Executions at Fort Smith, 1873 to 1896
For twenty-three years, the federal court carried out executions on the gallows
at Fort Smith. In the thirty-nine separate executions a total of eighty-nine
men were put to death after being found guilty of rape or murder. More men were
put to death by the U. S. Government in Fort Smith than in any other place in
WHY WERE EXECUTIONS CONDUCTED HERE?
The federal district court for the Western District of Arkansas was created in 1831, when Congress split the federal jurisdiction of the state into eastern and western portion. The jurisdiction of the Western district consisted of ten counties in the Western portion of the state of Arkansas and “all that portion of the Indian Territory within the present judicial district of Arkansas….” The jurisdiction of the court over the lands of the Indian Territory separated the Western District of Arkansas from all other federal district courts in American legal history. The Indian Territory consisted of lands west of the Mississippi river set aside by Congress during the 1830s to be used in relocation the five tribes of the southeast (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole and Muscogee (Creek)). In therir new lands, these tribes has established reservations, referred to as “Nations” each with constitutional governments, courts and law enforcement. However the treaties that each tribe held with the United States limited the sovereignty of the tribal governments and their legal authority. Crimes that involved U. S. Citizens as the victim or the accused fell under the jurisdiction of the federal court. Federal law of the time also requires a mandatory death sentences for convictions of rape or murder. This unusual situation would lead to the court seeing a volume of criminal cases unique within the federal judiciary.
At this location the federal court for the Western District of Arkansas between 1873 and 1896 carried out thirty-nine executions. The U. S. Marshal, the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in the federal court, oversaw each execution. He, not the district judge, carried out the death sentences. In fact, Judge Parker was never present at an execution.
Executions were typically
schedule for Friday afternoons. Present at each execution were court officials,
doctors, and ministers. After a short religious service, the condemned men were
given an opportunity to speak. Then, the arms and legs of each man would be
tied, the noose adjusted, and a black cap placed over their head. The trapdoor
would then be opened, and the condemned men would be “launched into eternity.”
EXECUTIONS COME TO AN END/Legacy OF EXECUTIONS
Beginning in 1883, the
jurisdiction of the Fort Smith court over the lands of the Indian Territory is
removed piece by piece by Congress. On September 1, 1896 the remaining
jurisdiction of the Western District of Arkansas over the lands of the
Indian Territory is removed.
With this change, the federal courts overwhelming criminal case load came to an
end, as well as the need for the gallows. The last execution occurred on
July 30, 1896. The gallows stood
unused for a year until the city of Fort Smith demolished the structure in
LIST OF EXECUTIONS AT FORT SMITH, 1873-1896
The first execution to occur under the tenure of Judge Isaac C. Parker
The only man to be executed for a rape conviction at Fort Smith