Imagine sitting in the U.S. District Court at Fort Smith in the late 19h century listening to charged testimony in the murder trial of James Casharago.
Presiding is Judge Isaac C. Parker, known throughout the vast area of the southwest United States as the “hanging judge” for his penchant of sending miscreants to the gallows. During his 21 year tenure on the bench, Judge Parker sent hundreds to prison and sentenced 160 men to death by hanging.
In this setting, young Casharago, a citizen of Faulkner County, pleaded not guilty to a charge of first degree murder in the death of a fellow traveler. Testimony in the case was tenuous at best and in fact, not relevant in several instances as the defense pushed for an acquittal.
Judge Parker could not be swayed and often issued faulty rulings in favor of the prosecution. Casharago, thus, was to become the last man to die on the gallows at the hands of the irascible “hanging judge” Here in his courtroom, Judge Parker meted out his version of justice indiscriminately, often ignoring salient testimony that ran counter to his personal beliefs.
Casharago, the unfortunate victim of Parker’s courtroom justice, was removed from Fort Smith and buried in the Thorne Cemetery in Greenbrier. There he lies in the remote setting near his mother and father.
Judge Parker has been described by some as short-tempered
and strident. In the late 19th century, the judge ruled the borders of northwest Arkansas on the edge of the vast territory that was to become Oklahoma during the famous land rush. He had several U. S. Marshals under his control, officers like Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves who tracked down killers and thieves in Arkansas and in the Oklahoma territory more than 100 years ago.
The judge has been pictured as both a madman and a great jurist who brought law to what was a haven for the most vicious type of criminals. It is probable that Parker and the 200 U. S. marshals working from his court speeded the civilization of the land west of Arkansas, and yet he has been the subject of much criticism because of the courtroom methods he employed.
In the Casharago trial, the judge offered a one hour and twenty minutes charge to the jury. This was considered to be the “masterpiece of all of his many charges to petit juries.” Of 28 pages, 21 consisted entirely of how nature always finds ways to reveal the guilty and how “the judgment of honest men and of men with pure hearts and minds may read nature to prove the guilt of a murderer.” The last seven pages concerned charging the jury on how to determine guilt or innocence - mostly how to determine guilt.
Most of the evidence offered by the prosecution was given by witnesses of doubtful reputation. One of the major witnesses for the prosecution had been arrested five times in the previous two years, once for murder and twice for assault.
Parker was visibly pleased when the jury that deliberated overnight came back with a guilty verdict. Later on June 19, 1896, when he pronounced final judgment on Casharago, his sentiments were evident. “I have no doubt you contemplated this terrible and bloody murder long before you committed it…”
Casharago was 26 when he died. He was accused of being a horse thief and murderer of a close family friend, Zacharia Thatch. A copy of the trial record reveals that he was guilty by association basically. Officials found a blanket with dried blood in his possession after he had returned from Indian Territory. He had horses which belonged to Thatch, but Thatch was no where to be found.
Casharago claims that two men came several days prior and Thatch left with them, He claims he didn’t have anything to do with Thatch being murdered. The body was found in a shallow grave. A fire had been burned on top it to help disguise the grave.
The young man said he was guilty of many crimes in his life, but he did not kill Zacharia Thatch. But no one will ever know.
After the execution, the victim’s body was taken by friends to the old Thorne Cemetery. The flat stone there gives his name, the dates of his birth and death and has the words “Only God Knows”.
It was said that shortly after Judge Parker’s death on November of 1896, the gallows on which Casharago died was burned by the people of Fort Smith.