Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog


Posted in Media, Memory by Andy Hall on December 23, 2010

The new Coen Brothers’ film True Grit opened today, and it looks to be worth the wait. The film is not a remake of the 1969 John Wayne classic, but a new telling of the story that is reportedly closer to the 1968 Charles Portis novel (read: darker). I saw the original film as a kid, but it doesn’t especially wear well; given the Coen Brothers’ track record of creating worlds populated by vivid — if not entirely likable — characters, this is a movie to see.

Last month Jennifer Bouldin, who lives and works in Fort Smith, Arkansas, posted a great article about the fact and fiction of that town as depicted in the film. The Coens and their production team seem to have taken considerable liberties with their depiction, but Dr. Bouldin nonetheless is excited about the film, as it’s likely to be a significant driver of local tourism just as its predecessor was. In the process of separating myth from truth, Bouldin corrects some misconceptions about both Fort Smith and its most infamous 19th century resident, Isaac Parker, the “Hanging Judge of Indian Territory:”

Parker is infamously known as “The Hangin’ Judge” because he sentenced 160 men and women to hang during his 21 years on the bench. Of those, 79 men were indeed executed in Fort Smith, more than by any other judge in American history.

Despite his moniker, Parker personally was against the death penalty. Instead he favored sending prisoners for rehabilitation back into society to a progressive detention center in Detroit. Considering that he heard 13,490 cases in 21 years, holding court six days a week for up to 10 hours a day, 160 death sentences is a small percentage of the total. His original jurisdiction was larger than the entirety of New England. Parker also did not decide the criminals’ fate—the jury decided the verdict and federal law determined the penalty, yet his is the name associated with the 79 men who were hanged in Fort Smith.

Bum rap.

Seventy-nine executed over the space of 21 years is about four per year, a rate that doesn’t quite justify Judge Parker’s morbid reputation. Go read the whole thing.