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Busting the Myth and the Responsibility to Relevance!

The Fort Smith Museum of History has created "UnMasked": Fundraising From A Distance, a virtual fundraiser that actively seeks donations to recover from our COVID-19 closure and aspires to lay the groundwork for 2021 as we move toward a mission that includes greater virtual accessibility and a vision that expands the museum and carries our mission outside the museum's walls.

How does that relate to myth busting and relevance, you ask? Let's take a look at one of the most familiar stories in Fort Smith, the origin story of the legendary Judge Isaac C. Parker. Locally, Parker is second nature to anyone who grew up here or has knowledge of Fort Smith history. He's like the ancestor your grandparents talked about; the one you feel like you know through stories, familiar images, and the hand-me-down remarks about his greatness. Maybe he's even the ancestor you tire of hearing about; is he the only subject that comes up when you talk about the history of that side--Fort Smith's lasting legacy? Judge Parker holds his own in the era he dominates in our history. Regional visitors, old-west enthusiasts, and guests dropping in from greater regional areas know Parker. He's the one, the icon of Fort Smith history. Many visitors even comment that they long for a return to frontier justice, that if Parker's style of punishment was still part of judicial system today, we'd have less problems with criminals. That's a big statement and where the myth of his legacy begins. It's also where the mission of the Fort Smith Museum of History as stewards of history, begins.

You may know Judge Parker's story? He arrived in 1875, appointed by President Grant, and tasked with the job of cleaning up a corrupt court and establishing law and order in the State of Arkansas and in Indian Territory. Parker was a federal judge, with an expansive jurisdiction, his word and decisions final. Only the Supreme Court or the President could overturn his sentences. Judge Parker became synonymous with the moniker, "The Hangin' Judge", a sensational headline splashed across east coast newspapers and given to the man who imparted death to those who had committed heinous crimes, capital crimes. A well-known quote of Parker's is, "I never hanged a man, the law did." That statement seems to indicate that Judge Parker's decisions were backed by the law of the land at the time, not a decision based on his personal beliefs as so many who visit our museum assume. Parker presided over this area for 21 years, until his death in 1896. His legacy is often given as, "Judge Parker tried 13,490 cases. In more than 8,500 of these cases, the defendant either pleaded guilty or was convicted at trial. Parker sentenced 160 people to death; 79 were executed." The myth that Judge Parker was a hard-liner death penalty supporter who watched the executions from his office windows is a story that is re-told with frequency, often times by a well-meaning visitor who fancies the ideal of frontier justice as a modern day solution. And not to forget, more Deputy U.S. Marshals were killed in the line of duty during Parker's tenure than at any other time during the history of the Marshal's Service. Fort Smith will soon see the opening of the US Marshal Museum partially because of that association. The idea of that strength in law and order carried out so boldly was retold as a type of western myth in western books, movies, and in the early tourist industry of Fort Smith. And, it stuck.

The above tale of Judge Parker is the very brief story of Parker's job and a perception of who he was in that occupation. His background speaks of more varied goals. He arrived in Fort Smith as a former Representative from Missouri, elected to the House of Representatives as part of the Republican Party in 1871. He served during the Civil War, in a pro-Union home guard unit, eventually rising to the rank of Corporal. Parker's record during his time in office reflects a man attempting progressive changes. During his first term, Parker helped secure pensions for veterans in his district. He sponsored a failed bill designed to