History of the Hell on the Border Jail

Recreated jail wagon and the gallows in fog at the Hell on the Border Jail in Fort Smith, Arkansas
A recreation of a jail wagon and the gallows of Isaac Parker's Court.  FortSmithNPS / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

In Fort Smith, Arkansas, two hours outside of Little Rock, The Fort Smith National Historic Site is home to a unique site. Visitors to the park can tour a restoration of Hanging Judge Isaac Parker's courtroom, the "Hell on the Border" jail. The site includes a partial restoration of the circa-1888 jail cells and a reconstructed gallows.

Read on to learn more about some of the crimes of the frontier and what led to Parker being known as the Hanging Judge and his court as the Hell on the Border Jail.

Judge Isaac Parker

Isaac Charles Parker was born in a log cabin in Belmont County, Ohio on October 15, 1838. He was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1859 at the age of 21. He soon met and married Mary O'Toole. The couple had two sons, Charles and James. Parker built up the reputation for being an honest lawyer and a leader of the community.

That reputation is one reason President Grant appointed him to serve as the judge over Western District of Arkansas and all of Indian Territory (the court was located in Fort Smith). At the age of 36, Judge Parker was the youngest Federal judge in the West.

The Court of the Damned

In his first 8 weeks, he tried 91 defendants. He held court six days a week for as long as 10 hours a day.  In his first summer as a judge, 18 people were accused of murder and he convicted 15 of them. Six of those men were executed in his gallows on the same day (September 3, 1875) and that set his legacy into motion. The act of hanging 6 men lead to him being somewhat of a media sensation at the time, earning his court the infamous "Court of the Damned" nickname in just his first few months on the job.

His court received the aforementioned reputation, but he was actually seen by his constituents and a fair and even judge. He would grant retrials and occasionally reduce sentences for lesser crimes. However, he most often sided with the victims, especially for violent crimes. He is called one of the first advocates of victim's rights.

In 21 years on the bench, Judge Parker tried 13,490 cases, and 344 of them were capital crimes. He found 9,454 of those plaintiffs guilty and sentenced 160 men to death by hanging. Only 79 were actually hung. The rest died in jail, appealed or were pardoned. Parker was not one who often listened to appeals for criminals convicted of rape or murder, but he was a fair judge and most in Fort Smith agreed with his rulings.

Law in a Wild Land

If he was criticized, it was from outside of the frontier. There was a lack of law and order in the Indian territory Parker presided over, and most locals were afraid and wanted order brought back to the territory. The "outlaws" thought the laws did not apply to them in the Territory. Lawlessness and terror reigned. Most citizens felt the utter viciousness of the crimes merited the sentences imposed.

Parker actually favored the abolition of the death penalty. He was for strict adherence to the law and a clear standard for punishing crime. He said, "in the uncertainty of punishment following crime lies the weakness of our halting justice."

Parker's jurisdiction began to shrink as more courts were given authority over parts of the Indian Territory. In September 1896 Congress closed the court. Six weeks after the court was closed, on November 17, 1896, he died. He left behind a legacy that is often misunderstood. Parker has the reputation of a ruthless and uncaring figure in our history, but his actual legacy is much more complex.