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Cover Story January 15th, 2009

  Untitled Document

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He was a short guy, that George Maledon fella. Five foot five inches, 160 pounds. He was described as a "wispy" little fellow, with dark eyes and hair, a fair complexion and a long beard. Quiet in nature, he rarely smiled and was almost always dressed in black, an "appearance" that would soon seem appropriate to his new profession.

I’m sure he thought that long scraggly beard made him very handsome. Most fellas who wear long scraggly beards probably think they’re really handsome. They’re not. They look terribly unkempt and quite slovenly.

But I digress.

Whatever George Maledon’s appearance, his image brought fear to many a hardened criminal. For George Maledon, you see, was one of the more prolific hangmen in America’s history. In fact, he had pretty much earned the name, the Prince of Hangmen, while serving as Judge Isaac Parker's chief executioner during the lawless days when Parker served as judge of the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas. You’ll remember Judge Isaac Parker. He had a title too. He was known as “The Hanging Judge.”

Let’s back up a little bit.

In the area known as Fort Smith, Arkansas, during the late 1800's, extraordinary men were needed to stem the growing tide of lawlessness in the Indian Territory. So it was that in 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed a young prosecuting attorney named Isaac Parker to be the federal judge of the Western District of Arkansas headquartered at Fort Smith, Arkansas.

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Courtroom of Judge Isaac C. Parker

The Western District was one of the most notoriously corrupt in the country, and it included the crime-ridden Indian Territory to the west (in present-day Oklahoma). Indian Territory had become a refuge for rustlers, murderers, thieves, and fugitives, and Parker's predecessor often accepted bribes to look the other way. Assigned an unprecedented force of 200 U.S. marshals to restore order, Parker began a massive dragnet that led to the arrest of many criminals. A friend of the Indians and more sympathetic to the victims of crimes than the criminals, Parker doled out swift justice in his court. In his first months in session he tried 91 defendants and sentenced eight of them to hang.

Against Parker's verdicts, there was no appeal, except to the President himself, and Parker's unique position did in fact place him where he could, if so minded, block such an appeal. Should Parker allow an appeal, Grant would naturally be reluctant to interfere with the decisions of his own appointee, especially when one remembers that Parker maintained powerful friends on Capitol Hill. In 1889 it became possible to appeal a case to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Much has been written of Parker and his endless stream of quotations, including "Do equal and exact justice" and the famous "I never hanged a man, it was the law." But whose law was it? Was it the law of the land, or Parker's that could send men to their death, sometimes without benefit of capable counsel?

Judge Isaac C. Parker and George J. Maledon would come together; two names synonymous with each other. The "Hanging Judge," and the "Prince of Hangmen" — linked together and carrying out their professions with a fluidity that could be envied by the law courts of today. These men ensured that justice was both swift and certain, Parker supplying the means and Maledon the end.

In 31 years on the bench, Judge Parker tried 13,490 cases, 344 of which were capital crimes. 9,454 cases resulted in guilty pleas or convictions. Over the years, Judge Parker sentenced 168 men and four women, of whom 88, all men, were executed. The rest died in jail, appealed or were pardoned.

As a result of these deaths, Parker was given the name the "Hanging Judge." For 22 of those 31 years, Maledon executed 60 of the men and was forced to shoot five prisoners during escape attempts, two of which were killed.

It was Maledon's job to carry out Judge Parker's death sentences. Paid $100 for each hanging, Maledon willingly accepted the work. He tried to be a conscientious hangman who minimized suffering with a quick death. Maledon said he considered the job "honorable and respectable work and I mean to do it well."

Subsequent sensational accounts of the Fort Smith "Hanging Judge" unfairly painted Parker as a cruel sadist with Maledon as his willing henchman. Yet, it is well to keep in mind that 65 marshals were also killed in the line of duty attempting to bring law and order to Indian Territory during Parker's term.

Parker ordered the building of gallows that could accommodate six men at the same time. For example, on the morning of 3rd September, 1875, Maledon executed six men: Sam Fooy, a half-bred who had killed a school teacher during a robbery; Smoker Mankiller, a Cherokee; Edmund Campbell, a black farmer found guilty of killing a Native American; James H. Moore, a horse-thief; Daniel Evans, who had murdered a man for his boots; and John Wittington, who had clubbed a man to death during a drunken argument.

For three years, between 1873 and 1876, these executions upon the gallows were made public, drawing thousands of people from not only the surrounding areas, but sometimes from across the nation. During this time, a total of 22 men were hanged in seven different public displays. Several times there were multiple executions. As the morbid gawkers gathered around the twenty foot wide scaffold the question was not "who was going to be hanged first," but rather, "would they be executed at the same time?"

George J. Maledon was born in Germany on June 10, 1830. He migrated with his parents to Detroit, Michigan, when he was still a child. When he grew up, he headed westward where he worked as a Fort Smith, Arkansas, police officer. When the Civil War broke out he enlisted in the Arkansas Light Artillery, serving in its 1st Battalion.

After the war, Maledon returned to Fort Smith where he worked as a deputy sheriff before being hired as a turnkey at the federal jail in May, 1871. The next year, he was appointed as a "special deputy" in charge of execution of the condemned prisoners. In no time, he was given the title of the "Prince of the Hangmen" by the local newspaper - the Fort Smith Elevator, who was only too happy to publish each and every morbid detail of Maledon's handiwork for the "entertainment" of its readers.

The hanging event cited above had been widely publicized in the media and a week before the execution was to occur, the city began to fill up with strangers from all over the country. Reporters from Little Rock, St. Louis and Kansas City flocked to Fort Smith, as well as newspapermen who traveled far from eastern and northern cities to catch the “scoop.” By the time the event was to take place, more than 5,000 people watched as the six men were marched from the jail to the gallows.

Seated along the back of the gallows, their death warrants were read to them and each was asked if they had any last words. When the preliminaries were over, the six were lined up on the scaffold while executioner George Maledon adjusted the nooses around their necks. The trap was sprung; all six died at once at the end of the ropes. The Fort Smith Independent was the first newspaper to report the event on September 3, 1875, with the large column heading reading: "Execution Day!!"

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Other newspapers around the country reported the event a day later. These press reports shocked people throughout the nation. "Cool Destruction of Six Human Lives by Legal Process" screamed the headlines. From a contemporary newspaper account of Maledon and his practice:

With Maledon the hanging of men was a business and an art. Few men who fell through the trap of the Fort Smith gallows died of strangulation—it was nearly always a case of a broken neck. His willingness to perform a duty shirked by most federal employees kept Maledon his position with each change of marshals, until he finally retired to make room for a democrat

While he served as hangman Maledon twice hanged six men at one time, the trap of the gallows being of sufficient size to accommodate six without crowding. Three times he executed sets of five and as many times executed four at once. Four times three men were legally by Maledon and double executions wee too numerous for his attention in after years.

From his gruesome service he has saved enough to buy a fine farm in Kansas and there he will pass his declining days and peace and quietness. He had hoped to hang his 100th man before retiring, but subjects have been coming in rather slowly in recent years and Maledon became discouraged. Then, too, there is not so much money and hanging men nowadays as there is in farming.

Maledon says he believes his record of 88 hanged is safe anyway from being broken by any other man, so he will have the consolation in his retirement of knowing that he is championed of the world in his line. He loves to talk about his work and took us much pride in and as a carpenter would in a neat job he had done. He followed a regular system and seldom had a mishap.

A hanging by Maledon was worth going miles to see. It was a thing of scientific beauty. From the moment the subject began to prepare for the march to the scaffold the little Dutch hangman (editor’s note: Maledon was born in Germany, not Holland) was at his heels. He had been up before daylight, greasing his ropes, oiling the hinges of the gallows trap and adjusting and readjusting his noose. He follows the subject to the gallows and when the foot of the steps leading up to it was reached the little hangman would trot around and trip jauntily up the stairway ahead of all the rest. From that moment Maledon's face was a study for a physiognomist. He heeded not the spectators nor anyone on the scaffold except the subject and he moved around him with an air of ownership. Sometimes, if the subject was slow and backward, Maledon would encourage him with the a few well-chosen words of inpatient hurry, as:

"Oh, come on now; it's nothing at all. You will not feel it and I'll have it all over in a jiffy."

Maledon would stand the victim on the trap and then generally would take a chew of tobacco and stand with the noose ready in his hands while the clergyman prayed. After that it was not a minute until George had the noose fairly adjusted, the black cap over the head, and the trap door sprung. As the body hung limp and swayed gently back and forth the little hangman would walk around the square hole of the trap with his hands on his hips, looking down at the swinging body and surveying it critically from every point of view, while he chewed tobacco anxiously and vigorously and spat down through, the hole past the body. When Maledon had from two to six to hang at one time, he attended to it all alone, adjusting the noose with his own hands.

Maledon's noose has fallen to George Lawson, who tried his apprentice hand on the notorious Cherokee Bill the other day. He made a good job of it, for Bill's neck was broken without an abrasion of the skin. For sometime Lawson had been employed as a guard in the jail. As an executioner he works slower than Maledon and lacks the easy movement on the gallows that the old hangman had. He is a man about 45 years of age, 5'9" in height and weighs 180 lbs.. He is married and lives in a little college beside the old fort almost under the caves in the jail. His son Will, who has taken his place as a jail guard, tied the knot for Cherokee Bill and assisted in the preliminaries.

This event earned Judge Isaac Parker the nickname of “The Hanging Judge” and called his court the "Court of the Damned." Ironically, though the public flocked to watch these gruesome displays, Maledon was shunned by the community, as the town folk were afraid to associate with the "Prince of Hangmen."

However, there was one man who was morbidly attracted to Maledon's occupation - Heck Thomas. On one occasion while Thomas was at Fort Smith, he was asking Maledon for all the particulars when the executioner proudly displayed a collection of leg irons, straps, and ropes that were actually utilized in some of the hangings.

When showing Thomas one rope that had been used in eleven hangings, Maledon commented "It is made of the finest hemp fiber, hand made in St. Louis and treated to keep it from slipping."

When Thomas questioned him about the type of knot that Maledon used for the executions, George, seemingly pleased to show off his expertise, said:

"You see, a big knot is necessary to have a humane hanging. If it doesn't break the man's neck when he drops, he strangles. That isn't a pretty sight. He just kicks and twists a lot."

He then used Heck to demonstrate the proper way to hang a man. The Knot is put just behind the left ear in the hollow behind the jaw bone. The rest of the rope is draped over the condemned person's head to hold the knot vertical so it will snap the neck when he drops. "It always works for me" George said.

When the time came, the clergymen were in the cells with the prisoners. The U.S. Marshal then entered and read the Death Warrant. The prisoners were led to the gallows and a short religious service was held. Then the noose was placed around the neck. The prisoner was allowed a few final words and the straps were attached around the prisoners hands and legs. The black hood was placed over the head and the knot adjusted by the hangman. The hangman took his place by the bolts. At the given sign, the bolt was pulled and the prisoner dropped. He was left hanging for a half hour. The hangman and his guards removed the body and placed it in the coffin.

On the morning of the three hangings which was Heck Thomas' lesson in hanging, Heck saw that all three heads hung oddly to the left and the bodies never made a twitch. He remembered George Maledon's words about the rope and the knots, "It always works for me."

(Heck Thomas would go on to succeed George Maledon as an executioner.)

But for the curious onlookers, these public events would be short-lived. In 1878, a 16 foot tall fence was built around the gallows and the executions became "private affairs," usually having less than 50 spectators. The only execution that Maledon refused to carry out was that of Sheppard Busby, a U.S. Deputy Marshal, who had been convicted of killing another marshal by the name of Barney Conneley, when Busby tried to arrest Conneley for adultery. Maledon, who had had many associations with Busby in the past, refused to carry out his duty in this one instance, and the execution was performed by Deputy G. S. White.

After more than two decades carrying out these gruesome tasks, Maledon retired from the federal court in 1894 and opened a grocery business in Fort Smith. But he was yet to face one of his most difficult life situations, when the next year his eighteen year old daughter, Annie, was murdered by Frank Carver. Annie met Carver in Fort Smith while he was in Fort Smith being tried on whiskey charges. The two soon began a short love affair which led to her following him to Muskogee, Oklahoma, where the young girl was surprised to find that Carver was already married to an Indian woman. When the two entered into a heated argument on March 25, 1885, a drunken Carver shot the girl. Seriously wounded, she was taken back to Fort Smith, where she died three weeks later, on May 17th.

Finding himself before Judge Isaac Parker, Carver was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang. However, Carver hired a fancy lawyer, who soon appealed the case to the Supreme Court, and the sentence was changed to life in prison.

George Maledon was so disgusted by the decision that he left Fort Smith and took a "show" on the road where he displayed relics from hangings, including ropes, pieces of the gallows' beam, and photographs of some of the nation's most notorious outlaws. Setting up a tent in various cities, hundreds of people flocked to the show to hear Maledon speak and view the gruesome displays. Just before he left Fort Smith, Maledon was asked if his conscience ever bothered him about the hangings or if he feared the spirits of the departed. To this he replied, "No, I have never hanged a man who came back to have the job done over."

By 1905, Maledon's health was seriously failing and he entered an old soldiers home in Humboldt, Tennessee, where he spent the remainder of his days. On June 5, 1911, just shy of his 88th birthday, Maledon died and was buried at the Johnson City Cemetery. Maledon has the dubious honor of having executed more men than any other executioner in U.S. history.

The final execution in Fort Smith occurred on July 30, 1896. Eleven and a half months later, the original gallows was demolished and the debris completely burned. However, a new gallows was reconstructed at the original site in 1981, as part of the Fort Smith National Historic Site. The site also includes the barracks, courthouse, commissary, and jail building, and a visitor's center that focuses both on Fort Smith's military history, as well as the years that it served as the federal court.

Hanging was the virtually universal method of execution in America up to the 1890's. It was the only form of execution allowed under the original constitution. It became progressively less commonly used through the 20th century, as states adopted the electric chair or the gas chamber, as supposedly more humane alternatives to it. Utah offered execution by firing squad as an alternative and most prisoners chose it.

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Grover Cleveland

Approximately 13,350 people have been executed by judicial hanging from 1622 to the present day, most being hanged in public and usually drawing a large crowd of people to watch. The majority were for murder, although 487 men were hanged for rape in 23 states between 1800 and 1960. Up to the end of the nineteenth century, hangings were mostly local events and not always fully recorded.

The youngest person hanged in America was Hannah Ocuish who was 12 years and 9 months old and was described as a half breed Indian girl. She was executed on December 20, 1786, for the murder of a 6 year old girl whom she had beaten to death after an earlier argument. One American hangman did, however, go on to become President. Grover Cleveland was Sheriff of Erie in the 1870's and hanged 28 year old Peter Morrissey on September 6, 1872 for murder. A few months later on February 14, 1873, he officiated at the hanging of another murderer - Jack Gaffney. Cleveland was elected President of the United States in 1884.

Master Sergeant John C. Woods (see photo, below) was probably America's most prolific hangman, being employed as the US military executioner and also responsible for the hanging of 10 of the leading Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, Germany in October 1946. He is quoted as saying . . .“I hanged those 10 Nazis and am proud of it!”

Woods is reputed to have carried out a staggering total of 358 executions, although around 200 seems a more probable figure.

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