Monday, February 6, 2012

Isaac Charles Parker

By Kathy Otten
When most historical western fans see the name Isaac Parker they immediately know him as Judge Parker, the Hanging Judge of Fort Smith, Arkansas. While on the bench Judge Parker was stern, inflexible and impartial. Off the bench he was a different man.

Born in Belmont County, Ohio on October 15, 1838, Isaac (Ike) Parker was educated in local schools and at 17, he decided to study law. He passed his bar exam in 1859 and moved to St. Joseph, MO to practice law. During this time he met a young Catholic girl, Mary O'Toole. They married on December 12, 1861.

Parker was considered to be a handsome man, over six feet tall, with broad shoulders and piercing blue eyes. He was about two hundred pounds with a straight back and square jaw. He spoke with a deep voice and an authoritative manner. He sported a tawny moustache and goatee.

He was elected city attorney and in 1868 he was made judge of the Twelfth Judical Circut of Missouri. Two years later he became  a member of Congress from the sixth Missouri District.

During two terms he sponsored legislation that would have allowed women the right to vote and hold public office in the United States Territories. He assisted veterans in getting their pensions. He also served as a member of the House Committee on Indian Affairs. He sponsored measures to give economic aid to the Indians causing is collegues to name him, "The Indians' Best Friend."

In 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him as the federal judge for the Western District of Arkansas, with full jurisdiction over 74,000 miles of Indian Territory.

Despite his inexhaustible schedule in the courtroom, he was considered an excellent host. He served on the Board of Education, pushing to establish a school for black children. People found him approachable and he often offered advice when asked. He kept candy in his pockets and gave it to children on the street. To his wife and two sons, Charles and James, he was an affectionate and indulgent husband and father.

Ironically, Parker actually believed in the abolition of the death penalty, "...provided," he said, "that there is a certainty of punishment, whatever that punishment may be. In the uncertainty of punishment following a crime, lies the weakness of our halting justice."

Though few people knew, Parker suffered from diabetes and in 1896 Parker passed away from Bright's disease. On his deathbed he said, "I never hanged a man. It was the law."


  1. He was reportedly the uncle of Cynthia Ann Parker, mother of Chief Quanah Parker. The county I live in is named for Judge Parker.

    1. The Cynthia Ann Parker you mention was born about 1825. Isaac Parker was born in 1838, making him roughly 13 years her junior. That does not mean he couldn't have been her uncle, but it makes it less likely. If they were related, it seems more likely it was a different relationship than uncle and niece.

  2. Wow, I didn't know that. That's fascinating info. I read a book about her a long time ago. When did she get captured. I want to 1849, but I don't know without looking it up.

  3. Kathy, I think I was wrong. Cynthia Ann's relative was a different Isaac Parker. She was captured in 1836 at age nin and "rescued" twenty-five years later in a raid and against her wishes.

  4. I, too, though he had a connection with Texas because of Parker County in North Texas.
    Also, he was portrayed in both True Grit movies, and also as the hanging judge in Clint Eastwood's movie "Hang 'Em High."
    Fascinating man, especially when he claimed he never hung a man--"it was the law." And this is true, from my POV.

  5. Kathy. Interesting post. I read a little about him while researching for my last spirit book. He was a larger than life lawman.

  6. Caroline,
    Oh well, it sounded cool anyway. I suppose he would have been a younger uncle as he was born in 1838, but I wonder if that Isaac Parker can traced a family tree back to Ohio where The Hanging Judge was from.

  7. Hi Celia,
    Parker's reputation as the Hanging Judge earned him a larger than life reputation which is why I guess his character figured into so many movies. There was so much more to the man I wanted to touch on it day.

  8. Hi Paty,
    I accumulated a ton of research notes on Parker, and the Fort Smith Courtroom and Gallows while I did my research for Lost Hearts. One cool book I read was Hell on the Border: He Hanged Eighty-eight Men, by S.W. Harmon and it was published in Fort Smith, AK back in 1898.

  9. What an interesting historical adventure. Judge Parker sounds like such a just and honorable man--something we don't see that often these days.

  10. Hi Sarah,
    The judge who served before Parker, William Story, accepted bribes and ran a corrupt court. Outlaws ran wild and there were over one hundred murders in Indian Territory. When Parker took office he not only had to deal with a back log of 91 cases, he had to restore people's faith in the court system.


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