- Associated Press - Sunday, October 26, 2014

FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) — The thick rope nooses no longer swing from the gallows near downtown Fort Smith, yet they still play a role in area history.

Officials with the Fort Smith National Historic Site no longer display the ropes similar to the ones used by Judge Isaac C. Parker’s court to hang convicted criminals for anniversary programs at the park’s gallows. Instead, Fort Smith National Historic Site park rangers are using the nooses as interpretive and educational props during visitor programs inside Parker’s courtroom, 301 Parker Ave., the Times Record reported (http://bit.ly/1ouR6KE ).

“Before, we would have the nooses displayed (at the gallows), but only on anniversary programs of executions,” said Michael L. Groomer, chief of Interpretation and Resource Management for the Fort Smith National Historic Site. “It would be at 2 p.m. in July back then, and the noose would be hanging there, almost staring at the visitors. Suddenly, the noose became something that overshadowed the program.

“It was almost as if it didn’t matter what the ranger said, because people would only focus on the noose,” he added. “But the story is so much bigger than the noose. Yes, the noose was one of the tools with Judge Parker’s courtroom, but not everything ended with a noose.”

Groomer said the plan to stop displaying the nooses at the gallows for anniversary programs wasn’t based on a safety concern.

“Since the nooses were only displayed for anniversary programs, and not all of the time, there wasn’t the thought that the nooses were a safety concern,” he said.

Visitors both from the area and from other states and countries often are surprised to learn that of the 13,000 cases Parker presided over, only 116 of those cases resulted in a sentence that called for hanging, Groomer said.

“And of those 116 cases, only 79 were actually hanged,” he said. “And contrary to what some people believe, none of those hanged were women or children.”

Though four women were sentenced to hanging, none was executed. Two had their sentences commuted to life in prison by the president; one had her sentence commuted by the Supreme Court; and one received a new trial and was acquitted, information on the national park website states.

By showcasing the nooses inside the court for visitors, officials at the Fort Smith historic site hope to shift much of the public’s attention to the trials, as well as the stories behind those trials. Lisa Confrad Frost, Fort Smith National Historic Site superintendent, said this shift in visual presentation will present a more accurate - and ultimately more satisfying - experience for those who attend the park, which sees about 87,000 visitors annually.

“The stories about and behind the executions hold such a deep meaning,” she said. “The nooses are a part of that, but we want the tools to help people make a deeper connection with the great history we have here.”

The plan to stop showcasing the nooses at the gallows for anniversary programs stemmed in part from some of the public’s comments, Groomer said.

Parker was against the death penalty, a fact that also comes as news to many park visitors, Groomer said.

“Judge Parker only let the hangings be carried out because it was the law,” he said. “There were only two reasons why someone was hanged - for murder and for rape, or what we say are crimes against women when we have school groups here.”

School groups and other visitors are first taken into the courtroom, where they “learn the whole story” behind the trials, convictions and executions, Groomer said.

“They learn about the families involved and much more; it’s the full context of the story,” he said. “The noose still is important - we let people see it, and they can touch it here in the courtroom - but there’s much more.”

Groomer said he, Frost and their co-workers undergo a “facilitated dialogue”-type interaction with visitors.

“With that, we ask people, ‘What are your thoughts on the trial?’” he said. “We encourage people to ask questions because people have different ideas about the judicial system.”

By demonstrating the nooses only in the courtroom, Fort Smith National Historic Site officials also hope to dispel myths that surround the park and Fort Smith, Groomer said.

“I once heard a man say, ‘I heard that Judge Parker hanged a child for stealing a loaf of bread,’ but that isn’t true,” he said. “And there’s the rumor that Judge Parker would watch the hangings from his office window, but that simply isn’t true. Judge Parker’s office window was completely on the opposite side of the grounds, facing (north), and he didn’t watch the executions.”

Pat Schmidt, a park ranger at the Fort Smith National Historic Site, said she hopes visitors learn how Parker’s rulings and beliefs continue to shape many areas of the judicial system. Some of those cases involved claims and rulings of self-defense, which inspired lawmakers and prosecutors to re-evaluate the realms of self-defense and other areas, she said.

“Judge Parker’s influence continues today, and it’s exciting to see people today make that connection,” Schmidt said.

Frost said by giving more focus to Parker’s cases and less focus on the actual noose ropes, the park’s programs can continue to grow and help attract more individuals, families and groups to the park.

“We want people to say, ‘I went to Fort Smith, and now I know why Congress set that place aside as a special place,’” she said.

Groomer nodded in agreement.

“Yes, absolutely,” he said. “May they never say, ‘I went to Fort Smith, and all I saw was a noose.’”

___

Information from: Southwest Times Record, http://www.swtimes.com/

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