Isaac C. Parker Presided over Western Arkansas and Oklahoma Indian Territory

Inmates Held in "Hell on the Border" Jail

Fort Smith National Historic SiteCredit: Tracy S. MorrisIf you’ve seen either the 1969 John Wayne Movie True Grit or the 2010 remake with Jeff Bridges, you may already know a little about Fort Smith. This city, now the second largest in Arkansas, was once known around the world for practicing capital punishment. But how did an obscure town in Arkansas become known as the hanging capital of the world? The answer lies in 1838.

Before there was a city of Fort Smith, there was a fort. The Army established the first Fort Smith  in 1817 on Belle Point, a point where the Arkansas River and the Poteau River run together. Soldiers later abandoned the fort in favor of a point 80 miles up the river that they called Fort Gibson. But the United States Government returned to their abandoned fort in 1838 as part of the Federal Government’s policy of resettlement for the Cherokee and Choctaw into Oklahoma Territory.

A settlement grew from the fort that also took the name Fort Smith. Due to its location on the border of Indian Territory, the city became a haven for outlaws such as Belle Starr, Jessie James and Blue Duck.

Fort Smith had a row of brothels near the river and a number of saloons as well. In order to police Indian Territory, United States Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas William Henry Harrison Clayton managed to have Judge Isaac C. Parker appointed as U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Arkansas. Though Indian territories had their own tribal police and courts, their jurisdiction did not extend to non-native Americans. Instead, the job of trying non-Indians in Indian Territory fell to Parker and his marshals and deputy marshals.

Judge Parker became famous through dime novels and spaghetti westerns as well as movies such as True Grit as “The Hanging Judge.”  In his first term serving Arkansas, Parker tried eighteen people for murder, (The only crimes that earned a mandatory a death sentence were rape and murder. Horse thievery carried 1 year jail sentence.) convicted fifteen of them and sentenced eight of them to die. Six of them were hung on one day, earning Fort Smith its international attention.

While men waited for their day in court, they were kept in the basement-jail of the federal courthouse. The conditions in the jail were awful. The small cellar had too many inmates in it. There was little light and no ventilation. In summer it was too hot. In winter, a chill from the nearby river kept it too cold. Lice and fleas infested the straw pallets on the floor that the inmates slept on and filth was everywhere. Conditions in the jail were so awful that it became known as “Hell on the Border.”

Parker actually rarely heard cases involving murder. Most of the legal suits that he judged involved larceny, moonshining and introducing whiskey into Indian territories. Parker himself was morally against the death penalty, and was fond of saying that he “never hung a man. It was the law that did it.”He never attended one of the public hangings.

Public hangings were only carried out from 1873 to 1876. Prior to this, hanging days took on a carnival atmosphere. Some would-be spectators traveled a great distance and camped out on the parade ground in front of the courtroom so that they could watch the hangings.

After 1876, officials erected a 16 foot tall fence around the scaffold of the gallows so that the general public could not watch the hanging. Marshals allowed Less than 50 spectators into an execution as witnesses. Most of these were officials with the jail, family of either the sentenced man or family of his victims.

Today, the legend of Judge Parker, Fort Smith’s Hangin’ Judge lives on thorough the Fort Smith National Historic Site. The Site is the home of the former Fort Smith as well as Judge Parker’s Courtroom and a reconstruction of the gallows.

The Fort Smith National Historic Site is open Daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. seven days a week except for Christmas and New Years Day. The Ground of the Historic Site is open 24 hours a day 7 days a week. The grounds include a paved river trail, picnic tables, parking lots and some outdoor exhibits.