…there was to be a triple hanging at the Federal Courthouse in Fort Smith and people from as far away as east Texas and north Louisiana were going up to see it. It was like an excursion trip.
“True Grit,” by Charles Portis, 1968
For 21 years after the American Civil War, Federal Judge ISAAC C. PARKER hanged 86 men on gallows nicknamed the "government suspender" in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Legend is those gallows could strangle a dozen men at a time.
This is the story of how desperadoes, depending on your interpretation of history, were either tamed or tortured by a man some historians call a megalomaniac, while others choose to believe the judge was nothing more than a civil servant doing his job.Parker’s lawmen were said to have been as mean and deadly as the fugitives they captured and shackled in a dungeon known as Hell on the Border, in sight of the nooses that would often be their ultimate fate.
I remembered standing one evening at the entrance of the United States Jail, when an old Arkansas gentleman passed and, looking in, for a moment, paused and listened to the ribald songs and coarse, brutal jests that fell from the lips of the prisoners; he heard the demoniacal yells, saw the prisoners, Indians, whites and negroes, all mingled together in a heterogeneous mass, and turning to me, with a look that spoke the anguish he felt, remarked:“Hell on the Border,” by S.W. Harman, 1898
“If this is not hell, I do not know where hell is.”
“Yes,” replied a bystander. “And it is right on the border.”
Characters will include BASS REEVES, a former slave who was one of Parker's best marshals. Over time, the Reeves folklore has grown epically, and a statue now stands proudly near the US Marshal’s Museum. He was a master of disguise who is said to have arrested 3 thousand men, killing more than a dozen in the line of duty.
GEORGE MALEDON was known as the “Prince of Hangmen.” He wove his ropes with pitch to prevent slippage. Late in life, he toured the country lecturing, demonstrating how he executed killers and horse thieves, in the name of the law. A central figure will be Parker, the former US Congressman from Missouri, commissioned by President U S Grant as the all powerful judge over the Western District of Arkansas, with jurisdiction over Indian Territory. In those days, if Parker sentenced you to death, that was it. There was no appeal process.
"Cruel they have said I am, but they forget the utterly hardened character of the men I deal with. They forget that in my court’s jurisdiction alone, 65 Marshals were murdered in the discharge of their duty.”
Judge Isaac C. Parker
On September 1, 1896, by act of Congress, the Federal Court at Fort Smith, Arkansas was stripped of its jurisdiction into Indian Territory. A 29-year old newspaper reporter, ADA PATTERSON, was assigned to write about this event. She interviewed Judge Isaac Parker, the infamous “Hanging Judge,” who was in the last stages of Bright’s disease, which would soon take his life.
Patterson's interview, and colorful description of the gallows (Government Suspender) and jail (Hell on the Border), serve as the foundation for this film.
"The guard threw open the great whitewashed door as we stood almost beneath the famous gallows. Weather beaten, except as to the stout new beam, the heavy scaffold rose to a height of 20 feet in front, and at the rear the roof sloped to half that distance from the ground. The stonewall against which the gallows rested….strayed into the presence of death."
Ada Patterson, 1896
listen to an audio sample
“He is the gentlest of men, this alleged sternest of judges... The features that have in them the horror of the Medusa to desperadoes are benevolent to all other human-kind.”
"George Maledon, ‘old man Maledon,’ as he is known at Fort Smith, has hanged more than 80 men….Maledon was appointed hangman at about the same time that Judge Parker laid his strong young hands upon the judicial reigns of the wild border country, and his was the last face that many a red-handed murdered saw before he opened his eyes upon the mysteries that are said to await us in a world beyond earthly vision.”
When Parker died, townspeople were so sick of the infamous notoriety of the Hangin’ Judge’s reign, they burned down the gallows outside the federal courthouse. But over time, legends have grown into myth, and much of the truth has been spun into fable. This film will tell real stories, shedding new light on what really happened in those turbulent days, while “busting” myths of some of the farfetched tales that have appeared as fact in books and movies since the time of Parker’s passing.
“People have said to me, ‘you are the judge who has hung so many men,’ and I always answer: ‘it is not I who has hung them. I never hung a man. It is the law.”
Judge Isaac C. Parker