Isaac Parker

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For other people named Isaac Parker, see Isaac Parker (disambiguation).
Isaac Charles Parker
Painting of Judge Isaac Parker, circa 1896.
U.S. District Judge presiding over the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas
In office
March 19, 1875 – November 25, 1896[1]
Nominated by Ulysses S. Grant
Preceded by William Story
Succeeded by John Henry Rogers
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Missouri's 7th district
In office
March 4, 1871 – March 4, 1875
Preceded by Joel Funk Asper
Succeeded by Thomas Theodore Crittenden
Judge of the 12th Missouri Circuit Court
In office
Personal details
Born (1838-10-15)October 15, 1838
Barnesville, Ohio,
United States
Died November 17, 1896(1896-11-17) (aged 58)
Fort Smith, Arkansas,
United States
Spouse(s) Mary O'Toole

Isaac Charles Parker (October 15, 1838 – November 17, 1896) was a United States Congressman for Missouri and a jurist, who presided over the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas for twenty-one years. He served in as a judge during western expansion of the United States and is known as "Hanging Judge" of the American Old West.[2] He also served as a Congressman for Missouri's 7th District.

In twenty-one years on the federal bench, Judge Parker tried 13,490 cases and more than 8,500 either plead guilty or were convicted at trial.[3] Parker sentenced 160 people to death, 79 were executed, the others died while incarcerated, were acquitted pardoned or their sentence was commuted.[4][5]

Early life[edit]

Parker was the youngest son of Joseph Parker and his wife Jane Shannon, and the great-nephew of Ohio Governor Wilson Shannon. He was raised on the family farm near Barnesville, Ohio. He attended Breeze Hill Primary School, followed by the Barnesville Classical Institute, a private school. He taught in a county primary school to pay for his secondary education.[6][7]

When he was 17, Parker decided to become a lawyer. He combined an apprenticeship with a local lawyer with his own self studies. He passed the bar exam in 1859.[7]

Marriage and family[edit]

On December 12, 1861, while living in St. Joseph, Missouri, Parker married local woman Mary O'Toole, they had two sons, Charles and James.[8]

Early career[edit]

Upon passing the Ohio bar exam at 21 years of age (in 1859), Parker travelled to St. Joseph, Missouri. Parker began his legal career at the Shannon and Branch law firm in which his maternal uncle, D.E. Shannon, was a partner.[8][9]

Parker had started his own law firm by 1861 working in the municipal and country courts.[7][9]

Political career[edit]

Attorney and prosecutor[edit]

Photo of middle-aged man in a suit facing slightly to the right of camera.
Photo of Isaac Parker taken between 1860 and 1865.

In April 1861, Parker won election as the city attorney for St. Joseph as a Democrat. The American Civil War broke out four days after Parker took office and he enlisted in a pro-Union home guard unit, the 61st Missouri Emergency Regiment reaching the rank of corporal. City attorney was a part-time position with a one-year term, Parker was re-elected during 1862 and 1863.[9]

Split from Democratic Party[edit]

In 1864, Parker formally split from the Democratic Party over conflicting opinions on slavery.[10] He ran as a Republican for county prosecutor of the Ninth Missouri Judicial District. In the fall of 1864, he served as a member of the Electoral College, casting his vote for Abraham Lincoln.[11]

State circuit judge[edit]

In 1868, Parker won a six-year term as judge of the Twelfth Missouri Circuit.[11]

Parker was nominated as the Republican candidate for Missouri's 7th congressional district[12] on September 13, 1870. Backed by the Radical faction of the Republican party, Parker resigned his judgeship and devoted his energy to the campaign.[6] Parker's opponent withdrew from the election two weeks prior to the election.[13]

Election to Congress[edit]

The first session of the Forty-second Congress convened on March 4, 1871. During his first term Parker assisted veterans of his district in securing pensions and lobbied for the construction of a new federal building in St. Joseph. He sponsored a failed bill designed to enfranchise women and allow them to hold public office in United States territories. Parker also sponsored legislation to organize the Indian Territory under a territorial government.[11]

Parker sought election in Missouri's 7th congressional district and won a seat in the Forty-third Congress.[12] A local paper wrote of him, "Missouri had no more trusted or influential representative in ... Congress during the past two years ..."[14] In his second term, Parker concentrated on Indian policy including the fair treatment of the Tribes residing in the Indian Territory. Speeches he made in support of the Bureau of Indian Affairs gained national attention.[15]

In 1874, Parker was the caucus nominee of the Republican Party for a Missouri Senate seat.[6] However the political tide had shifted in Missouri which made it unlikely that Parker would be re-elected so he sought a presidential appointment as the judge for the Western District of Arkansas.[7][11]

District Judge[edit]

On May 26, 1874, President Ulysses S. Grant nominated Parker as Chief Justice, Utah Territory to replace Chief Justice James B. McKean. However, following a request from Parker, Grant instead nominated him for the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas.[16][17] Parker replaced William Story who was facing impeachment proceedings due to allegations of corruption.[13][18]

Parker arrived in Fort Smith on May 4, 1875, initially without his family. His appointment at age 36 made him the youngest Federal judge in the West.[7] Parker held court for the first time on May 10, 1875 with court prosecutor W. H. H. Clayton, who remained the United States Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas for fourteen of Parker's twenty-one years on the court.[19]

Photograph of an American courtroom
Photo of Parker's courtroom reconstructed at the Fort Smith National Historic Site taken in 1966.

In the first term of court, Parker tried eighteen men who were charged with murder; fifteen were convicted in jury trials. Parker sentenced eight of them to a mandatory death after being convicted of murder.[7] Eight of these men were sentenced on Parker's first court session in May 1875.[13] Parker ordered six of the men to be executed at the same time on September 3, 1875.[8] One of those sentenced to death was killed trying to escape, and another's sentence was commuted to life in prison because of his youth.[7]

The Western District court had final jurisdiction over the Indian Territory as, from 1875 until 1889, there was no court of appeal available for appeals of Indian Territory cases.[20][21]

Parker was the judge in the "Oklahoma Boomer" case involving David L. Payne who illegally settled on lands in the Indian Territory.[22]

In an interview Parker gave to the St. Louis Republic on September 1, 1896 he stated that he had no say whether a convict was to be hanged and that he favoured "the abolition of capital punishment".[23][24]

The changing court[edit]

According to Congress, the federal court for the Western District of Arkansas was to meet in four separate terms each year; in February, May, August, and November. The court had such a large case load that the four terms ran together. To ensure that the court tried as many cases as possible each term, Judge Parker held court six days a week, and often up to ten hours each day.[7][8]

In 1883, Congress reduced the jurisdiction of the court, reassigning portions of the Indian Territory to federal courts in Texas and Kansas.[25] The increasing number of settlers moving into the Indian Territories resulted in the number of cases before Parker increasing.[8]

From May 1, 1889 changes made by Congress allowed appeals of capital convictions to the United States Supreme Court.[26][27] Forty-four cases where Parker imposed the death penalty were appealed to the Supreme Court which overturned and ordered a re-trial for thirty of them.[8][28][29]

Community involvement[edit]

While serving as a District Judge in Fort Smith, Parker served on the Fort Smith School Board and was the first president of St. John's Hospital (known today as Sparks Health System).[30][31][32]

Later years[edit]

Keeping up with continued settlement in the West, the Courts Act of 1889 established a federal court system in the Indian Territory; this decreased the jurisdiction of the Western District Court at Fort Smith.[23]

Parker clashed with the Supreme Court on a number of occasions with around two-thirds of cases appealed to the Supreme Court being upheld.[20][21] In 1894, the judge gained national attention in a dispute with the Supreme Court over the case of Lafayette Hudson.[33] Hudson was convicted of assault with intent to kill and sentenced to four year imprisonment, he appealed to the Supreme Court and was granted bail. Parker refused to release Hudson on the grounds that statute law did not provide the Supreme Court to authority to demand Hudson's release.[34][35]

In 1895 Judge Parker heard two cases involving Crawford Goldsby (Cherokee Bill). The first involved Goldsby killing a bystander during a general store robbery in 1894. In a case which lasted from February 26, 1895 to June 25, 1895 he was convicted and Parker sentenced him to death. However while awaiting execution, Goldsby attempted to escape prison and killed a prison guard. He was again brought before Parker who sentenced him to a second death sentence on December 2, 1895. Goldsby was eventually hanged on March 17, 1896.[36]

Reconstructed gallows, painted white with an open with an angled roof and brick wall at the rear.
Present day image of the reconstructed gallows now located at the Fort Smith National Historic Site.

In 1895, Congress passed a new Courts Act, which removed the remaining Indian Territory jurisdiction of the Western District, effective September 1, 1896.

Sickness and death[edit]

When the August term of 1896 began, Judge Parker was at home, too sick to preside over the court. He suffered from Bright's Disease. When the jurisdiction of the court over lands in the Indian Territory came to an end on September 1, 1896, reporters wanted to interview him about his career and had to talk to Parker at his bedside.[23]

Parker died on November 17, 1896 of a number of health conditions including heart degeneration and Bright's Disease.[8] Parker's funeral in Fort Smith had the most number of attendees up to that point.[37] He is buried at the Fort Smith National Cemetery.[38]

In twenty-one years on the federal bench, Judge Parker tried 13,490 cases and more than 8,500 either pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial.[3] Parker sentenced 160 people to death, 79 were executed, the others died while incarcerated, were acquitted pardoned or their sentence was commuted.[4][5]

Representation in media[edit]

Judge Parker is featured prominently along with Bass Reeves in the historical fiction novel, "The Nations" by Ken Farmer and Buck Stienke.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Isaac Parker at the Biographical Directory of Federal Judges, a public domain publication of the Federal Judicial Center. (The Western District of Arkansas lost its jurisdiction over Indian Territory on September 1, 1896, but he continued as district judge until his death.)
  2. ^ National Park Service. "Judge Isaac C. Parker". National Park Service. Retrieved 22 November 2015. Remembered in Western novels and films as a "Hanging Judge" 
  3. ^ a b Burton 2008, p. 30
  4. ^ a b "Men Executed at Fort Smith: 1873 to 1896". National Historic Site: Fort Smith. National Park Service. 
  5. ^ a b "History — Historical Federal Executions". US Marshals Service. U.S. Federal Government. Retrieved December 14, 2015. 
  6. ^ a b c "PARKER, Isaac Charles, (1838–1896)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. US Federal Government. Retrieved December 15, 2015. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h "Judge Isaac Parker — Page 1". Old West Legends. Legends of America. Retrieved 14 December 2015. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Radcliff, Maranda (December 5, 2014). "Isaac Charles Parker (1838–1896)". The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. The Central Arkansas Library System. Retrieved December 14, 2015. 
  9. ^ a b c Leonard, Eric. "Parker's Missouri Years". National Historic Site: Fort Smith. National Park Service. Retrieved December 15, 2015. 
  10. ^ Brodhead 2003, p. 7
  11. ^ a b c d Leeper 2014, p. 90
  12. ^ a b "Rep. Isaac Parker [R]". GovTrack. US Federal Government. Retrieved December 15, 2015. 
  13. ^ a b c Friedman, Mark (March 15, 2004). "Judge Isaac Parker: A legend hangs on". Arkansas Business. Retrieved December 15, 2015. 
  14. ^ Tuller 2001, p. 36
  15. ^ Leonard, Eric. "U.S. Congressman from Missouri". National Historic Site: Fort Smith. National Park Service. Retrieved December 15, 2015. 
  16. ^ Riggs, Lamar (1955). "Judge Isaac C. Parker". The Arkansas Historical Quarterly (Arkansas Historical Association) 14 (1): 85–89. doi:10.2307/40018689. Retrieved December 16, 2015. 
  17. ^ Grant & Simon 1998, p. 9
  18. ^ Tuller 2001
  19. ^ Shirley 1968
  20. ^ a b "Judge Isaac C. Parker". National Historic Site: Fort Smith. National Park Service. Retrieved December 14, 2015. 
  21. ^ a b "Local Obituary of Judge Parker". National Historic Site: Fort Smith. National Park Service. Retrieved December 14, 2015. 
  22. ^ "Publishing a Newspaper in a "Boomer" Camp". Chronicles of Oklahoma. Oklahoma Historical Society. December 1927. p. 363. Retrieved December 14, 2015. 
  23. ^ a b c Leeper 2014, p. 91
  24. ^ Hafnor 2009, p. 18
  25. ^ Brodhead 2003, p. 103
  26. ^ Leonard, Eric. "Judge Parker: An Able Jurist". National Historic Site: Fort Smith. National Park Service. 
  27. ^ Daily, Harry P. (1933). Chronicles of Oklahoma: Judge Isaac C. Parker. Oklahoma State University. p. 678. Retrieved December 14, 2015. 
  28. ^ Boardman, Mark (February 11, 2014). "Beginning of the End: How famed "Hanging Judge" Isaac Parker lost his power". True West Magazine. Retrieved December 14, 2015. 
  29. ^ "Judge Isaac Parker — Page 2". Old West Legends. Legends of America. Retrieved 14 December 2015. 
  30. ^ Galonka 2000, p. 218
  31. ^ "Our history timeline". History. Sparks Health System. 2015. Retrieved December 16, 2015. 
  32. ^ "Church History". St. John's Episcopal Church. Retrieved December 16, 2015. 
  33. ^ "Overruled the Supreme Court: An Amusing Conflict of Judge Parker with the Highest Tribunal". The New York Times. November 25, 1894. Retrieved December 16, 2015.  Direct link to article (PDF)
  34. ^ Tuller 2001, p. 186
  35. ^ Brodhead 2003, pp. 167–169
  36. ^ Metz 2014, p. 98
  37. ^ Stolberg, Mary M. (1988). "Politician, Populist, Reformer: A Reexamination of "Hanging Judge" Isaac C. Parker". The Arkansas Historical Quarterly 47 (1): 3–28. doi:10.2307/40038130. Retrieved December 16, 2015. 
  38. ^ Isaac Charles Parker at Find a Grave
  39. ^ Movie Times. "Pierre Watkin Movies and Career Information". San Diego Movie Times. Movie Times, Inc. Retrieved December 18, 2015. 
  40. ^ "Stories of the Century: "Cherokee Bill"". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved September 16, 2012. 
  41. ^ "Thomas Browne Henry". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved January 10, 2013. 
  42. ^ "Oklahoma Territory - 1960". The Movie Data. Retrieved December 18, 2015. 
  43. ^ Brodhead 2003, p. 186
  44. ^ Brodhead 2003, p. 187
  45. ^ Brodhead 2003, p. 189
  46. ^ Estleman 2009
  47. ^ JimC (October 20, 2014). "Frontier Partisan Ballads — Steve Earle". Frontier Partisans. Retrieved December 16, 2015. 
  48. ^ Gillette, Danielle (October 2, 2012). "The Warehouse team catches up with Artie in this week's midseason finale". Blast Magazine (B Media Ventures). Retrieved December 16, 2015. 


External links[edit]

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Joel F. Asper
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Missouri's 7th congressional district

Succeeded by
Thomas T. Crittenden
Legal offices
Preceded by
William Story
Judge of the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas
Succeeded by
John Henry Rogers