by Fred Pahlke
A story of the famous Judge Parker
by Fred Pahlke
Fort Smith, Arkansas (July 7, 1883)
The mid-summer solar flares reflected their hellish light through the courthouse office window of Isaac Parker, Federal Judge and assigned adjudicator of Western Arkansas and all the Indian lands to the west. It was a Tuesday in the year 1883, seven o’clock in the morning and the coffee was not all that was heating up. The coffee pot was full and the Judge’s black suit jacket was all ready hooked on the clothing pole in the large office chamber of the magistrate. Parker, in his eight year on the bench, liked to be at his desk no later than seven thirty daily. He also liked to work early and go home early in the afternoon. Because of the nasty humid and heated air, the result of a heat wave that had the Arkansas River Valley basking like a smoked ham in the bottom of a Dutch oven, his agenda was simple. Make sure that business was finished in time to get home and have a nice hour nap before supper. The stuffy Court House was an even eighty five degrees at this early morning time with no prospect of cooling. The ceiling fans in the offices were in the Judges words, “shitty”. The Judge sure in hell wasn’t going to sweat the afternoon when he could be at home, laid out on his wicker cot that was placed on the eastern porch of his seven room residence on Baker Street. Enjoying a tall glass of cool lemonade would precede the anticipated nap on the white painted cot. Life was good for the man known as the “Hanging Judge.” Good, except for the heat of the day.
Mrs. Bessie Walton had brewed the coffee for the forty-five year old judge just ten minutes before. A large old oak desk and chair stared him down as he turned to sit. The Judge was already showing sweat stains on his white broadcloth dress shirt. His underarm pits were moist, not to mention the tiny pebbles of perspiration that dotted the face and backside neck of the man. Looking at the huge desk that stood with a picture of the President of the United States hanging on the wall behind it, the man thought again and turned away from the piece of furniture. The hesitation was more of a lack of sitting in that warm wood chair more than getting down to business. Mrs. Walton saw his balking in sitting and just let the moment pass without comment. Mrs. Walton had been this man's executive secretary for his tenure of the assigned judgeship in Fort Smith. The President in the picture above and behind the desk, that of James A Garfield, was the man that did not appointed him to Fort Smith, but Judge Parker had met him on a trip he made to St. Louis a year earlier. He liked the President.
An on the job workaholic, Mrs. Walton, a pretty and petite brown eyed Federal employee from Pacific, Missouri, was one of only two people on earth that could get into the face of her boss and “tell him” what’s what. Bessie, as was often called by the Judge, was also the wife of the famed U. S. Marshal Bob Walton of the District and Indian Lands. The Marshal, one of six on the staff at Fort Smith, also happened to be Judge Parker’s best friend.
Mary O’Toole Parker, the wife of the Judge, was the other woman of concern to Isaac Parker. She too could call him out, telling him that he could kiss her ass when needed. On occasion she had, and it scared the Judge. Both Mrs. Walton and Mrs. Parker could and would team up on the Judge and ream him out for something they both didn’t approve that he had acted upon. A bad decision on the bench brought the wrath of the two. Bessie Walton and Mary O’Toole Parker were best of friends and what one knew, the other would know soon enough. The Judge might have had jurisdiction in his District, but he did not rule the roost of his own office and home. Judge Parker knew his place in the pecking order of family and friends.
"I don't know why I need this hot coffee Bessie,” the Judge grumbled to his secretary. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s good, and
hot. Good God, another goddamn day of Arkansas heat. Goddamn hot house…….. needs to burn down so I can get the hell out of here and never come back……I need go outside where there is some breeze. Those asshole prisoners down in the jail have it better than me. Maybe I need to go down there and visit them. I bet it is no more than eighty down in that hole.”
“Judge, drink your coffee and live with it. It’s not going to get any cooler and all your hot air is making me want to quit this job and just go home and listen to the birds chirp. Stop complaining. You are like this every morning.”
“You better not quit on me. You don’t get off that easily. If I need to sweat you do too. No, I didn’t mean that Bessie. I’m
sorry.” The Judge gave her a "please forgive me look" as he shrugged his shoulders. He walked over to his desk and sat down in his old oak chair that was already feeling a pinch of the heat of the day.
“Judge, you can perspire for the both of us,” she replied, flashing a condescending smile to her boss.
“Think it’s funny do you. Wipe that smirk off your face woman. I’m hot," the Judge replied.
“You’re hot? Good. Get to work.” She said it in a non-threatening way, yet he got the message. Enough of you Mister.
Mrs. Bessie looked out the Judge’s office window and saw the U.S. Marshal’s jail wagon turn the corner of the Court House drive and finally disappear from her sight. It would pull up to the jail door in back of the Federal Court House to unload its haul. The jail wagon had made six stops in the past five days at various local town jails east of Fort Smith. It picked up only four individuals on this trip. The four would bring the number of persons making the Federal Jail at Ft. Smith home to twenty-four; sixteen white men, five Indian men, and one China-man and two white women. Of the group, seven were or had already been put under indictment of committing a capital crime. Conviction of a capital offense, such as murder, kidnapping, cattle or horse thievery, or any combination of the afore mentioned crimes would, in a Judge Parker courtroom, more than not result in a broken neck, compliments of the United States Government. Judge Parker didn’t have a problem giving the maximum punishment when passing out sentences. The gallows at Fort Smith would be busy in the next few months.
“What are you looking at woman?” the Judge asked his secretary.
He glanced at his wife’s best friend and his best friend’s wife, all neat and proper in her nice yellow dress topped with a white
laced neckline. He liked her as much as he could a woman he wasn’t married to. He was smitten with her the first time they met, at her interview for Federal position. Yet he kept his professional relationship proper at all times, up and above any indiscretions. As good a friend as he had in her husband, he also knew that his marshal friend would shoot him dead, without hesitation, if he tried to make a move on her. Putting your hands on your best friend’s wife was a no win proposition. Judge Parker appreciated Mrs. Bessie just as much for her looks, and she knew it. But his look don’t touch behavior was set in stone. He was a faithful husband to his Mary, but only in action, not in thought. As for Mrs. Bessie, she also knew that the Judge was a man, but not a stupid man. She knew he enjoyed coming to work because she was there, and that made her feel appreciated for more than her work. Yet, for her, the same old fashion morals were ingrained in her as much as the Judge. Ignorance didn’t rule the day for her in her transgressions.
Ignorance didn’t rule the day in Isaac Parkers mind either.
“Jail wagon Judge. It looks like we have four new prisoners. I will get all the paperwork ready and will schedule their hearings for tomorrow morning, " Mrs. Bessie said.
“Good. Thanks. Get those indictments to me pronto. Tell James (Sampson, public defender) that he will be the attorney for these four if they don’t have their own counsel. Thank you Bessie.”
“You are always welcome Judge,” Bessie commented as she exited the Judge’s chamber.
Her office was a smaller outer one, adjoining. The Judge and his secretary would both get their business completed for an early trip home that afternoon, for both. The cool lemonade would taste wonderful that hot Arkansas afternoon.
Westville, Indian Territory (July 9, 1883)
He moved just quickly enough to get the drop on the dark figure that had crossed the street of the little Indian Territory town of Westvillle. The night lights of the saloon directly in front of the two men heading in the same direction gave the follower the advantage. Deep ruts of the dry hard and dusty street almost gave away his superior position as he approached the outlaw, tripping just enough to make a scratching sound. With his Mare’s Leg drawn, one forty-five colt cartridge in the chamber, six more waiting in the internal clip of the long pistol, death was present courtesy of the United States Marshall Bob Walton.
Now sensing the heat of a pursuer, the outlaw glanced back as picked up his pace, appreciating the sense of the moment.
“Norris, you need to stop,” as the Federal lawman raised up the deadly Mare's Leg from his outer thigh, on the ready to immediately kill the man.
Charlie Norris, spinning around with his pistol pulled, wasn’t the match for the Marshal on this night. The Mare’s leg roared once, sending the outgunned murderer to hell with a slug that entered the left side of his temple. Norris didn't get to complete his spin. Two more hot lead projectiles caught the falling man, one in the chest and one in the throat.
Charles Norris, a three time murderer with a bounty on his head, died without pain or a thought in his destroyed brain pan. As his black glistening blood squirted onto the hard dirt ruts, the life juice found no solace of absorption and spread across the uneven surface. Bob Walton had just killed his eighth man. The trash Charlie Norris would not be missed by the good people of the Territory. He would be buried in a shallow grave in the Westville cemetery. The tombstone, placed by family a few years down the road would say, "Charles Norris, 1850-1883. Beloved Son."
The justifiable homicide of Charles Norris by Marshal Walton would make front page headlines in the Fort Smith Observer the next day. It would be a last page footnote in the New York Times in their Sunday edition later in the week.
(June 27, 1883 a few days earlier)
Ten miles Southwest of Ft. Smith on the banks of the Arkansas
River, Indian Territory (June 27, 1883)
The two young women sat under the large elm tree that was fed by the soft underbelly of the old river. The grass had turned brown that laid sadly on the hard black river bottom dirt. The river itself was a good one hundred yards yonder to the north. Uncomfortable, knees drawn up with the thick tree trunk serving as a rough support, the two had reason for concern. A group of men, eleven in the count, stood some yelling distance from them. They were discussing the situation of the two worried girls, both now dripping tears from their moist eyes. The two had their hands, which were cradled in their laps, tied tightly at the wrists.
A lone man, Barney Worthman, stood a few feet from the two, shotgun in hand. Worthman, not a timid creature, would have no hesitation in killing either woman if one or the other decided to run for it, which was really out of the question. The eleven plus Worthman, making an even dozen, would decide the immediate fate of the women, just like a real jury would in a real courtroom in Ft. Smith. These men were mad and wanted revenge. Now was not the time for rational decisions. Now was the time for a lynching. Killing the son of one of the wealthiest men in Arkansas was not a smart thing to do. These men had an indication that these two women were of cause.
"Do you sense the same thing I do," said Mandy Whiteside, the blonde one of the two. "I don't have a good feeling.
These men are out for our blood. God help us that they don't kill us right here and now. They don't respect the law any more than we did. Lisa, I'm not feeling so good."
Looking up, Mandy didn't like what she saw. A large branch shot out from the tree,. The single thick and sturdy limb. She could imagine that limb with an attached rope with a noose hanging from it with her neck in that noose. She shuttered of the thought. Her mind continued to shake her and make her sick at her stomach. Her attention to detail allowed her to visualize a couple of young women swinging in the breeze from that branch. She had fear for her friend and not just her. She knew that these men were in a frenzied state and if they would lynch a black man for no reason they sure in hell would lynch a couple of murderesses. She wanted to vomit.
"What do you mean Mandy," Lisa Howell said to her best friend. "You don't think they won't take us back to Ft. Smith and give us a trial? They have to take us back. They must." Lisa saw Mandy look skyward again and she understood. That limb bothered her also, now thinking the same thing her friend was. She wanted to run, but where? And with her hands tied, she knew that wasn't a possibility. Getting shot wasn't any improvement of sitting and waiting to see what was in store for their immediate future she figured.
Lisa began to cry. "You think they are going to hang us right here and now," Lisa
said through her sobbing. "I sure don't want to die today, not here, not that way.
"I wouldn't put it past them, Lisa responded. "Terry's father hates our guts and he just might. We should have shot the old man too. I don't think he wants a trial and he owns these men. They could string us up and then bury us. They would never find us. We would just disappear off the face of the earth. The old man doesn't want to see us in Ft. Smith . He wants us dead. Pray girl that they come to their senses and take us back."
Bob Larson, the father of the man the two girls killed just that morning, looked over to the large tree that shaded the ground
not more than fifty feet from him. Hate filled eyes that wouldn't allow a tear form, he wanted "his" justice immediately and thought hard on it. Whatever he decided to do his men would assist the effort. More importantly, they wouldn't tell anyone of what they did. Knowing that lynching the two would bring the heavy hand of the law down upon him and his cohorts, he felt that the case against the women would be an easy for the Judge in Ft. Smith handle. Parker would allow a jury to find the two guilty and a legal hanging would follow. Yet, the old man wouldn't trust even the slightest chance they would not hang. Taking care of business right here and now would be final for both him and his anger.
The woman watched as the father walked over to them. Standing straight, looking down at the two, Bob Larson took his time to gather his words.
"Say your prayers. I'm fixing to hang you both, right now, right here. You killed my son. You took his life. I am now going to take yours. Say your prayers. You have five minutes," the angry man said to them.
Mandy figured so much. She knew that the old man was serious and that he was a man of his word. She didn't want to die at
the end of a rope but her wants didn't matter. Her temper heated up at the old man.
"I would have shot you too,” said Mandy, “If only I had been thinking. You think hanging us will bring Terry back but it won't. It won't satisfy you.
Mandy thought to herself. Go ahead and hang us. I figure that hanging us will just bring justice down on you when the judge in Ft. Smith finds out what you did to us. He'll get you and all of your men.
"Go on and hang us you son-of-a-bitch", Mandy shouted to the man who had lost his son.
"Don't worry girl. I will. I just want you dead, you and your little friend. Five minutes," the man
Ft. Smith-Court House
Judge Parker had been told of the killing and the lynch mob that had taken out after the two women. The thought of a lynching had sent Judge Parker into a rage.
"I'll be god damn that Larson takes the law into his own hands," the Judge barked out to no one in his well kept inner office. Bessie, get in here!," he again yelled out, this time intentionally getting his secretary's attention.
The woman, hearing the Judge, knew he was worked up in a serious way. She dropped the pen she was using to write a note to a friend and quickly rushed into Mr. Parker's office.
"Judge, what is going on?"
"Call your husband and tell him I need him immediately. Old man Larson has set off and is in pursuit of those two girls that might have killed his son. I need Bob to head them off and keep his mob from lynching them."
Without hesitation the secretary bolted out of the Judge's office to get the word to her husband.
Parker told Marshall Walton he had better get the lynch mob taken care of before they hung the women or Mr. Larson and those that helped him would be considered criminals and would be subject to Walton's authority or the Judge's wrath. Walton didn't like to hear that as he would have to bring them in dead or alive. As deadly as he was it wasn't in his nature to kill if he could avoid it.
Walton, riding alone, decided that he wouldn't get into an incident if he couldn't stop them from their lynching. To gun it out with a group of armed men wasn't good. Judge Parker could just shove it, friend or no friend. Walton headed southwest out of Ft. Smith.
Back at the River
“Your time is up," Larson spoke to the women as he pointed to them. "Put them on their ponies. Times a wasting on these
The girls were brought to their feet and bodied over to ponies that were brought over to them under the sturdy limb overhead.. They watched as two worn hemp ropes were looped over the branch brushing them on the down swing. With one end of each rope tied off to the tree and the other ends, the ones with a fine open nooses, the quick adjustments were made for a slow agonizing death for the young women.
“No, don’t do this, Mandy screamed!." The words came out of her mouth just as she was placed on the back of the first pony. The noose was slipped over her head.” Mandy Whiteside was a second or two from being lynched.
Lisa Howell's noose followed that of her best friend and both young women awaited their fate. Lisa looked over to her friend and through her tears was able to say a shallow but audible "Bye. Bye Mandy."
Mandy tired to smile at her but her bottom lip would not turn upward as her quivering was too much. She quickly looked away and closed her eyes as she felt that urge to vomit, again.
The men stood silent as they circled the two ponies on which the two girls sat.
"I'd be careful about those horses," U.S Marshal Bob Watson called out as he approached the group of men that had the two young women awaiting their trip to hell. The calmness of the approaching man was noticed by the girls. The Marshal's hand motions to the two men ready to slap the horses that would send the two mounted women to their final demise was direct and swift.
"I swear to God if you hang these girls right here and now I will make sure that everyone here is either hanged on Judge Parker's gallows or I will take out as many of you as possible. Right now! You understand Mr. Larson? I will shoot you first you son-of-a-bitch. God damn you for taking the law into your own hands. See if I will keep that promise you cocksucker!"
Mr. Larson thought for second and decided not to try the Marshal. Yes, he figured his men would kill Watson but he would already be sent to his maker. He did not question Watson's word. He could see the Marshal had a trigger finger on the mare's leg on his right hip ready to kill in a split second.
"Stand down men. Remove those nooses. There will not be a hanging today," Mr. Larson grunted.
The men didn't question their boss's direction and most also knew it would be a blood bath if they tried to hang the girls. The women were freed from the nooses and the the tension of the moment had passed.