Local Obituary of Judge Parker

This obituary of Judge Parker, printed in the Fort Smith Elevator on November 20, 1896, provides excellent insight into how the judge was viewed by the community. Please note that the statistics regarding the number of cases, convictions, and executions are incorrect, and the article contains a number of other errors.

Hon. Isaac C. Parker,
Judge of the United States Court for
the Western District of Arkansas,
Passes Away.


Honorable Isaac C. Parker, Judge of the United States Court for the Western District of Arkansas, died at his home in this city at 2.45 o'clock Tuesday morning, November 17, 1896. The end was peaceful, and the statesman, jurist and beloved citizen drew his last breath surrounded by his loving family and friends.

For several months past Judge Parker's condition has been a matter of serious import to the people of Fort Smith. At times he would rally and gain strength, and the hopes of his friends would revive, only to fall at reports of the decline of his physical powers.

For four or five months Judge Parker has suffered from fatty degeneration of the heart, and this, augmented by Bright's disease and other complications, made inroads upon his constitution that medical skill could not resist.

Although he had been confined to his room for many weeks, a short time before the election he rallied sufficiently to be able to take short rides about the city, and on the 3rd inst. rode to the polls and cast his vote for McKinley, of whom he was a great admirer. This was his last appearance in public. Monday he began to sink rapidly and his attending physician saw that the end was a matter of only a few hours. And when death came, in the early morning hours, he met it as he had lived - calmly, sweetly, and serenely.

And thus has passed away one of God's noblemen. Beloved by all, his death, while not unexpected, has cast a gloom over our city and over the adjoining country wherever the sad news has reached.
Judge Parker was a friend in whom confidence could be placed. No matter how humble or poor the applicant, his great heart was ever open to the cry of distress, and his strong arm ever ready to reach out and extend succor.

Especially will Judge Parker be missed by the representatives of the press. No matter how busily he might be engaged in the discharge of his duties in the court room, it was of almost every day occurrence that some newsgatherer could be seen seated beside him, eagerly listening to some interesting story that fell from his lips.

The court over which he presided for nearly twenty-two years seemed to have become almost a part of his nature. We believe it can be safely said, without fear of contradiction, that he in that time did more work than most men do in a lifetime.

Among the many tributes paid the memory of Judge Parker by our citizens there is none which more clearly portrays his character than the following expressions of Judge E.E. Bryant:

Judge Parker was one of the most unique personalities of the Southwest. He was eminently a man for the time and place, and seemed providentially called to the duty he performed. He came to the bench of the United States court at a time when the most vigorous exercise of its jurisdiction was necessary to make it feared and respected of a criminal class, which, both as regards numbers and the character of its crimes, had not its equal in the world. He found the court disorganized, incapable, corrupt - a source of laughter for the law-breaking, a by-word among the people, and a reproach to American institutions. Judge Story had been impeached for bribery and had resigned, and the structure of the court was permeated with official corruption.

First reforming the court and its practices, which was in relief a cleansing of the Augean stables, he then had to turn his attention to enforcing his jurisdiction. So well did he accomplish this that, during his administration, no court has ever wielded a more salutary influence over a semi-civilized country filled with the worst of criminals than he did. Feeling the weight and responsibility on his shoulders, his heart went into the work, and he became deeply enamored of the task that life had set him. To punish crime, to protect society against banded criminals, to bring peace to the Indian country, to stamp out the evils that afflicted it, and to bring to its civilization and light, to make his court the instrument for this purpose - this was his labor and aspiration. That he succeeded, the honor, respect and fear in which his court was held, and the advance mode in the Indian Territory bear witness.

It seems a fateful coincidence that Judge Parker should have passed with the expiration of the jurisdiction of his court over the Indian country. He was so thoroughly identified with that jurisdiction that it would seem that Providence, having allotted him to that work in life, with its cessation, called his servant unto Himself. He was able, pure and fearless, and the history of the jurisdiction of the United States Court for the Indian country is his history. Its annals are his biography. The wonder of its story is an admiration for his achievements. So associated in our minds are the judge and the sway of his court over the Territory that the existence of either without the other would be an anomaly. And so they passed away together.

As a man Judge Parker was courteous, affable and lovable. No one could approach him without being impressed with the kindliness of his disposition, and with the sweetness of his character, so contrary to the picture which the fear of the law-breaker had public mind. To the criminal, and to him alone, was he terrible.

Is it too much to say that among the eminent citizens who have honored Fort Smith in the past and in the present, the name of her greatest son is that of Isaac C. Parker?

Tuesday the flag which waves over the federal court house floated at half mast.

Court met at the usual time. Hon. Jas. F. Read gave notice that the sad intelligence of Judge Parker's death had been received. Judge Carland, who is holding court at present, stated that business would be suspended until juries which had cases under consideration had reported, when an adjournment would be taken in respect to the memory of the dead jurist. A meeting of the bar was held at 2 o'clock to make arrangements to attend the funeral, and committees appointed to draft resolutions expressive of the feelings of the bar.

Judge Carland stated, in making the order, that it had not been his privilege to meet Judge Parker before his death, but he had become acquainted with his reputation and regarded him as one of the greatest American Jurists.

The school board, of which Judge Parker had long been an honored member, held a meeting Tuesday night and adopted appropriate resolutions.

Judge Parker's remains were interred in the National cemetery in a spot selected by himself several years ago. The funeral took place at 2 o'clock. Services were conducted at his late residence by Rev. Lawrence Smyth, pastor of the church of the Immaculate Conception. They were brief and simple, indicative, as it were, of the character of the man in whose behalf they were uttered. From the residence the funeral cortege proceeded to the cemetery under the auspices of Border City Lodge K. of H., and Thomas Williams Post, G.A.R.

The members of the bar which practiced before Judge Parker's court attended in a body, and were accompanied by the members of the Dawes commission, and the delegations of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indians who are now visiting this city.

There were thousands in attendance, and the funeral was the largest ever held in this city.

Services at the grave were also brief. These were conducted by Rev. Lawrence Smyth.

After the grave had been closed a blanket of flowers was spread over it, and chrysanthemums, roses and other blossoms heaped over the blanket, one of the last offerings being made by Gen. Pleasant Porter, of the Creek nation. At the head stood a large cross of yellow chrysanthemums. It bore a circle of pure white flowers of different kinds. At the foot was a large cross of Marchal Neal roses, the gift of a friend in St. Louis.

While the grave was being filled the choir, consisting of Miss Emrich, Mrs. C.M. Cooke, Miss Hite, Bleecker Luce and others sang several appropriate and beautiful hymns.

Gen. Pleasant Porter, of Eufaula, Creek Nation, placed upon Judge Parker's grave an offering in the shape of a beautiful bouquet of wild flowers. It was gathered by Miss Sadie Dove and given to Gen. Porter to be laid upon the grave of the dead jurist as a tribute from the Indians of the Territory to one whom they considered their best friend.

Thus passes away a man whose name is indelibly stamped upon his country's history. He was a man of magnificent frame and gigantic intellect, but his devotion to duty shattered the one and quenched the brilliant light of the other.


Judge Parker was born in Belmont county, Ohio, not far from the Virginia line, on the 15th of October, 1838. His parents were of English lineage. They came to America at a very early day, and settled in Massachusetts when it was a colony. His father, Joseph Parker, was a native of Maryland. Jane Shannon was the maiden name of his mother. She was a native of Belmont county, O., and belonged to a family who had entered the country among the earliest of the pioneers. Her uncle, Wilson Shannon, was twice governor of Ohio, represented Ohio in congress, was minister to Mexico, and afterward governor of Kansas.

As a boy Isaac Parker toiled on his father's farm until he was 17 years old, attending the district schools in winter time and working hard during the summer. He was a hard student. Learning came to him only through the hardest work, but what he absorbed he retained and digested. At quite an early age he became able to import knowledge to others, and earned something outside of his farm labors by teaching school. Determining to become a lawyer, he procured books relating to that profession, to which he applied himself closely, at times receiving instructions from Governor Shannon. In 1859 he went to Missouri, settling at St. Joseph. During the campaign of 1860 he was a staunch supporter of Stephen A. Douglass, and was president of the first Douglass Club organized in the state. He served as city attorney for two or three years, and in 1864 was elected prosecuting attorney. He joined the Missouri State Guard early in the civil war, but took little part in active service. He espoused the cause of the Republican party shortly after hostilities began, as did most of the Douglass Democrats of Missouri and other States. In 1864 he was a presidential elector and assisted in casting the electoral vote of Missouri for Lincoln. In 1868 he was appointed judge of the Twelfth Judicial Circuit of Missouri, holding that position until he became a candidate for congress in 1870, when he resigned the judgeship. He was elected, and again elected in 1872.

Judge Parker served with distinction during his congressional career. One of the committees on which he served - the committee on Territories - graduated James A. Garfield, a president; William Wheeler, a vice-president, and Eugene Hale and Mr. Tyner, postmaster-generals.

In 1875 General Grant appointed Judge Parker chief justice of Utah, but afterwards he withdrew the appointment and appointed him to the position he held with such signal honor until the day of his death. He was appointed in March, 1875, and the first term of his court began May 10, 1875. His predecessor was W.F. Story, a man of whom very little good can be said. At the time Judge Parker received his appointment he was the youngest federal judge in the United States.

Judge Parker's career since he began work in this city is known throughout the world. In 1875 crime was rampant in the Territory. Desperadoes and criminals from nearly all of the States in the Union, made life a burden for the Indians and other legitimate residents of the country. The jurisdiction of the court of the Western District of Arkansas extended westward more than 300 miles, and reached north and south, from Kansas to Texas. This called for work that was, practically, never ending. During the twenty-one years Judge Parker occupied the bench he never lost a day through illness until his fatal sickness began, and until within a year or so there were no vacations between the sessions of court. The court hours during that time were from 8 or 8 ½ in the morning until 6 in the evening, and often much later. Very often night sessions were held, and frequently when the court had closed a busy session of ten hours the Judge would spend hours in poring over his books before retiring to bed. It was this terrible strain which ruined his constitution and brought him to an early grave.

The official records of the court show that from March, 1875, to March, 1895, 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, 76 had been executed, one was killed while trying to escape, four have died in jail, two were pardoned and the sentences of the remaining sixty-eight were commuted by the president to terms of imprisonment.

During the past year several more executions have taken place, bringing the number up to eighty-three.
This is the gruesome array of criminals that passed before Judge Parker in a horrid phantom for more than two decades. The like of it will probably never be seen again.

About two years ago there occurred an incident which opened the eyes of the whole nation to Judge Parker's character and placed him before the world as a man who would not swerve from what he considered to be the path of duty. A fellow by the name of Lafayette Hudson was convicted of some crime in Judge Parker's court, and his attorneys appealed to the Supreme court of the United States and secured an order granting bail. This order Judge Parker refused to obey on the ground that the statutes made no provision for such an order. After a long controversy, during which Judge Parker went to Washington, the court issued an order which let themselves out of the predicament and at the same time relieved Judge Parker of his embarrassment. It was a clear victory for Parker and was so considered by most of the leading legal lights of the country.

The recent controversy between Judge Parker and Attorney-General Harmon is still fresh in the minds of the public. Judge Parker took exception to the many reversals made by the Supreme court - not to the reversals so much as the grounds upon which they were made - and a spirited controversy followed with Mr. Harmon and Assistant Attorney-General Whitney. The files of the press show the vigor with which the Judge defended his position and repelled the assaults of his assailants.

To a great many people unacquainted with Judge Parker, he was greatly misunderstood. The great thought that controlled his life seemed to be that his court was carried on for the purpose of administering justice, pure and simple. He could not brook the slightest appearance of an attempted evasion of the law. His court was looked upon by the better classes living in the Indian Territory as their bulwark of safety against the great waves of crime that now and then seemed to sweep that country as a besom of destruction. When the proposition to take away the jurisdiction of Judge Parker's court and throughout the Territory was being discussed, its greatest and most vehement opponents were the Indians themselves, and had it been left wholly to them the change never would have been made. Judge Parker was a determined opponent of the extractions and insolence of corporations and trusts. Nor is it generally known that he greatly admired President Cleveland's determined stand in relation to the Chicago riot in 1894, but such is the case.

Judge Parker's home life was one to be emulated. He was never so happy as when surrounded by family and friends. His conversation was always pure and deeply interesting. The same kindly spirit that ever characterized his daily life remained unbroken to the last. And now that he has gone Fort Smith only begins to realize all that she has lost. As a member of the Board of Education, in which capacity he was ever on the alert looking to the advancement of the cause of education, Judge Parker lived to see Fort Smith blessed with as fine a system of public schools as can be found in any state. It was largely through his efforts that the magnificent school buildings that now adorn this city were erected The public schools have been his pride for years, and to his efforts is largely due the munificent government grant to the free schools of this district.

He took great interest in every move for the growth and advancement of the city, greeted the approach of every railroad, every industrial plant, and every important municipal improvement in the growing town, of sewerage, paving, light and water facilities. He forced time from his judicial labors to lead or assist in our county fairs, our charities and hospitals. To his influence, in a Republican congress are we indebted for our great public school fund. At a time, when the South had little to expect from national appropriations, he drafted a bill for the donation of the Military Reserve to the schools of this district, went to Washington, appeared before the House and Senate committees, and by his appeals in the cause of education, secured their consent and approval of the bill, the first important step to its final success and great results. In gratitude for this great service, the new school building should be a monument to his memory and named Parker Academy.

Judge Parker was married in St. Joseph, Mo., December 12, 1861, to Miss Mary O'Toole. Her grandfather, James O'Toole, was a native of Ireland. She was born July 22, 1840, in St. Joseph, Mo., and is the daughter of James B. O'Toole. Her mother was Sophia Hickman, of Colembia [sic], Mo. Her sister, Sophia, is the wife of T. Burnett, a prominent railroad man of St. Louis. Her brother, Capt. William O'Toole, a lawyer of St. Joseph, is a graduate of West Point, and served in the Federal army on the staff of General Terry. Mrs. Parker graduated at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, in her native city. Judge Parker and wife have two living children - Charley, born in St. Joseph, August 26th, 1872, and James Joseph, born in St. Louis, September 16th, 1875. One child died in infancy.


Last updated: April 10, 2015

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