed down. Federal law then required that
persons convicted of rape or murder be
executed. Hanging Judge Parker, however,
did not approve and urged that the laws be
changed. He argued that capital punishment
was not a deterrent to crime.

Parker and his marshals became
well-known in Western lore because they
had the responsibility of patrolling not just
Western Arkansas, but the frontier as well.
Parker was responsible for enforcing U.S.
law in the Indian Nations of Oklahoma,
where many outlaws had assembled under
the mistaken belief that they would be safe
from capture. They preyed heavily on the
peaceful people living in the Nations, as well
as on travelers in the region. Assisted by
Native American tribal police, Parker's team
of Deputy U.S. Marshals brought justice to
the frontier.

Although most of the judge's deputy
marshals were white, he was unique for his
time in that he also employed deputies who
were of African American and Native
American descent. The suspects they
arrested, likewise, represented a variety of

Among the more infamous outlaws to spend
time at Fort Smith's notorious "Hell on the
Border" jail were Belle Starr, "Cherokee" Bill,
the "Rufus Buck Gang," and the "Dalton
Gang." Modern movies based on the efforts
to apprehend such men (and women)
include Clint Eastwood's "Hang Em High"
along with "True Grit" and "Rooster Cogburn."

Being a deputy marshal for Judge Parker
was even more dangerous than portrayed in
the movies. Sixty-five of his officers died in
the line of duty. One who survived was
Whitson, the "real" Rooster Cogburn.
Located in the basement of the old Fort
Smith barracks was the "Hell on the Border"
jail, where inmates awaited trail or execution.
Conditions were horrible and Judge Parker
and a number of others lobbied for a more
decent facility, which Congress finally
authorized in 1886. The new jail, which still
stands, was constructed as a wing on the
original barracks building.

Visitors to
Fort Smith National Historic Site
can tour the old barracks building, where they
can see a reconstruction of Parker's
courtroom and the original "Hell on the
Border" jail, as well as the 1888 jail facility
which is now the park visitor center.

Also of interest nearby are Judge Parker's
grave at Fort Smith National Cemetery and
many graves of both outlaws and deputy
marshals at Fort Smith's historic Oak
Judge Parker's Courthouse
The judge's reconstructed
courtroom can be seen at Fort
Smith National Historic Site.
Grave of Judge Parker
The man who brought law
and order to the Old West
rests at Fort Smith National
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Copyright 2011 by Dale Cox
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