• Rifle Regiment arriving at Belle Point, 1817. Artwork by Michael Haynes

    Fort Smith

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1873 Gallows

The 1873 gallows were described several times by various reporters. On September 3, 1875, an article in the Independent of Fort Smith described as follows:

THE GALLOWS
In the jail yard in front of and close up to the old magazine is a strong platform about 20 feet square and 12 feet high, with a long trap door in the floor, swung on iron hinges for the
DEAD FALL.
Over this about 10 feet higher, framed on upright posts and firmly braced, is a long rope beam with six ropes attached.

Another journalist wrote in the St. Louis Republican of September 4, 1875 this description of the gallows:

The scaffold upon which they will be executed has been erected at the south side of the old parade ground, right against the front of the old magazine. The structure is built of rough timbers. The cross-beam is a stout stick of hewed oak, supported on two upright posts, very strongly braced. The platform is about seven feet from the ground. The distance between the supporting posts is about twelve feet, giving nearly two feet space for the fall of each victim. The trap extends across the breadth of the platform, and consists of two pieces strongly hinged to the flooring of the platform so that they form a connection in the nature of a double door when closed from below. These are held in place when brought up by a stout beam of oak, extending in the direction of the gallows' beam on which rest two arms firmly fastened to one flap of the door below. To this beam about the middle is secured an iron trigger bar about three feet long, well secured on the facing of the platform floor. By a movement of this lever back, the trigger bar which holds the trap in position is released and the doors drop down.

Some six years later, on September 7, 1881, a reporter from the Fort Smith Elevator visited the garrison and described the execution machinery as follows:

The scaffold stands eight feet above the ground. A stairway of 12 steps, 3 feet six inches in width, leads up the platform, which is 14 x 15. The trap is twelve feet long by three feet wide, and is so arranged as to give way in the center when sprung, each half being on hinges. The cross beam over head is seven feet two inches above the platform, and is of heavy timber. The ropes are so arranged as to give about six feet drop. A deep trench had been dug directly under the trap, so as to prevent the feet of the condemned from striking the ground.

Of the appurtenances of the gallows there is only limited evidence. It is known that the area adjacent to the gallows was fenced prior to the execution of John Postoak and James Diggs in 1878. The New Era of December 18, 1878, noted that, "the execution will be conducted in a private manner, the gallows being surrounded by a high board fence, which shuts out from public gaze the terrible scene which is to take place there." The roof that formed a major feature of the second gallows either never became a part of the first gallows or was at best a very late addition. As late as 1881, during a September execution, it was noted that, "the condemned sat on a bench beneath an awing which shielded them from the boiling sun." This only casually mentions the benches, which might, or might not have been an integral part of the gallows structure. Another feature of the gallows that was described in the years before Judge Parker and not subsequently, was a screen beneath the gallows. The August 20, 1873 New Era noted "at 1:40 p.m. John S. Childers was LAUNCHED INTO ETERNITY, the body disappearing with a heavy 'thud' behind the screen." Coverage of a dual hanging two months later also mentions the screen, under what can be considered far darker circumstances; "After the drop had fallen the Officers, in order to allow the crowd to satisfy its appetite for the horrible, knocked down the sides of the under part of the gallows so that the bodies were exposed to full view as they hung from the ropes." The first gallows operated for over a decade. The 'U.S. Court Proceedings' column in the Elevator for April 16, 1886 noted that, "the old gallows, upon which forty three men have been hung have been torn down and a new one put up where it stood. The old one had become rotten and dilapidated generally."

Eric Leonard, Park Ranger

Location of the Gallows

1886 Gallows

The Gallows: 1897-1957

The Gallows Today

Frequently Asked Questions about the Gallows

Did You Know?

Lady Bird Johnson speaking at Fort Smith NHS dedication

Lady Bird Johnson came to Fort Smith National Historic Site to dedicate the park on October 27, 1964.