For twenty-one years, Judge Isaac Parker held the bench of the U.S. Court for the Western District of Arkansas, located in the border town of Fort Smith. His tenure was unique in the history of the federal judiciary in that Hanging Judge Parker heard thousands of criminal complaints involving disputes and violence between Indians and non-Indians. He sentenced 160 people to death, over his fourteen years on the bench, earning him the distinction of the Ft. Smith Hanging Judge.
The staff at the Fort Smith National Historic Site points out that while sensational cases and mass executions overshadowed Parker’s contributions in rehabilitating offenders, reforming the criminal justice system, and advocating the rights of the Indian nations. In Fort Smith he tried to create, in his own words, “the moral force of a strong federal court.”
Visitors and researchers alike learn during their tour that Judge Isaac Parker is remembered in Western novels and films as “Hanging Judge Parker,” but that his real career and accomplishments in Fort Smith are far more fascinating and complicated.