Isaac C. Parker
After the Civil War the area which is now the panhandle of Oklahoma became known as "No Man's Land." By an accident of treaties No Man's Land was not in the jurisdiction of any state or territory, so it became a refuge for outlaws, gamblers, cattle rustlers, and other frontier riffraff. There was a sign on the border of No Man's Land which said: "Fort Smith, Five Hundred Miles."
In 1882 an outlaw gang galloped into the relative safety of No Man's Land barely escaping a group of federal marshals that were hot on their trail. As they passed the Fort Smith sign, they shot it full of holes to show their contempt for law and order. Later though, one of the outlaws returned to the sign and carved at the bottom the words, "To Hell," indicating his fear of the punishment that Fort Smith represented.
This fear instilled by Fort Smith originated with Isaac C. Parker, appointed as federal judge over the Federal District Court of Western Arkansas in 1875. (See blog of July 17, 2011, Sam Paul, Part Two.) Before Judge Parker's tenure, the court had been ineffective in enforcing the law over its vast jurisdiction, and Indian Territory had become a refuge for criminals. Parker appointed federal marshals to bring in offenders. In the past it had been hard to convince witnesses to travel the long distance to Fort Smith to testify, but Judge Parker's subpoenas were backed by the same marshals who instilled fear in the outlaws, so witnesses began to cooperate.
Judge Parker's marshals were a formidable group. These men, among them Heck Thomas, James Mershon, Heck Bruner, and Jacob Yoes became as famous as the outlaws they brought in. Their determination and courage inspired much of the folk lore that has been handed down to us about the old west.
Even though underpaid and often outnumbered by the outlaws they pursued, the marshals were as determined as Judge Parker to bring law and order to the frontier. One of the most difficult outlaws to bring in was Ned Christie. Wanted for horse stealing, robbery, whiskey peddling, and murder, Marshals Heck Bruner and Barney Connelley trailed him for months without success. Finally when Deputy Marshal L.P. Isabel cornered him, Christie although injured, shot Isabel, who was then disabled for life. Finally a group of 16 marshals assaulted Christie and his gang, holed up in a fort in a narrow canyon. Christie, who was a crack shot, held off the marshals for weeks against even a cannon which was brought up from Coffeeville, Kansas. Finally, at the risk of his life, Deputy Marshal Copeland placed a dynamite charge under the fort, blowing it apart and dislodging Christie, who was then shot as he attempted to escape.
On another case Martin Joseph, a horse thief from Texas, murdered Bud Stephens, and then raped and murdered his sixteen year old bride. Then he threw their bodies into a deep crevasse which led down into a cave. Months later, Marshal James Mershon apprehended Joseph and obtained a confession, but the district attorney wanted proof of the murder, so Marshal Yoes sent out his men to retrieve the bones. Deputy Marshal John Spencer volunteered to be lowered into the cave, but when he reached the bones he found himself surrounded by a den of rattlesnakes. "For God's sake, pull me up quick!" he screamed. After regaining his composure, Spencer asked to be lowered back down again, this time carrying a lantern, a revolver and a sack.
On reaching the bottom, Spencer was confronted by a huge rattlesnake. With nerves of steel, he stood his ground, and shot the snake even as it coiled itself around his arm and neck. He then filled the sack with the bones of the victims and called out to be pulled back up. When the other marshals saw the snake wrapped around Spencer's neck, they almost let him fall back into the pit, but fortunately they kept their heads and the evidence was returned to Fort Smith. Martin Joseph was convicted and hanged.
Due to Judge Parker's efforts, the old jail, the basement of the courthouse, was soon filled to overflowing. Minimal attention was paid to the prisoners' comfort, and conditions inside were deplorable. One man passing by it, being buffeted by the fowl odors and the demoniacal cries issuing from within, was quoted as saying, "If this is not Hell, I don't know where Hell is." A juror once insisted on inspecting the jail. Inside, he picked up a piece of bread and meat, both infested with vermin. He took them into the courtroom and placed them on Judge Parker's desk, threatening to send them to Washington.
Soon after that, a larger jail was built, but soon it too was housing six men per cell, double its planned capacity. It was not uncommon for prisoners to die awaiting trial.
The trip to Fort Smith was also an ordeal for those accused of crimes in Indian Territory.
Typically, a group of deputies were sent out with several arrest warrants. Prisoners were rounded up and shackled to a chain which was in turn bolted to a log. They were then forced to march to Fort Smith, a journey of almost 200 miles, dragging the log. A chuck wagon was provided to feed the prisoners, but only those unable to walk were allowed to ride in the wagon.
Judge Parker was more interested in meting out justice than in impartiality. During trials he usually made up his own mind as to the guilt or innocence of the defendant, and then made his opinion clear in his instructions to the jury. In one instance the main case against the defendant was that he hid the evidence of the crime. Judge Parker said in his instructions to the jury:
The questions for you to pass upon is whether or not … there were acts upon the part of this defendant … that looked toward concealing this act of the killing of Wilson; what these acts were; if they were cruel, if they were unnatural, if they were barbarous … that men who are conscious of innocence do not usually characterize their conduct after a killing by that sort of acts … the concealment of this body, the concealment of this horse, the killing of the horse, and the concealing of everything that pertained to that man … that they might be discovered afterwards as evidences of the killing.
And bear in mind that the other witness in this case cannot appear before you. He cannot speak to you, except as he speaks by his body as it was found, having been denied even the right of decent burial … these circumstances … stand as bloody, naked facts before you, speaking for Joseph Wilson and justice.
During Judge Parker's 21 year term, from 1875 until his death in 1896, 344 persons were tried for murder, and 88 were hanged.
Judge Parker's fame spread throughout the country. News of the outlaws tried in his court was carried in all the newspapers, and their hangings were attended by hundreds. Even his hangman, George Maledon, became a celebrity. In 1894 Maledon retired and toured the country displaying gallows relics, including nooses, and photos of the famous outlaws he had hanged. In 1898, a popular book about Judge Parker's court, Hell on the Border, declared Maledon "The Prince of Hangmen."
While strict, Judge Parker was actually sympathetic to the Indian governments. He upheld the Indians= land rights against Texas cattlemen, and he upheld the rights of the Cherokees to eject >Boomers= settling illegally in their territory. Many Indian leaders supported Parker because he treated whites and Indians equally.
Judge Parker said once about the Indians:
Perhaps things would have been different had the government given them the protection it promised in 1828. >Not only will we give you farms and homes in fee simple,= it said, >but we will protect you in your rights. We will give you every protection against lawlessness; we will see that every refugee, every bandit, every murderer that comes into your country is put out.= Not one of these pledges has ever been kept, except for the work that has been done by the United States courts having jurisdiction over this country.
The Creek Chief, Pleasant Porter, laid a wreath of wild flowers on Judge Parker's grave.