These weren’t the first public hangings ordered by the court at Fort Smith, seven had occurred since the court was established in 1871 and, in most respects, local citizens were in agreement on the most sensational one. That occurred August 15, 1873. Twenty four year old John Childers was to hang for slashing old Reyburn Wedding’s throat because he wouldn’t sell him his horse. Now, Childers was standing on the gallows platform as clouds gathered overhead. Just as the hangman pulled the lever and Childers fell through the trap door, a tremendous clap of thunder shook the ground and a bolt of lightning struck nearby followed by a cloudburst. “John Childers soul has gone to hell,” screamed a woman who promptly fainted. When hangings were discussed in Fort Smith after that, Childers introduction to the after-world was always ranked as the most dramatic. But despite the drama of Childers’ exit and the six other hangings, there were rumors of graft and mismanagement under Judge William Story and criminal acts in Indian Territory continued to escalate. Those involved with the judiciary system, including President Ulysses Grant, were not pleased.
After due consideration, a former judge and congressman from Missouri, Charles Isaac Parker, was chosen to replace Story. Parker was no novice at law enforcement in western Missouri he had experienced the bloody warfare of guerrillas like Quantrill and Anderson, as well as the criminal exploits of the James and Younger brothers. So, only eight days after his arrival at Fort Smith on May 10th, 1875, it became evident that there would be change. Eighteen persons appeared before him charged with murder, fifteen were convicted and six of those were sentenced to die on the gallows the following September.
The fact that six men would meet their maker, all at the same time in this frontier town of 2,500 drew nationwide publicity. Among others flocking to Fort Smith to observe this unprecedented spectacle were reporters from eastern cities. If, for reasons of his own, Judge Parker was making a statement, it resonated. There had been multiple public hangings before but not six at once. When the day arrived, attendance at this one described as being “a carnival-like atmosphere” exceeded 5,000. The hangman in charge was George Maledon, a wispy, diminutive man five foot six inches tall with a long beard. Maledon was hired in 1872 and would serve the court for the next 22 years. Maledon’s stage, the scaffold that had been constructed was 20 feet wide and long enough to accommodate as many as 12 condemned convicts at once, if and when necessary.
The situation that resulted in these hangings and others that followed was created by a conflict in federal laws and those applicable to Indian Territory. Indian authorities could not prosecute white citizens, and as a result, criminals from all walks of life and nationalities flowed into the Indian nations. The six condemned to die by Judge Parker reflected that diversity.
Thirty year old William Wittington spent the day drinking with J. J. Turner. Turner carried $100 with him as they left the bar and headed for home. As they neared Turner’s home, Wittington knocked him off his horse, slashed his throat, took the money and escaped to Texas. He was captured with a bloody knife and the money with blood on it.
Daniel Evans was convicted of killing William Seabolt while the two men were returning from Texas. When Evans was arrested he was wearing Seabolt’s boots and riding his horse.
Edmund Campbell was convicted of killing Lawson Ross and a young girl. The motive was revenge for a perceived wrong to Campbell that Ross had committed. The young girl died for witnessing the killing.
James Moore stole cattle and was chased by two deputy marshals. A gunfight broke out and Moore was wounded, captured and sentenced.
Nineteen year old Indian Smoker Mankiller was convicted of shooting and stabbing William Short to death after asking to see his gun. No motive for the crime was given. He had killed Indians before, but Short was a white man.
Samuel Fooy was convicted of shooting school teacher John Naff in the back of the head. hired for a fee of $200. The murder took place near the Salt Works on the Illinois River.
The hangings that day reflected Judge Isaac Parker’s determination to send a message, enforce the law and maintain order over the 74,000 square miles of Indian Territory. And, over the next 22 years, aided by 200 deputy marshals, he accomplished his mission. By the beginning of the 20th century Indian Territory, soon to become Oklahoma, was a safe and lawful environment and would remain that way for the next hundred years. But since the turn of the 21st century violence nationally has returned, increasing dramatically. The past crimes of individuals pale in comparison to the mass shootings of the present. The judicial system is in gridlock. What would Parker do?
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.