The Hanging Judge

Isaac Parker 001This fellow has been portrayed in several Hollywood films, two of the best by actors John McIntyre and Pat Hingle—although the character played by Hingle was entirely fictionalized in the film Hang ‘Em High.  But Judge Isaac C. Parker was a real man, a real judge, in the real Fort Smith, Arkansas, in the real American old west.  True, folks back then did call him “the hanging judge,” and he did, in fact, hang a few people, but of the 13,490 cases heard in Judge Parker’s court, only 344 were capital offenses.  Of the 160 defendants sentenced to death by hanging (156 men, 4 women), only 79 were, in fact, hanged.  The rest either died while incarcerated, or had their sentences commuted on appeal, or were pardoned.  What is also true is that Judge Parker preferred hanging people six at a time —to get the most effect from those who might consider going astray.  It was a different time; it was a dangerous time.

In April 1861, Parker ran as a Democrat for St. Joseph, Missouri’s part-time city attorney. He served three one-year terms from April 1861 to 1863.  The Civil War began four days after he assumed his post in 1861 and, motivated by a sense of duty, Parker enlisted in a home guard unit.  By the end of the war, Parker was advanced to corporal’s rank in the 61stMissouri Emergency Regiment.  He meanwhile continued both his legal and political careers.  In 1864, Parker ran for election as a Republican for county prosecutor in the 9thMissouri Judicial District.  His split from the Democratic Party came from conflicting opinions over the issue of slavery.  In the fall of that year, he served in the Missouri electoral college, which overwhelmingly supported the re-election of Abraham Lincoln.  In 1868, Parker won a six-year term as judge of the 12thMissouri Circuit.

In 1870, Judge Parker was nominated to run for Missouri’s 7thCongressional District, backed by the Republican Party’s radical faction.  He resigned his judgeship to devote his energy to this campaign.  He won that election after his opponent withdrew from the race two weeks before the election.  During his tenure in Congress, Parker helped to secure pensions for Civil War veterans in his district, campaigned for a new federal building to be built in St. Joseph, sponsored a failed bill designed to enfranchise women and allow them to hold public office in the United States territories. He sponsored legislation to organize the so-called Indian territories under a territorial government. Throughout his term in congress, Parker was highly regarded as both trustworthy and influential.

In 1874, Parker considered running for the United States Senate, but the political winds had shifted by this time, and it seemed unlikely that he could be elected.  He instead sought a presidential appointment as a federal judge in the Western District of Arkansas.  In May 1874, President Ulysses S. Grant nominated Parker to serve as Chief Justice of the Utah Territory.  Parker instead asked to serve in the Western District of Arkansas, which President Grant granted.

Parker arrived in Fort Smith, Arkansas, a year later.  His first session began on 10 May 1875, with William H. H. Clayton serving as a federal prosecutor.  Standing before the court were 18 men accused of murder —15 of whom were convicted by jury trials.  Judge Parker sentenced eight of these men to death.  Of these, six were ordered hanged on 3 September 1875.  One of the eight was killed while trying to escape from custody, and another received a commutation to life imprisonment due to his minority.

In 1875, tribes within the so-called Indian Territories exercised jurisdiction over their own citizens, while all non-Indian U. S. Citizens fell under the auspices of federal territorial authority.  Between 1875 and 1889, Judge Parker exercised appellate jurisdiction over Indian tribunals.

The federal court for the Western District of Arkansas was required to meet four terms each year, but the caseload was so large that the terms in Parker Court’s ran together.  To ensure that they tried as many cases as possible during each term, the Parker court sat six days a week; courtroom sessions often involved ten-hour days.  In 1883, Congress reduced the court’s jurisdiction, reassigning parts of the Indian Territory to federal courts in Texas and Kansas.  Increasing numbers of settlers moving into the Indian Territories, however, increased the court’s workload.  It was a grueling schedule for all concerned.

In his time on the court, Parker presided over several high-profile cases, including the trial of Crawford Goldsby, who was known as Cherokee Bill. Crawford was rotten to the core murdering thug, but you can’t be a genuine badass with a name like Crawford, so somewhere along the way, he adopted the moniker, Cherokee Bill.  Crawford was born on 8 February 1876; he was just a little past his 20thbirthday when he took his step into the bowels of hell.

Now, as it happens, Cherokee Bill’s father was a man named George Goldsby, a Buffalo Soldier[1]who married a half-Cherokee mulatto woman named Ellen Beck.  Their relationship ended when George became involved in a shootout in the Morris Saloon at San Angelo, Texas.  The scrape came from too many people drinking too much firewater.  At some point in the initial fray, cowboys held down a Buffalo soldier from Fort Concho, ripped off his rank insignia, and tossed him into the street[2].  The soldier later returned with several soldiers from Company D, including Sergeant Goldsby.  One cowboy was killed in the melee that followed, two others received gunshot wounds, one soldier was killed, and another wounded.

A few days later, Texas Rangers showed up to take custody of the Buffalo Soldiers.  The officer in command of the post was Colonel Benjamin Grierson.  He refused to turn the soldiers over to the Rangers, arguing that they had no jurisdiction on his post.  George Goldsby was smart enough to see what might happen, so he deserted his post and fled to unknown parts.  Ellen soon left Fort Concho for Fort Gibson in the Indian Territory.  She took with her a daughter and two other sons but placed Crawford into the care of an elderly black woman named Amanda Foster. “Auntie Amanda” cared for Crawford until he was seven years old and then sent him off to an Indian school in Cherokee, Kansas.  Three years later, Crawford was sent to an Indian School at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.  From the time he was 12 years old until he reached his 18thbirthday, Crawford floated back and forth between Fort Gibson (where his mother remarried a man named William Lynch) and his sister’s home near Nowata, Oklahoma (she had married a man named Mose Brown).  Crawford apparently had problems getting along with others.

Beginning after his 18thbirthday, Cherokee Bill was involved in the following incidents:

  • Train robbery at Red Fork on 18 July 1894
  • Bank robbery in Chandler, Oklahoma —murdering J. B. Mitchell on 31 July 1894
  • The murder of railroad agent Dick Richards in August 1894
  • The murder of trainman Samuel Collins at or near Fort Gibson in August 1894
  • The murder of brother-in-law Mose Brown in September 1894
  • Post Office robbery at Donaldson’s Store at Watova, October 1894
  • The murder of Ernest Melton during the robbery of Shufeldt & Son’s General Store, 8 November 1894
  • Armed robbery of Nowata, Oklahoma Station Agent Bristow, on 23 December 1894.

Cherokee BillAfter the last episode, authorities stepped up their pursuit of Bill Goldsby (shown right) and cohorts collectively known as the Cook Gang.  Realizing the law was after them, the gang split up.  Most of these hombres were captured or killed, but Cherokee Bill managed his escape until authorities offered up a reward of $1,300 for his capture.  At this time, his so-called friends stepped forward to aid in his capture.  On 30 January 1895, Constables James McBride and Henry Connelly captured Cherokee Bill and transported him to Fort Smith, Arkansas, to stand trial.  Convicted of the murder of Ernest Melton, Crawford was sentenced to death on 13 April 1895.  His lawyer managed to postpone the date of execution, however.

Meanwhile, Cherokee Bill became fast friends with Sherman Vann, a trustee at the jail.  Sherman managed to smuggle a six-shooter into Goldsby’s cell.  On 26 July 1895, night guard Lawrence Keating was securing prisoners into their cells when Cherokee Bill jumped him.  Keating was shot in the stomach; then, as Keating staggered down the passageway, Bill reshot him in the back.  Other guards soon arrived, preventing Goldsby’s escape, but the man was armed, and the incident resulted in a standoff that lasted a few hours.  Finally, fellow prisoner Henry Starr offered to help get Goldsby to surrender.  This he was able to do, and Goldsby surrendered his weapon.

A second trial lasted three days.  Convicted again of murder, Judge Parker ordered Cherokee Bill to be hanged on 10 September 1895.  Goldsby’s lawyer appealed the conviction, but the Supreme Court affirmed the sentence on 2 December 1895.  His new execution date was 17 March 1896.  On that morning, Cherokee Bill awoke, ate a light breakfast, and was reported to have been in a good mood.  Shortly after 2 p.m., Crawford was led to the gallows where he was asked if he had anything to say for himself.  He answered, “I came here to die, not to make a speech.”

After twelve minutes of hanging from his neck, Cherokee Bill was pronounced dead.  We don’t know if anyone was disappointed by his lack of speechifying, but we do know that Judge Isaac Parker served honorably on the federal bench for twenty-one years.  We also know that he suffered from Bright’s disease (a kidney ailment) and passed away while in office on 17 November 1896 —eight months after he sent Cherokee Bill to hell.

Although several great actors played the part of Judge Parker, no one comes close to the real man.  We cannot say for certain that the hanging judge ever deterred murder, but we can say that no one became a victim of Cherokee Bill after 17 March 1896.

However, Parker’s tenure as a judge in the Western District of Arkansas wasn’t without controversy.  Because the U. S. Supreme Court overturned nearly two-thirds of Parker’s judgments, Parker had several clashes with the high court.  In 1894, Judge Parker gained national attention in a dispute with the Supreme Court over Lafayette Hudson[3], who was convicted of assault with intent to kill.  Parker sentenced him to four years of confinement. Hudson appealed his case to the Supreme Court, who granted him bail.  Judge Parker refused to release Hudson, claiming the Supreme Court did not have the authority to demand Hudson’s release.

Judge Isaac Parker lived during a dangerous time in American history.  During those times, and at that place, he may have been one of the old west’s greatest of men.


[1]Buffalo soldier is a term assigned by Native Americans to black soldiers.  At this time, black soldiers served in units segregated from their white counterparts. All-black units consisted of the 9thand 10thCavalry Regiments and the 24thand 25thInfantry Regiments.

[2]In the old west, tossing someone into the street was particularly insulting since the streets were covered in filth from animal excrement.

[3]Hudson v. Parker, 156 US 277 (1895)

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in FRONTIER, HISTORY. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Hanging Judge

  1. Kid says:

    Great story, what a time to have to live through.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Real desperadoes demanded real men to stand up to them. IMO, Cherokee Bill should have been taken out long before the marshal got to him. The thug was a back shooter, meaning among other things that he shot unarmed men. Thanks for your comment, Kid.


  2. I enjoy these stories. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Andy Houston says:

    Wow! Very interesting. I have to admit that I had to Google “Buffalo Soldiers” and “Cherokee Bill.” I’d heard of them but didn’t really know that much about them. Parker was one interesting fella, that’s for sure.

    With all you have going on, when do you kind time to read and write. I’m glad you do, but I’m amazed.

    S/F Andy

    Sent from my iPad



  4. Baysider says:

    Ed + 1.


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