The Gallows: 1897 to 1957
The gallows at best could be considered a crude device and was the source of much controversy even while it was in use. Frank Strong, General Agent of the Attorney General, noted in his Report of the Inspection of the Fort Smith Federal Jail that:
"The arrangements for executing criminals are crude and unsightly. Unless some reasons exist (certainly to me unknown) for preserving intact the rude appliance by means of which so many criminals have been executed, it should be replaced by a newer arrangement, decently enclosed, where those who are sentenced to death may meet their fate amid surroundings more suggestive of the sacredness and majesty of the law than are the weather scarred beams and boards now devoted to the purpose."
Mr. Strong's reactions were shared and amplified by the citizens of Fort Smith. They felt that the large number of executions occurring here had unjustly slandered their fair city. The newspapers were quick to point out that no one was ever sentenced there for a crime committed in Arkansas, much less in Fort Smith.
On September 1, 1896, the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas lost its jurisdiction over Indian Territory, rendering the gallows excess property. A congressional act on February 26, 1897 transferred the bulk of the property once used by the court, including the gallows, to the control of the city of Fort Smith. Former hangman and jail guard George Maledon approached the city council with a request to purchase the trapdoor from the gallows for use in his traveling display. While there is no record of the council's reaction to this request, shortly thereafter, in the summer of 1897, the mayor of Fort Smith ordered that the gallows be dismantled and burned. The Weekly Elevator supported this action, stating, "this removes an object which, unsightly and gruesome as it might be, was, nevertheless an interesting one to strangers from abroad." Shortly thereafter, the old fort wall at the site of the gallows was torn down, and Parker Avenue was extended through the location of the gallows enclosure. At the time the gallows was removed, a more romantic mind wrote these words to mark the end of the structure:
"The Passing of the Old Government Suspender: Fare thee well old gallows! Whether thou has been a necessity in the suppressing of crime, or whether thou art a lingering relic of the dark ages that has lapped over our modern civilization, remains to be decided by that divine tribunal before whose law must stand the mighty nations of the earth as well as their weakest subjects."
Eric Leonard, Park Ranger
Did You Know?
Fort Smith was established on Christmas Day, 1817. Approximately 70 Rifle Regiment soldiers arrived by keelboat after a long journey on the Arkansas River.