Isaac Charles Parker (October 15, 1838 – November 17, 1896) was an American politician and jurist. He served as the United States Congressman for Missouri's 7th congressional district for two terms and presided over the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas for 21 years.
He became known as the "Hanging Judge" of the American Old West due to the large number of convicts whom he sentenced to death. In 21 years on the federal bench, Judge Parker tried 13,490 cases. In more than 8,500 of these cases, the defendant either pleaded guilty or was convicted at trial. Parker sentenced 160 people to death; 79 of them were executed.
Parker's health deteriorated in the 1890s and the jurisdiction and power of his court were reduced by Congress. In September 1896, Congress effectively closed the District Court for the Western District of Arkansas by removing its jurisdiction. Shortly after, on November 17, 1896, Parker died of complications due to Bright's disease. He is buried in Fort Smith.
|Isaac Charles Parker|
Painting of Judge Isaac Parker, circa 1896.
|Judge of the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas|
March 19, 1875 – November 17, 1896
|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
March 4, 1871 – March 4, 1875
|Preceded by||Joel Funk Asper|
|Succeeded by||Thomas Theodore Crittenden|
|Judge of the 12th Missouri Circuit Court|
|Born||October 15, 1838|
Barnesville, Ohio, US
|Died||November 17, 1896 (aged 58)|
Fort Smith, Arkansas, US
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. At 17, he began an apprenticeship in law, and passed the Ohio bar exam in 1859.
Parker moved to St. Joseph, Missouri between 1859 and 1861 and worked at his maternal uncle's law firm of Shannon and Branch. On December 12, 1861, Parker married Mary O'Toole, with whom he had sons Charles and James. By 1862, Parker had his own law firm and was working in the municipal and country courts.
In April 1861, Parker ran as a Democrat for the St. Joseph part-time city attorney. He served three one-year terms from April 1861 to 1863. 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. He had reached the rank of corporal by the end of the war.
During the 1860s, Parker continued both his legal and political careers. In 1864, he formally split from the Democratic Party over conflicting opinions on slavery. He ran as a Republican for county prosecutor of the Ninth Missouri Judicial District. By the fall of 1864, he was serving as a member of the Electoral College and voted for Abraham Lincoln. In 1868, Parker won a six-year term as judge of the Twelfth Missouri Circuit.
Parker was nominated for Missouri's 7th congressional district on September 13, 1870, backed by the Radical faction of the Republican party. He then resigned his judgeship and devoted his energy to his campaign. Parker won the election after his opponent withdrew two weeks prior to the vote.
The first session of the Forty-second Congress convened on March 4, 1871. During his first term, Parker helped to secure pensions for veterans in his district and campaigned for a new federal building to be built in St. Joseph. He sponsored a failed bill designed to enfranchise women and allow them to hold public office in United States territories. He also sponsored legislation to organize the Indian Territory under a territorial government.
Parker was again elected to Missouri's 7th district in the forty-third Congress. A local paper wrote of him, "Missouri had no more trusted or influential representative in ... Congress during the past two years". In his second term, Parker concentrated on Indian policy, including the fair treatment of the tribes residing in the Indian Territory. His speeches in support of the Bureau of Indian Affairs gained national attention.
In 1874, Parker was the caucus nominee of the Republican Party for a Missouri Senate seat. However, the political tide had shifted in Missouri; it seemed unlikely that he would be elected to the Senate, so he sought a presidential appointment as judge for the Western District of Arkansas.
On May 26, 1874, President Ulysses S. Grant nominated Parker as Chief Justice of the Utah Territory to replace 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, replacing William Story who was facing impeachment proceedings due to allegations of corruption.
Parker arrived in Fort Smith on May 4, 1875, initially without his family. Parker's first session as the district judge was 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.
In May 1875, Parker tried 18 men during his first session of court, all of whom were charged with murder; 15 were convicted in jury trials. Parker sentenced eight of them to a mandatory death penalty. He ordered six of the men to be executed at the same time on September 3, 1875. One of those sentenced to death was killed trying to escape, and another's sentence was commuted to life in prison due to his youth. Parker gave an interview to the St. Louis Republic on September 1, 1896, in which he stated that he had no say whether a convict was to be hanged due to compulsory death sentences, and that he favored "the abolition of capital punishment".
Parker's court had final jurisdiction over the Indian Territory from 1875 until 1889, as there was no court available for appeals. The legal systems and governments of the Five Civilized Tribes and other Native American tribes in the Indian Territory covered their own citizens, and federal law applied to non-Indian United States citizens in the territory.
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 caseload that the four terms ran together. Parker's court sat six days a week in order to ensure that they tried as many cases as possible each term, and often up to ten hours each day. In 1883, Congress reduced the jurisdiction of the court, reassigning parts of the Indian Territory to federal courts in Texas and Kansas; however, the increasing number of settlers moving into the Indian Territories actually increased the court's workload.
From May 1, 1889, changes made by Congress allowed appeals of capital convictions to the United States Supreme Court. Forty-four cases in which Parker imposed the death penalty were appealed to the Supreme Court, which overturned and ordered a re-trial for 30 of them.
In his time on the court, Parker presided over a number of high-profile cases, including the trial of Cherokee Bill and the "Oklahoma Boomer" case involving David L. Payne, who illegally settled on lands in the Indian Territory. In 1895, Parker heard two cases involving Crawford Goldsby (Cherokee Bill). The first involved Goldsby killing a bystander during a general-store robbery in 1894. He was convicted in a case that lasted from February 26 to June 25, 1895, 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 gave him a second death sentence on December 2, 1895. Goldsby was eventually hanged on March 17, 1896.
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.
Parker clashed with the Supreme Court on a number of occasions, with around two-thirds of cases appealed to the Supreme Court being upheld. In 1894, Parker gained national attention in a dispute with the Supreme Court over the case of Lafayette Hudson. Hudson was convicted of assault with intent to kill and sentenced to four years 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 the authority to demand Hudson's release.
In 1895, Congress passed a new Courts Act which removed the remaining Indian Territory jurisdiction of the Western District, effective September 1, 1896. This effectively closed the federal court for the Western District of Arkansas by removing its jurisdiction.
Parker was at home when the August 1896 term began, too sick to preside over the court, as he suffered from Bright's disease. The jurisdiction of the court came to an end on September 1, 1896, over lands in the Indian Territory; reporters wanted to interview him about his career but had to talk to him at his bedside. Parker died on November 17, 1896, of a number of health conditions, including heart degeneration and Bright's disease. His funeral in Fort Smith had the highest number of attenders up to that point. He is buried at the Fort Smith National Cemetery.
In 21 years on the federal bench, Parker tried 13,490 cases; more than 8,500 defendants either pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial. He sentenced 160 people to death and 79 were executed; the others either died while incarcerated or were acquitted, pardoned, or their sentences were commuted.
Parker has been represented in a number of fictionalised portrayals of his time at Fort Smith. Charles Portis features Parker in his novel True Grit, which has twice been adapted as films of the same name. Parker is a featured character in the sequel to the first film. He was portrayed by James Westerfield in the 1969 movie and by John McIntire in the sequel. He was played by Jake Walker in the 2010 remake of True Grit. Zeke Proctor, one of Parker's deputy marshals, is featured in Larry McMurtry's 1997 novel Zeke and Ned.
Carlyle Mitchell, in his penultimate acting role, was cast as Judge Parker in the 1961 episode, "A Bullet for the D.A.", on the syndicated television anthology series, Death Valley Days, hosted by Stanley Andrews. Carole Mathews played Belle Starr recently released from federal prison. In the story line, Belle unsuccessfully plots the revenge assassination of United States Attorney W. H. H. Clayton (Don Haggerty) during a Wild West show in Fort Smith. William Thourlby played as Belle's second husband, Sam Starr.
Remembered in Western novels and films as a "Hanging Judge"
|U.S. House of Representatives|
Joel F. Asper
| Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Missouri's 7th congressional district
Thomas T. Crittenden
| Judge of the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas
John Henry Rogers