The Secrets Behind The Legend Of Judge Isaac C. Parker

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FORT SMITH (KFSM)-- Many myths and rumors surround the life of the Issac C. Parker, also known as the Hanging Judge.

5NEWS uncovered some of the little-known facts behind the legend of Judge Parker in his old office located in the commissary building on the grounds of the Fort Smith National Historic Site.

In countless movies and books, Judge Isaac C. Parker is portrayed as a villain; a cruel man who would hand out the death penalty to anyone who entered his court.

After touring his office, we found out everything we thought we knew about the Hanging Judge might not be true.

“He did sentence more people to be executed than any other federal judge, but that’s only when you look on the surface,” Pat Schmidt, a park ranger at the National Historic Site, told us.

Schmidt said there are probably more myths about the judge than there are facts.

“That’s Hollywood, dime store novels,” Schmidt said. “There was a lot of, during this period, there was a lot of sensationalism.”

So what’s actually true?

In his 21 years as a judge he heard more than 13,000 cases.

“A little over 600 of those dealt with capital crime, and 160 were convicted, and 79 were actually executed, so that actually comes down to less than 1% of his cases that ended up with someone on the gallows,” Schmidt said. “Doesn’t really sound fair to call him the hanging judge for that.”

The Hanging Judge nickname didn’t even become popular until decades after his death, and Schmidt said Parker did not hand out death sentences to just anyone.

“He didn’t have a choice,” Schmidt said. “During this time period, if you were convicted of murder, rape, treason or obstruction with an execution, then the automatic sentence was execution.”

One of the most common misconceptions about Parker is that he watched his executions, but from the windows in his office, you have a view of the river not the gallows.

“The thing about Judge Parker is he was opposed to the death penalty,” Schmidt said. “He was even quoted as saying, ‘I’m in favor of abolishing the death penalty.’”

In fact, the judge didn’t even come into his office on days of executions.

So why did people make him the villain? Schmidt said some people were trying to scare others from moving to the area.

“Land speculators and folks associated with the railroads wanted Indian territory to remain a territory because the rules and laws were different as a territory, and they could, to a certain degree, get away with more things,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said there are no records that indicate Parker was ever a mean man.

She said the Hanging Judge is really just a character meant for westerns.

“They were trying to make him out to be crueler than what we really was, and in many interviews that I’ve read where they’ve talked about him and talked about what kind of man he was, they said he was jovial, always had a kind word, would stop and talk to people, and would even stop and talk to people that you wouldn’t expect him to,” Schmidt said.

Judge Parker did not hand down death sentences by saying, ‘Hang by the neck ‘til your dead dead dead.’ He didn’t get his entertainment from watching men hang. The real story is that the hanging judge didn’t want to hang anyone at all.