FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) — Cemeteries are full of stories, but historians have to do a little digging to find them.
After seeing a historical post at the Times Record Facebook page some time ago, a reader posed the question of what happened to those who were hanged at the Fort Smith gallows in the late 1800s. The Times Record reports that between the years 1873 and 1896, Judge Isaac C. Parker of the U.S. District Court of Western Arkansas sentenced 160 people to death for convictions of heinous crimes.
Cody Faber at the Fort Smith National Historic Site pointed to Oak Cemetery in Fort Smith as the final resting place for 28 of those 86 hanged men. Jerry Akins, author of “Hangin’ Times in Fort Smith: A History of Executions in Judge Parker’s Court,” offers a more detailed answer — potter’s field, the pauper grave section of Oak Cemetery. The football-size area on the south side of the Sexton House contains hundreds of graves.
“If the condemned had family, their bodies were turned over to the families for burial,” information from the Fort Smith National Historic Site states. “Prior to the mid-1880s, the federal court was burying the unclaimed on the former military reservation. Today, 28 of the condemned are buried in or near the potter’s field section of the Oak Cemetery here in Fort Smith.”
Most of the graves appear unmarked, but are more likely covered with dirt and grass due to their location on a hill. At least two of the small cast-iron markers, roughly 3-by-4 inches big, were located Friday with the help of Oak Cemetery Sexton Richard Lewis. No. 78 is next to the maintenance house, pushed up by an old cedar tree. Another, No. 15, is rusted and lying near the rear entrance of the Sexton House.
Thanks to a 1994 mapping and genealogy project of the cemetery by Sue Clark of Natural Dam, we know that No. 15 was Jno. L. Vacair, buried March 9, 1881. No. 78, however, could not be found among the 600-plus names in the listing. But using the numbers as a guide, No. 78 person was likely buried in 1884. Akins said he obtained a copy of the Oak Cemetery guide book from Carole Barger of the Fort Smith Historical Society. Barger recently died. Akins said he hopes her books, many of which may have been passed on by Amelia Martin before her passing, are saved and secured by the Fort Smith Historical Society.
James Wilkins, who has worked at Oak Cemetery for over 30 years, said about five or six of the markers have been caught and destroyed by the lawn mowers over the years. Lewis said a metal detector is used to find the grave markers if any digging is to be done in the potter’s field area. Oak Cemetery is one of the oldest in the state, founded in 1842, the year Fort Smith was incorporated as a city. It is maintained by the city of Fort Smith Parks & Recreation Department.
Also interred at Oak Cemetery are more than 100 U.S. Marshals, Deputy U.S. Marshals and court-appointed officials. Two of those Deputy U.S. Marshals are in the potter’s field: Hugh McGuire and Sheppard Busby. Busby, No. 668 in the potter’s field, was hanged and buried in 1892 for shooting another marshal who came to arrest Busby for adultery, Akins said.
“These guys worked on both sides of the law,” Akins said of some of the men in Parker’s court. “They were real Rooster Cogburns.”