jail

The Indian Territory, which is now Oklahoma, in 1875, was populated by cattle and horse thieves, whiskey peddlers, and bandits who sought refuge in the untamed territory that was free of a “White Man’s Court.” There was one court with jurisdiction over Indian Territory was the U.S. Court for the Western District of Arkansas located in Fort Smith, Arkansas, which was situated on the border of Western Arkansas and Indian Territory. Judge Isaac Parker, who was often called the “Hanging Judge,” from Fort Smith, Arkansas ruled over the lawless land of Indian Territory in the late 1800s. He was determined to stop the pollution of the Indian Territory that was the outlaws who thought they could outrun the law.

Judge Isaac Parker was born in a log cabin outside Barnesville, Belmont County, Ohio on October 15, 1838. The youngest son of Joseph and Jane Parker. As a boy, Isaac helped out on the farm, but never really cared for that type of work. He attended the Breeze hill primary school and then the Barnesville Classical Institute. Knowing he wanted more, he decided to go for a higher education. To help pay for it, he taught students in a country primary school. When he was 17 he decided to study law, his legal training consisting of a combination of apprenticeship and self study. Reading law with a Barnesville attorney, he passed the Ohio bar exam in 1859 at the age of 21. During this period of his life, he met and married Mary O’Toole and the couple had two sons, Charles and James. Over the years, Parker built a reputation for being an honest lawyer and a much respected leader of the community.

After Parker passed the bar, he decided to head west, ending up in Saint Joseph, Missouri a bustling Missouri River port town. He went to work for his uncle, D.E. Shannon, becoming a partner in the Shannon and Branch legal firm. By 1861, he was working on his own in both the municipal and county criminal courts. In April of 1861, he won the election as City Attorney. He was re-elected to the post for the next two years. In 1864, Isaac Parker ran for county prosecutor of the Ninth Missouri Judicial District and in the fall of that same year, he served as a member of the Electoral College, casting his vote for Abraham Lincoln. During a political career that included a six-year term as judge of the Twelfth Missouri Circuit in 1868, Parker would soon gain the experience that he would later use as the ruling Judge over the Indian Territory.

After the Civil War, the number of outlaws had grown, wrecking the relative peace of the five civilized tribes that lived in Indian Territory. By the time Parker arrived at Fort Smith, the Indian Territory had become known as a very bad place, where outlaws thought the laws did not apply to them and terror reigned. Parker replaced Judge William Story, whose tenure had been marred by corruption, after arriving in Fort Smith on May 4, 1875. At the age of 36, Judge Parker was the youngest Federal judge in the West. Holding court for the first time on May 10, 1875, eight men were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Judge Parker held court six days a week, often up to ten hours each day and tried 91 defendants in his first eight weeks on the bench. He was determined to clean up the Indian Territory, single handedly if necessary. In that first summer, eighteen persons came before him charged with murder and 15 were convicted. Eight of them were sentenced to die on the gallows on September 3, 1875. However, only six would be executed as one was killed trying to escape and a second had his sentence commuted to life in prison because of his young age.

The day of the September 3, 1875 hanging was a media circus, and because of all the attention, everyone knew that the once corrupt court was functioning properly again. Parker’s critics dubbed him the “Hanging Judge” and called his court the “Court of the Damned.” They thought Judge Parker was too harsh. The Fort Smith Independent was the first newspaper to report the event on September 3, 1875 with the large column heading reading: “Execution Day!!” Other newspapers around the country reported the event a day later. These press reports shocked people throughout the nation. “Cool Destruction of Six Human Lives by Legal Process” screamed the headlines. Of the six felons, three were white, two were Native American and one was black. When the preliminaries were over, the six were lined up on the scaffold while executioner George Maledon adjusted the nooses around their necks. The trap was sprung all six died at once at the end of the ropes. The event solidified Judge Parker’s nickname for all time. In 21 years on the bench, Judge Parker tried 13,490 cases, 344 of which were capital crimes. 9,454 cases resulted in guilty pleas or convictions. Over the years, Judge Parker sentenced 160 men to death by hanging, though only 79 of them were actually hanged. The rest died in jail, appealed or were pardoned. Judge Parker died on November 17, 1896.

When a vicious killer is caught, sometimes the townspeople lose control of their emotions and take matters into their own hands. While it is a little less common these days, people would sometimes storm the jail to execute the prisoners themselves. Often it was thought that justice would not be served in the court system. People fear the possibility that the killer might get off and be back out in society again. These days, it is pretty hard to storm a jail, but jails weren’t as secure then, as they are now.

On November 9, 1933, Brooke Hart was abducted by two men in his own Studebaker. His family received a $40,000 ransom demand and, soon after, Hart’s wallet was found on a tanker ship in a nearby bay. The investigative trail led to John Holmes and Thomas Thurmond, who implicated each other in separate confessions. Both acknowledged, that Hart had been pistol-whipped and then thrown off the San Mateo Bridge. After Hart’s body washed ashore on November 25, a vigilante mob began to form. Newspapers reported the possibility of a lynching and local radio stations broadcast the plan. Not only did Governor James Rolph reject the National Guard’s offer to send assistance, he reportedly said he would pardon those involved in the lynching. Now, when you have a governor who is on the side on the lynch mob, you have a volatile situation.

On November 26, 1933, thousands of people in San Jose, California, stormed the jail where Thomas Thurmond and John Holmes were being held. The angry mob converged at the jail and beat the guards, using a battering ram to break into the cells. Then, Thurmond and Holmes were dragged out and hanged from large trees in a nearby park. Contrary to the way most of us think, when our emotions aren’t raw, the public seemed to welcome the gruesome act of vigilante violence. After the incident, pieces of the lynching ropes were sold to the public. Though the San Jose News declined to publish pictures of the lynching, it condoned the act in an editorial. Seventeen-year-old Anthony Cataldi bragged that he had been the leader of the mob but he was not held accountable for his participation. At Stanford University, a professor asked his students to stand and applaud the lynching. Perhaps most disturbing, Governor Rolph publicly praised the mob. “The best lesson ever given the country,” said Governor Rolph. “I would like to parole all kidnappers in San Quentin to the fine, patriotic citizens of San Jose.” I understand the anger, but not the method. While the two killers might have deserved the death penalty for their crimes, this was not the way it should have happened. Nevertheless, I guess justice was served…even if it was vigilante justice.

Obscene language has not always been the norm where language is concerned, and in fact I don’t think most people talked that way even in the not so distant past of the Old West…certainly not in the way Hollywood would have us believe. Those were different times, and to hear the actors dropping the “f bomb” or the “s word” would be…almost laughable if it weren’t for the fact that it should be insulting. I’m not prudish, and I know that things have changed over the years, but when I hear someone cussing at their children, or using cuss words as, just another part of the conversation, I am sometimes shocked and offended. I don’t like to be one of those people who are offended by just everything, but perhaps if we were offended by obscene language, some of the much more shocking things that go on in our world wouldn’t be happening at all. When the Dick Van Dyke Show was on television, the couple had twin beds and the word pregnant couldn’t even be said on television. We all knew that most couples don’t have separate beds or separate rooms, but it went to show the more wholesome, clean cut, decent world we lived in then.

By the 1920s, it seemed to begin to be understood that men, anyway, were going to use foul language at times, but they had better watch their mouth in front of the ladies, because it was a law that they not offend those ladylike ears with such harsh words. In fact, on October 8, 1921, a man was charged of speaking offensively in front of a lady and found guilty for using obscene language in front of a woman in Ohio. Now, if you could be fined or sent to spend a few days in jail for using foul language in front of a woman, I think people would be much more likely to watch their tongue. In my parents home, foul language would result in having your mouth washed out with soap. I guess that somehow Mom thought that would clean up the language, and in reality, it did. I don’t say that my sisters and I never used cuss words as teenagers, because everyone goes through rebellious times, but I can tell you that we did not do it in front of our parents, and our boyfriends were told that they had better not talk that way either, if they wanted to continue to date our parents daughter. Cussing was one of the fastest ways for a guy to get on the wrong side of our parents.

These days, it seems that everyone cusses, including children. I hear some of the things coming out of the mouths of little kids, and I almost can’t help having my jaw drop to the floor. Television shows consider some language as being acceptable, and then amazingly they bleep out other words that are not any worse than the ones they have allowed. Obscene gestures are the normal way to tell everyone in sight that you are not happy with what is going on around you, and screaming obscenities is the newest way to express your disgust. Some people have wondered if “swearing is a sign of a limited vocabulary” or is it just a way of “obscenitizing” our world. Either way I find that the loss of eloquent speech is very sad indeed.

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