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PARKER, ISAAC C. (1838-1896)

"Hanging Judge" Isaac C. Parker, attorney, politician, and federal judge, was born near Barnesville, Ohio, on October 15, 1838, the son of Joseph and Jane Shannon Parker. Parker was admitted to the bar in 1859 and soon migrated to St. Joseph, Missouri, to practice law in his uncle's firm. Parker entered politics in 1860 and was elected to terms as city attorney, county prosecutor, state circuit judge, and U.S. representative. He married Mary O'Toole on December 12, 1861; they had two sons, Charles and James.

In 1875 Pres. Ulysses S. Grant appointed thirty-seven-year-old Parker as judge of the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas. Based at Fort Smith, Arkansas, the court had jurisdiction over eleven western Arkansas counties and Indian Territory. Parker's forceful efforts to ensure swift justice included three mass hangings in two years, drawing national attention and giving him notoriety as the "Hanging Judge." In twenty-one years he handed down 161 mandatory death sentences, of which seventy-nine were carried out. Presidential commutations (often supported by Parker), pardons, and Supreme Court reversals prevented a majority of the executions, however. Public conflict with superiors marred his last years. Congress reduced his powers, and the Supreme Court reversed more of his rulings. Parker died at Fort Smith on November 17, 1896.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: S. W. Harman, Hell on the Border: He Hanged Eighty-Eight Men (1898; reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992). Fred Harvey Harrington, Hanging Judge (1951; reprint, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996). Roger H. Tuller, "Let No Guilty Man Escape": A Judicial Biography of "Hanging Judge" Isaac Parker (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001).

Roger H. Tuller

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