Most of the attention directed to the history of Fort Smith's federal court revolves around tales of outlaws and gunfights, deputy marshals and hangings, and jail breaks and train robberies. In the process of focusing on the notorious, it is easy to neglect the details and complexities of the judicial machinery and the lives it touched. More than any other group, the history of women in the federal court remains untold.
Even though there were no female district attorneys, commissioners or marshals in the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas, some women did receive a federal paycheck. The most prominent female employee was Florence Hammersly, a deputy court clerk. She was the daughter of the court crier, J.A. Hammersly, and probably secured her position through his recommendation. Kate Sandels, the sister of District Attorney M.H. Sandels, also worked as a clerk in his office. The widow of Deputy U.S. Marshal Willard Ayers filled a different role-that of supplying food to the prisoners in the jail.
The welfare of U.S. prisoners was of special concern to women. They routinely visited with prisoners and appealed for reform of the sanitary and social conditions in the jail. Throughout the entire court period, there are newspaper accounts of women bringing gifts of food or bouquets of flowers to the inmates. On holidays, special events might be planned for the prisoners, as was the case in 1880 at Christmas when Misses Lipe and Shepperd and their students at Belle Grove School sang carols in the jail.
Some of the concern expressed by outsiders came from the wives or sweethearts of prisoners. George Crisp, sentenced to death for rape in the state courts but held in the federal jail, was visited each day by his wife who displayed "great affection for the unfortunate husband and greets him with a kiss through the bars on the occasion of each visit." Crisp never made it to the gallows, dying in jail of jaundice. The Fort Smith Elevator commented that his wife "displayed remarkable devotion, never wavering in her belief that he was innocent," and went on to state that "facts have developed since his conviction which may lead many to believe he was entirely innocent of the crime."
The actual processes of the federal court involved women on both the plaintiff and defendant sides of cases. Women were, of course, victims of crimes. They were murdered, assaulted, had their personal property stolen, suffered at the hands of extortionists, forgerers and counterfeiters-and they were raped. Rape was a capital crime, as was murder, meaning that if convicted, the guilty received the death sentence. There were 97 rape cases brought before the court in the period between 1872 and 1896, but only one resulted in executions. That was the rape of Rosetta Hassan by the Rufus Buck Gang in July of 1895. When the five member gang was finally apprehended after a two week crime spree, conviction and sentencing progressed rapidly. All five men were executed in 1896, possibly the largest mass execution for rape in U.S. history. Four other rape cases resulted in convictions and death sentences, but in appeals to the president and Supreme Court, the defendants were pardoned or had their sentences commuted.
On the other side of the law, women committed the same crimes as men in the Indian Territory, everything ranging from the illegal sale of whiskey to murder. The actual number of women brought into the Fort Smith court during this period and the breakdown of their crimes is not yet known. However, some authors have stated that female defendants were no novelty in Parker's court, and that most of the charges against them resulted from selling liquor or "whorehouse brawls." In researching the criminal case files for Fort Smith, the same may be said of men.
The most famous outlaw of the federal court period is Belle Starr. Romanticized in the movies as a "Bandit Queen" or lady Robin Hood, Belle was neither. She entered a life of petty crime during the Civil War and continued in that vein until her murder in 1889. Belle was brought into Judge Parker's court on charges of horse theft in 1883, found guilty and sentenced to a year in the Detroit House of Corrections. Arrested again in 1886 on a hold up charge, Belle had her case dismissed for lack of evidence.
Belle may have been the most popular and well known female defendant in Fort Smith, but she was hardly the most violent. During Parker's time on the bench, he sentenced four women to hang on the gallows. All had been convicted of murder, yet none of them were actually executed. Three had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment and the fourth was acquitted in a retrial.
The treatment of female prisoners by an exclusively male guard and deputy force raises issues not faced by the male jail population. In some instances, this resulted in benefits for the women. Generally, they were separated from the male prisoners, and after 1894, this meant confinement in large, well-lit, open rooms, not cells. Women with children received special privileges, but did not escape punishment. Anna Jones was allowed to keep her 4 year old daughter with her in jail. Mrs. Arena Howe, who arrived in the winter of 1880-81 on a murder charge, had her five year old son with her. She was also pregnant and had only a few weeks until delivery. Mrs. Howe had the child on schedule and the baby soon accompanied mother and brother to the Detroit House of Corrections to serve a 10 year sentence for manslaughter.
The research on women in the federal court period is just beginning and a multitude of questions remains to be answered. What is certain is that they played a variety of roles and were intimately involved in the complex operations of this court.
Juliet L. Galonska
Last updated: April 10, 2015