May 6

This Day in History

Old West

May 6, 1911:

Hangman George Maledon dies

George Maledon, the man who executed at least 60 men for "Hanging Judge" Isaac Parker, dies from natural causes in Tennessee.

Few men actively seek out the job of hangman and Maledon was no exception. Raised by German immigrants in Detroit, Michigan, Maledon moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas, in his late teens and joined the city police force. He joined the Union Army during the Civil War, and he then returned to Fort Smith where he was appointed a U.S. deputy marshal. The town also had occasional need of an executioner, and Maledon agreed to take on the grisly task in addition to his regular duties as a marshal.

Maledon wound up with more business than he expected. 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, 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.

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."

In all, Maledon is believed to have hanged about 60 men and to have shot five more who tried to escape. 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.

After Parker died from diabetes in 1896, Maledon met a publicity-seeking attorney named J. Warren Reed, who had written a lurid account of the Fort Smith court entitled Hell on the Border. Attracted by the promise of fame and money, Maledon joined Reed in a promotional tour for the book. He willingly played the role of the ghoulish hangman, displaying ropes he had preserved and telling which were used to execute various outlaws.

After a year of touring, Maledon tired of the limelight and used his earnings to purchase a farm. A small man with a weak constitution, he did not have the strength to work the farm profitably, and soon after entered a soldier's home at Johnson City, Tennessee, where he remained until his death in 1911.

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