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The Gallows
The Gallows

Gallows of Hanging Judge Parker

Field review by the editors.

Fort Smith, Arkansas

The Fort Smith National Historic Site welcomes tourists eager to learn about the history of Indian territory; the complexities of 19th century law; and the city of Fort Smith, one of the oldest in the West.

Portrait of Judge Isaac C. Parker.
Portrait of Judge Isaac C. Parker.

It even embraces people like us, who come to see the gallows.

The gallows are here because Fort Smith was where the Lawless West met the Civilized East. And the man with his hand on the trap door lever of justice was Isaac "Hanging Judge" Parker. From his courtroom, only a few hundred feet from the gallows, he sentenced 160 men and women to hang. He was ably assisted by George Maledon, "The Prince of Hangmen," who rode his fame into a second career with a traveling tent show (He would show off some of his more famous nooses).

Modern-day visitors are encouraged to begin their tour of Fort Smith at Judge Parker's old courtroom and jail. The small courtroom is restored to the way it looked in the Hanging Judge's day, complete with Parker's original desk. Its top appears to have been battered with many whacks of a gavel ("I sentence you to HANG."). You can buy exact replicas of Parker's gavel in the gift shop, along with imitation jail keys and deputy badges. A showcase displays the rope used to hang outlaw Cherokee Bill, and the leg shackles he wore at the end of his rope.

Judge Parker's courtroom desk.
Judge Parker's courtroom desk.

Below the courtroom is the basement jail, nicknamed "Hell on the Border." U.S. Attorney General Augustus Garland called it the "most miserable prison, probably, in the whole country." As many as 150 men could be crammed into its two large cells at one time. "Guards," explains an accompanying sign, "filled the ceiling space with sawdust in an effort to keep the stench of unbathed prisoners and slop buckets from wafting into the courtroom." A helpful diagram shows the location of the communal urinal tub.

Hangman George Maledon.
Hangman George Maledon, his pistol and a used noose.

From the jail it's a short walk to the gallows, which are enclosed within a high modesty fence. The current gallows is a replica of a replica, built in 1982, a faithful reproduction of an impressive killing machine. The hanging beam is long enough to accommodate eight people simultaneously. There's a single trap door, 16 feet long, that opens with one pull of the lever.

A sign notes that that Judge Parker's court handled "an extraordinary number of murder and rape cases." There's also a quote from the Judge: "I do not desire to hang you men. It is the law" (Judge Parker made the legal distinction that he did not hang anybody; the law did).

After Judge Parker dispatched his last outlaw on July 30, 1896, the town quickly tore down the original gallows and burned it, convinced that it gave the wrong impression of Fort Smith. For 60 years it was only a memory. But anger gradually turned to curiosity, and in the late 1950s the first replica gallows was built. It tapped a reservoir of tourists that has flowed ever since.

US Court wagon.

Some historians say that Judge Parker really didn't enjoy hanging people. Maybe -- but the gallows at Fort Smith were worked hard in the months before Parker's hanging powers were taken away from him, a result of the curtailment of his court's jurisdiction, which Parker did not like. He died only two months later, reportedly exhausted from overwork. He's buried a block away from the gallows in Fort Smith National Cemetery, under a simple marble tombstone that does not mention hanging.

Shutterbugs should know that the beam of the gallows is hung with nooses on the anniversary of each execution. The number of nooses match the number of people hanged on that day. The two biggest noose days are January 16 and September 3 -- the only days when Judge Parker hanged six outlaws at once. Fortunately for noose-watchers in general, the peak travel season of summer was also Judge Parker's busiest hanging season.

Gallows of Hanging Judge Parker

Fort Smith National Historic Site

301 Parker Ave., Fort Smith, AR
Fort Smith National Historic Site. Entrance to the parking lot is at the intersection of Garland Ave. and S. 3rd St.
Daily 9-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
$4.00 for a seven-day pass to go to most of Fort Smith's Historic Attractions.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves And His DogU.S. Marshal Bass Reeves And His Dog, Fort Smith, AR - < 1 mi.
Miss Laura's Social ClubMiss Laura's Social Club, Fort Smith, AR - < 1 mi.
Biker GeneralBiker General, Fort Smith, AR - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Arkansas Runestone #1, Paris, AR - 40 mi.

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