An interview with Jerry Akins, author

Q. Why did you choose this particular aspect of Arkansas history?

A. I was asked by the editor of The Fort Smith Journal of History, Amelia Martin, to write a series of articles on the executions. Prior to that, I had written an article on General Thomas Adams Smith, for whom the fort is named, after I met Thomas Adams Smith IV. Before that, my interest had been in the historic Bordello Row in Fort Smith. But, the court research soon became my major interest. There is nothing like reading the newspaper reports, pre-trial hearings and transcripts firsthand. The language style and grammar of that period were enough to hook me.

Q. Did you find any surprises in your research about Judge Parker? If so what?

A. I found that Parker was an unbelievably hardworking man. Besides presiding over the court six days a week from 9 AM until the docket was finished, sometimes 9 PM or later, he was on several boards and committees. In reading the newspapers, I would see his name in school board meetings, Fair Committee, fraternal organizations, delivering a speech at the county fair, etc. Isaac Parker was neither demon nor saint. But I suppose he could be seen as either, depending on where you stood in the courtroom; accused, accuser or family of either.

Q. How did you go about your research and what resources did you use?

A. Fortunately, I discovered that the truth had never been written about the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas in any of the many books on the subject. In my first search for sources, I met National Parks Ranger Eric Leonard, who was writing his masters thesis on a parallel subject. He was comparing local newspaper articles to the so-called history books on the court.

In some years, there were several newspapers in Fort Smith that still exist on microfilm. Local newspapers were accurate in their reporting. Some articles looked like they were copied from the court transcript. They sometimes made mistakes, but they usually corrected them in the next edition. If they didn’t, they might be called out by their competitors. Newspapers and National Archives records were, almost, my exclusive sources of information. I used maps of the area and, to add clarity, I used calendars to establish exact day or date.

I found that family stories may be the least dependable sources of accurate information. Interviews of some of the old lawmen made in the early 1900’s and 1930’s don’t always agree with established facts. I think they had fun telling exciting stories to young reporters and "embellished" is a kind word to use to describe their tellings.

Q. What do you think the stories of these criminals tell us about Arkansas history?

A. These were violent times. People were far from the law and sometimes took advantage of the isolation or administered the law personally. The worst of the worst escaped across the western border, where, until the U. S. District Court was established, there was little law.

The newspapers of the day went to great lengths to tell the world that these criminals were not from Arkansas, but from what Valentine Dell, editor of The New Era, labeled Pandemonium, the Indian Territory. The U. S. District Court had jurisdiction over the Indian Territory and part of the counties of Arkansas, but only over federal crimes. All of the violent crimes were committed in Indian Territory. Only crimes such as postal violations, counterfeiting, bankruptcies, etc. were adjudicated by the Court in Arkansas.

Q. Did you get an idea of how the general public felt about capital punishment during this time?

A. At that time, there were some who thought that capital punishment should be banned, but generally it was accepted as just punishment. The attitude seems to be that this was the completion of a cycle; born of a creator, sinned, ask forgiveness, die and return to the creator to be judged. At the end of all of Judge Parker’s sentencings, he reminded the condemned person that he was going to stand in judgment before that higher power and admonished him to make use of the time he had remaining to ask forgiveness of his God.

I was interested to note that during President Rutherford B. Hayes’s administration, there was the longest period without executions -- 3 years, 8 months and 3 weeks. All of the people convicted of capital crimes during his administration had their sentences commuted to life in prison. Hayes and his wife belonged to some liberal organizations, but I could never find what his stance was on capital punishment.

On the subject of periods between executions, I noted at the end of several articles how long it would be until the next execution. There were 86 people executed in 39 execution events in 23 years. So, obviously, there were long intervals between. Sometimes only a month intervened, usually more. There were no hangings for the entire year of 1895.