1896 Interview with Judge Parker

da Patterson was a female reporter for the St. Louis Republic, and was in Fort Smith to cover the end of the court's Indian Territory jurisdiction on September 1, 1896. This interview, done at the Parker Residence that day, provides some of the judge's most famous quotations.

It is important to note that the article contains some minor factual errors, most especially in regards to the men put to death on the gallows. Her numbers are incorrect, as well as many of the names of the condemned.

Judge Isaac C. Parker
Who Believes the Indian Territory Has Lost Its Best Friend.

St. Louis Republic, 6th inst.

The scepter departed from a judicial Judah last Tuesday. With the relinquishment of Judge I.C. Parker's authority over the Indian Territory that torn and bleeding southland lost at once its best friend and its reputed foe.

Congress believed that it acted wisely when, on March 1, 1895, it passed a law providing that after September 1, 1896, the criminal jurisdiction of the United States Court at Fort Smith, Ark., over the Indian country should cease. It is a matter of grave doubt in many minds whether the national legislature did not make a grievous mistake in so doing. Multitudinous memorials and petitions representing that view were sent to congress during the last session, but the labor for the repeal of the law was lost, and the experiment of the administration of justice in the border country by local courts in under way. It was initiated in a portentious manner, the public celebration of the event in McAlester and other settlements of the so-called emancipated land.

"There be some talk of hangin' Judge Parker in effigy over that," said an irate Arkansan. "They'd better be careful or we'll go over and hang a few of them before breakfast." This man shared in the esteem in which the Judge, so much maligned and misunderstood abroad, is held in his home city.

He is the gentlest of men, this alleged sternest of judges. He is courtly of manner and kind of voice and face, the man who has passed the death sentence upon more criminals than has any other judge in the land. The features that have in them the horror of the Medusa to desperadoes are benevolent to all other human-kind.


"I am the most misunderstood and misrepresented of men," said the Judge on the day of the passing of his scepter. "Misrepresented because misunderstood. But not withstanding that, we are proud of the record of the court at Fort Smith. We believe we have checked a flood of crime. We believe, too, that it was suicidal to remove the protection of a strong court from the Indian Territory."

He was supported by pillows on a bed that has been one of pain to him for two months when he talked to me of this passing of his power that day. Even in his pitiable physical weakness it was evident that it was a magnificent constitution with which disease had grappled and upon which she is trying her dreaded tactics of slow "wearing out." Judge Parker's frame is that of a powerful man, one who has rejoiced in a superabundance of vigor, a vitality evidenced in health by sunny spirits and a laugh that is infectious. He has a great breadth of shoulders and a noble chest development. Eight weeks of suffering have not greatly reduced the color that contrasts with his snowy hair and beard makes more pronounced. His blue eyes still have much of the fire of health. It is in the strong, nervous hands that the ravages of illness are shown the most.

"I have not been sick for forty-five years," he told me, and said the physician had told him this visitation of weakness was the result of overwork. "Dropsy and an affection of the heart" is the way the good-natured town gossips describe it.

Judge Parker was born in Belmont county, Ohio, in 1838. In 1859 he came to Missouri and engaged in the practice of law in St. Joseph. The following year he was elected city attorney and in 1864 was chosen as prosecuting attorney of that district. He was president of the first Stephen A. Douglas club organized in this State, but at the opening of the war espoused Republican principles. He was elected a presidential elector in 1864 and assisted in casting the vote of the State for Lincoln. In 1868 he was made Judge of the Twelfth Judicial Circuit of Missouri and in 1870 was elected to congress from the St. Joseph District. He was re-elected to that office in 1872 and during his second term was appointed a member of the Committee on Territories, of which James A. Garfield was chairman. This committee graduated a President of the United States; a Vice-President, William Wheeler; a Postmaster-General, Hale of Maine, who declined that appointment under Grant; Mr. Tyner, who accepted that appointment, and a United States Judge, the man who has made himself loved by the law-abiding and hated by the law-breaking class by his valiant stand for law and order in the ruffian-infested Territory. In 1875 Judge Parker was appointed Chief Justice of Utah and it is probable that his forceful personality would have made a deep impression upon the peculiar passing conditions of the territory beyond the Rockies. But two weeks afterwards President Grant withdrew this appointment and, and at the instance of Senators Dorsey and Clayton, ended the fierce Brooks-Baxter war that made the country side along Arkansas the abode of terror by establishing the strange precedent of appointing a Judge from another State, and his appointee, Kinman of Massachusetts, failing of confirmation by the senate, choosing Judge Parker for that difficult post. It was in May. 1875, that he assumed charge of the court that had just been removed from Van Buren to Fort Smith. The man who wielded the chief judicial power of Western Arkansas and the region extending to Colorado was the youngest judge on the bench.

"I did not expect to stay here more than a year or two when I came," said the Judge. "The President had said to me, 'Stay a year or so and get things started,' but I am still here, as you see."


"Yes, and it was the greatest mistake of your life," said Mrs. Parker, a dark-eyed, gray-haired matron, still handsome, if no longer young. She leaned above the pillows and waved a palm leaf fan. "It has broken you down," she said to him tenderly, and then to me, "He is only fifty-eight, but he looks like a very old man."

"No, Mary, not a mistake, for we have been enabled to arrest the floodtide of crime here, as we would not have had an opportunity to do elsewhere," said the Judge.

"Under ordinary circumstances I don't believe in capital punishment," said Mrs. Parker, sinking into the big rocking chair and ceasing her loving labor of wielding the fan while she adjusted the rebellious folds of her pretty white wrapper. "The first novel I ever read was Eugene Aram, and that convinced me that as a rule capital punishment is wrong, but my husband has had to deal with extra-ordinary cases and conditions."

Judge Parker turned restively upon his pillows and made a remarkable statement for one who had condemned well-nigh two hundred men to the gallows.

"I favor the abolition of capital punishment, too," and smilingly noting the effect of this surprisingly noting the effect of this surprising statement upon his listeners he continued, "provided, (there was remarkable stress upon the word provided) that there is a certainty of punishment, whatever that punishment may be. In the uncertainty of punishment following crime lies the weakness of our 'halting crime.'"

He grew wonderfully earnest as he talked, and one could see that the ruling passion of his life held sway. He sat erect, spurning the pillows upon which he had lately leaned. His color grew deeper and his kind, blue eyes grew darker and sterner.


"The trouble is with the bench," he said, "and behind it a maudlin sentimentality that forgets and condones a crime upon which the blood stains have dried. The bench is indifferent and careless. The avarice, which is the curse of this age, has so poisoned the people that civil law for the protection of property concerns it more than the criminal law which protects life. 'Which is of greater value, your house or your life!' asks the bench, and the people by their attitude in specific instances answers: 'My house.' Small wonder that the bench comes to take the same view and adjudges accordingly.

"The fault does not lie with juries. The persons who constitute them are usually honest men. We have had as fine juries at Fort Smith as could be found in the land. They have never failed me. Juried are willing to do their duty, but they must be led. They must know that the judge wants the enforcement of the law."


"People have said to me 'You are the judge who has hung so many men,' and I always answer: 'It is not I who has hung them. I never hung a man. It is the law.'

"The good ladies who carry flowers and jellies to criminals mean well. There is no doubt of that. But what mistaken goodness! Back of the sentimentality are the motives of sincere pity and charity, sadly misdirected. They see the convict alone, perhaps chained in his cell. They forget the crime he perpetrated and the family he made husbandless and fatherless by his assassin work."

The vehemence of his speech had exhausted the Judge. He sank back upon his pillows and closed his eyes.

A sweet-faced old lady came in at that moment. "My daughter, Susie, sent you these," she said, laying some yellow blossoms on the table, where stood a bowl of red and white roses and sweet geranium leaves and about which were massed other bright-hued flowers, all the gifts of loving hands and hearts. "Bless the child!" said the Judge, with the smile that made his face as pleasing as a lovely woman's. The visitor chatted a moment about the weather, deplored the fact that there had been no rain since May 17 and that the roses were blighted somewhat, water them as they might, was glad to see that the Judge was improving and hurried away.

Judge Parker sat up again, but this time he did not disdain the friendly support of the pillows.

"Crime is fearfully upon the increase," he said. "Do you know that in the past five years 43,900 persons, more than there are in the regular army, have been murdered in this country? Parallel with these have been 723 legal executions and 1,118 lynchings. Think of an average of 7,317 murders a year. Last year, 10,500 persons were killed. That is at the rate of 875 a month, while five years ago there were but 4,200. There is a doubling of the murder rate in five years."

These were appalling statements, but the Judge repeated them with the familiarity with which he would greet an acquaintance.

"This fearful condition does not exist because laws are defective. We have the most magnificent legal system in the world. The bench is not alive to its responsibilities. Courts of justice look to the shadow in the shape of technicalities instead of the substance in the form of crime. Everyone knows, too, that corrupt methods are used to defeat the administration of law.

"This is d dangerous condition. The government cannot survive a demoralized people, swayed and dominated by the man of crime. We must have a remedy. Thinking persons are realizing this, but they are wrongfully looking toward the abolition of the jury system as a relief from these evils. I believe this is wrong. Not a jot or tittle of the dignity of the right of trial by jury should be abated. I told you that juries should be led. They have a right to expect that, and if guided they will render that justice that is the greatest pillar of society.


"I told you I had been misrepresented. The press has put me in the attitude of opposing the courts of appeals. I would remodel them, but I would not dream of destroying them. I would like to see organized in the States and in the nation courts of criminal appeals, made up of judges learned in criminal law and desirous of its speedy enforcement. To these courts I would like to see sent full records of the trials and would have the case passed upon according to its merits as soon as possible. I would have brushed aside all technicalities that do not affect the guilt or innocence of the accused. I would that the law would provide against the reversal of cases unless innocence was manifest. The establishment of such courts would restore the public confidence in the law and its administrators. The party convicted should of course have the right of having his case reviewed upon writ of error, but it should be passed upon according to its merits."

Have you noticed what a metamorphosis a man undergoes when he is talking of that which has a more absorbing interest than anything else in life, more especially if this be an idea? He may talk with a modicum of enthusiasm about his wife, his family or his sweetheart, but they are, in a way, known quantities, and are in reserve, but when he is wedded to that elusive, intangible thing, an idea, and to that extent most men are bigamists, how he glows and flashes and beams with fervor! When he talks of that sacred something he is like one inspired, and, if scoffers do pronounce that something a hobby or a hallucination, he is none the less touched by the divine fire of eloquence when he talks of it. Fortunate is the man whose inspirer of his deepest interest is a dignified aim. Such a man is Judge Parker, and when he had outlined this plan of his one could but be in a glow of admiration for the man and the measure.

"You are two [sic] tired to talk more now, Mr. Parker," said his wife, but he had much more to say, and his eager interest gave him an artificial strength. He toyed unconsciously with the bedspread, and his face was alight with energy as he went on.

"People have said that I am cruel," he said, "but they do not understand how I am situated.


"The Territory was set apart for the Indians in 1828. The government at that time promised them protection. That promise has always been ignored. The only protection that has been afforded them is through the courts. To us who have been located on this borderland has fallen the task of acting as protectors. The Territory has always been infested by a class of the refuse of humanity to whom I have given the name of 'criminal intruders.' They are refugees from justice from the States and have left behind them often more tangible records than the mere reputation for vice. They have perpetrated several murders, perhaps, and then come to the new country with a tigerish appetite for blood, whetted by their previous experience. Often they come from a race of criminals, and it is with their foul heredity, as well as their thirst acquired for crime, we have to contend. For many years it was with the ruffians of this immense tract of 74,000 square miles, extending to the Colorado line, I had to cope. Criminals were brought to Fort Smith, where they could be tried by a disinterested jury, which the conditions made impossible in the Territory. They were brutes, or demons rather in human form. Their crimes were deliberately planned and fiendishly executed. Robbery was the chief incentive, and the victims were usually men with whom the murderers traveled on long, lonely rides across the plains.

"Cruel they have said I am, but they forget the utterly hardened character of the men I dealt with. They forget that in my court jurisdiction alone sixty-five deputy marshals were murdered in the discharge of their duty. Wilson, who was connected with the Starr gang, was one of the men whom I sentenced to death. It did not appear to me to be an act of cruelty to sentence that fellow to hang by the neck until he was dead.

"My first term was a portent of what was to follow. Eighteen murder cases came before me for trial. Thirteen were convicted. One of the men I sentenced to death was a half-breed named Sam Foy [sic]. He had murdered and robbed a character known in that region as 'The Barefooted School Teacher.' The young school teacher had been seen to handle a roll of bills, and Foy [sic] shot him and obtained possession of them. He hid the body of the victim in the mountains, and no trace of the young man was discovered till years afterward, when an Indian boy found the skeleton in a secluded spot. There was a fly-leaf of a teacher's manual among the bleaching bones, and on this, strange to say, was still legible the name of the murdered youth.

"Another of those early cases was that of a young physician and his wife from Chattanooga, who began their married life in a little home in the Arbuckle Mountains. Two negroes, who haunted the neighborhood, waylaid the doctor and tied him to a tree, leaving him there to starve. They went to the little home among the fir trees where the young wife was anxiously awaiting the return of her husband, and told her that he had fallen from a boulder high up among the mountains and had broken a leg. They would guide her to him. She went with them and went to her death, for they killed her and threw her into an old well sixty feet deep. Months afterward a searching party found the poor girl's burial place, their attention being attracted by a piece of her dress which had caught upon the rocks in her fall. Her skeleton was found in what had become a den of rattlesnakes. It was a strange chain of circumstances which led to the conviction of one of the murderers. One of them had boasted to his brothers of the double crime and they kept the secret until the fellow was murdered by his partner in the fearful crime. The brothers captured Bully Johnson, the remaining criminal, and he was brought to justice.

"A desperado who murdered a camper and followed the murdered man's little son into the brushwood and killed him even while the little fellow was begging for mercy was one of the men whom I sentenced to death. The half-breed brute told the story himself. 'I killed big white and little white man," he said.

"John Pointer was another. He killed two fellows who had left Eureka Springs with him for a wagon trip across the Territory. With an ax he clove the head of one while he was mixing a pan of dough and the other, who was a lame boy, he struck down in the woods, whither he had pursued him.


The sick man was pale and exhausted when the earnest recital came to an end. His wife bent above him and plied the fan steadily and soothingly.

"It is this class of men that has come before him," said she; "What could be done?"

"Nothing less than the Judge has done," I answered.

"Don't understand that what I say about these ruffians is directed against the Indians," Judge Parker said, after a little. "Twenty-one years' experience with them has taught me that they are a religiously inclined, law-abiding, authority-respecting people. The Indian Race is not one of criminals. There have been sporadic cases of crime among them, it is true, but as a people they are good citizens.

"A right administration of justice means the abolition of mob violence, which is the result of neglect by judge or jury. During my twenty-one years there have been but three mobs in my jurisdiction, If people expect justice they prefer that the court should mete it. A man arrested the murderer of his son and brought him four hundred miles to me for trial."


Judge Parker smiled when the conversation turned upon his differences with the United States supreme court. "The justices are men from the civil walks," he said, "and it is not surprising that they are liable to err in criminal cases Our chief point of difference was in the case of a man whom I denied bail, and whom the supreme court maintained should be granted bail. Upon my refusal the court declared its intention to issue a writ of mandamus compelling me to give him his temporary liberty. It never did, however. My chief controversy was with the department of justice last winter. That was a stormy one. My letters on the subject were published in The Republic.

"People have generalized in regard to my administration. They have called me a heartless man, a blood-thirsty man, but no one has pointed to a specific case of undue severity. They are given to saying, 'Judge Parker is too rigid,' but they do not point to any one case and say, 'He was too severe in this,' or 'He should have been more lenient in that.'

"I have ever had the single aim of justice in view. No judge who is influenced by any other consideration is fit for the bench. 'Do equal and exact justice,' is my motto, and I have often said to the grand jury, 'Permit no innocent man to be punished, but let no guilty man escape.'


"The government has committed a fearful blunder in depriving the Indian Territory of the moral force of a strong federal court, where disinterested juried remote from the scene of the crime can be secured.."

The Judge has said all he cared to upon the subject so near his heart. He dismissed it with a gracious wave of the hand, and passed from one subject to another, touching each with the ease and charm of a finished conversationalist.

He thinks the disposition of certain judges to engage actively in politics is reprehensible. "In my twenty-one years of judgeship, I attended but one political meeting, and that was when we drifted into a Democratic street meeting," he said. "I have another motto for my court, 'No politics shall enter here.' I resigned judicial position when I became a candidate for congress."


Referring to the political situation, Judge Parker remarked, dryly, that it reminded him of "a game of crack loo with Jones throwing silver and Hanna gold dollars."

When I bade him good-by, this still vigorous invalid, the judge whose warm heart is controlled by his keen mental vision and unerring sense of justice, he said: "Don't think me too much of a pessimist. I believe better times are coming. The fact that men like Taylor and Duestrow of Missouri and Durrant of San Francisco are being convicted is a good omen."

I tarried a little in the large, cool parlor down stairs before taking my leave. Some neighbors had called to make inquiries about the Judge's welfare, and they lingered to exchange a pleasant word or two with the mistress of the hospitable home. Their son, James, a handsome youth who will leave shortly for his second year at Ann Arbor, stood on the veranda and a patriarchal Newfoundland dog and another that looked as though one of its remote ancestors might have been a setter frolicked about him in clumsy fashion.

The house that has been the home of this just judge and his family for the past fifteen years is a large brick structure with a curiously homelike look about it and is in the heart of a six-lot tract that, while not unkempt, has enough irregularities in its surface and enough variety in shrubbery and trees to make it picturesque in the extreme. There is a mellowed look about everything within and without the house to show that every object has the added charm of association. Charles C. Parker, the older son, is engaged in the practice of law in this city and when he leaves his duties for a few days at the old homestead the family circle if four is complete. Mrs. Parker's maiden name was O'Toole. She comes of a Kentucky family. Her brother, Captain William O'Toole, formerly of the Regular Army, is the Registrar of the Land Office at Seattle. She is related, on the maternal side, to the Hickman family of Columbia, Mo.


Judge Parker's life at Fort Smith has been a busy one. He has presided over what was practically a perpetual court, for its vacations are hardly more than nominal. The sessions lasted "from 8 a.m. till dark," as an old citizen of Fort Smith assured me.

The official records from 1875 to March, 1895, show that 13, 490 criminal cases have been listed on the docket. Of this number 9,454 persons, or about 70 per cent, of those tried, were either convicted by a jury or entered pleas of guilty. There were 344 of these criminals tried for capital offenses and 151 convicted. Of those convicted 76 had been executed, one was killed while attempting to escape, four have died in jail, two were pardoned and the sentences of the remaining 68 were commuted by the President to terms of imprisonment ranging from 10 years to a lifetime.

It was a gruesome array of criminals that passed before Judge Parker in a horrid phantom of more than two decades. Among those who paid the death penalty were David Evans, John Whittington, Edmund Campbell, James Moore, Smoker Mankiller, Samuel Foy, Aaron Wilson, Isham Seeley, Gibson Ishtonbee, Office McGee, Osey Sanders, William Leach, John Nalley, Sinker Wilson, Samuel Peters, John Postoak, James Diggs, William Elliott, Henry Stewart, Geo. W. Padgett, William Brown, Patrick McGowan, Amos Manley, Abler Manley, Edward Folsom, Robert Massey, Wm. H. Finch, Tualisto, Martin Joseph, Thos. L. Thompson, John Davis, Jack Womankiller, James Arcine, William Parchmeal, Joseph Jackson, James Wasson, Calvin James, Kit Ross, Lincoln Sprole, James Lamb, Albert Odell, John T. Echols, Patrick McCarty, John Stephens, Silas Hampton, Seaborn Kalijah, George Moss, Jack Crow, Own D. Hill, Gus Bogle, Richard Smith, Henry W. Miller, James Mills, Malachi Allen, Wm. Walker, Jack Spaniard, George Tobler, Harris Austin, John Billy, Thos. Willes, Sam Goins, Jimmison Burris, Jefferson Jones, John Stansberry, Bood Crumpton, Shepard Busby, John Pointer, Lewis Holder and Crawford Goldsby, alias Cherokee Bill.

Frank Butler, who was under sentence of death, was killed while trying to escape, and Jackson Marshal, William Hamilton, Kyman Hamilton, and Gibson Partridge died in jail.

As reported in the Fort Smith Elevator, September 18, 1896.

Fort Smith National Historic Site

Last updated: September 30, 2021