Law and order was a serious problem in the Wild West in the 19th century. Several offences, including animal stealing, was punishable by death. One of the most severe judges was Isaac Parker who served for twenty-one years at Fort Smith, Arkansas. He passed the death sentence on 168 men and four women, of whom, 88, all men, were executed. As a result of these deaths, Parker was given the name the "Hanging Judge". George Maledon, was Parker's Lord High Executioner and executed 60 of the men.

In 1889 the Supreme Court judged that people sentenced to death could appeal. Of the 46 people convicted by Parker, who took their cases to Washington, 30 were judged to have been victims of unfair trials. Parker complained that the "appellate courts exist mainly to stab the trial judge in the back". Parker defended himself by arguing "I never hanged a man. The law hanged him. I was only its instrument."

A large number of men were executed without trial. This became known as lynching and was a common punishment for horse and cattle rustlers.

Primary Sources

(1) William Wilson was found guilty of murdering Robert Casey in 1875. It was believed that Casey had been killed on the orders of James Dolan. Attempts by Dolan to protect Wilson were unsuccessful and he became the first man in Lincoln County to be executed. The event was described by the editor of the New Mexican on 15th December, 1875.

The prisoner then arraying himself in his funeral clothes, the procession moved toward the gallows. Before mounting the platform, Wilson shook hands with several whom he recognized, and mounted the scaffold calm and collected. The escort was drawn in line fronting the gallows, whilst four men dismounted and kept back the crowd, which by this time had increased considerably.

Whilst on the scaffold the death warrant was read first in English and then in Spanish, after which the dying declaration written and signed by Wilson was read and translated. He then received the extreme unction and the merciful sheriff declared that the execution would be stayed for half an hour.

However, the leading men of the town, actuated by pity for the poor unfortunate, entered such a vigorous protest against such barbarous proceedings that the sheriff went ahead with the execution. The priest descended from the scaffold, the black cap was adjusted, and the prisoner, with hands tied behind and the noose around his neck, awaited his doom.

The sheriff descended from the scaffold, and in an instant justice, so long outraged, was avenged, and the perpetrator of one of the foulest murders which ever disgraced a civilized community was no more.

After hanging nine and a half minutes, the body was cut down and placed in the coffin, when it was discovered that life was not yet extinct. A rope was fastened around his neck, and the crowd drew the inanimate body from the coffin and suspended it from the gallows where it hanged for twenty minutes longer. It was then cut down and placed in the coffin and buried.