The Real Wild West: Foley film the definitive story of ‘Hangin’ Judge’

The Real Wild West: Foley film the definitive story of ‘Hangin’ Judge’

Filmmaker Larry Foley admits that the story of “Indians, Outlaws, Marshals and the Hangin’ Judge” has largely been a regional one — until now. Now, his film by that name has elevated the “real story of Fort Smith [to] be considered up there with Deadwood, Tombstone and Dodge City when telling tales of the Wild West.”

Filmmaker Larry Foley directs Jennica Schwartzman in a scene from “Indians, Outlaws, Marshals and the Hangin’ Judge” shot in Fayetteville. (Courtesy Photo/James Brewer)

Foley’s film, released in 2020, is one of the featured films at the first Fort Smith International Film Festival Aug. 13-14. It’s already been screened or is scheduled for some 20 festivals, Foley says, as diverse as the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, the Will Rogers Motion Picture Festival, the Cowpokes International Film Festival and the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase. Just last weekend, the film won three awards at NewsFest International Film and Writers Festival in Las Vegas: Best Feature Documentary, Best Trailer and the Grand Festival Award for overall best film.

“Releasing a film during a pandemic has been a challenge,” says Foley, the film’s producer, director and writer, who is also a professor and chairman of the School of Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Arkansas. “Public screenings were virtually impossible. So we went the film festival route to get our documentary exposure. The festivals adapted and went virtual with their screenings, but at least we got it out there.

“It’s going to be fun to get to show ‘Indians, Outlaws, Marshals and the Hangin’ Judge,’ in person to the ‘hometown crowd’ where the story is set,” Foley adds. “I’m honored to be part of the inaugural Fort Smith International Film Festival, [in a place] where Judge Parker and his deputies reigned for more than two decades during a colorful and controversial time in American history.”

The story of Judge Isaac C. Parker, whose strict rule of law earned him the sobriquet “the hanging judge,” captured Foley’s attention way back when he was a Cub Scout on a field trip to the old federal courthouse in Fort Smith in the mid-1960s.

“I’ve done a few previous stories about the subject, but I’ve always wanted to produce the definitive documentary on Judge Parker and those Wild West days of the late 19th century,” he explains. “And I wanted to include the story of American Indians, from their point of view, the role they played, and how they got to what we now know as Oklahoma.

“The story wouldn’t leave me alone. So, here it is!”

Appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant, Isaac Charles Parker served as federal judge for the Federal Court of the Western District of Arkansas in Fort Smith from 1875 to 1896. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, his court was unique in the fact that he had jurisdiction over all of Indian Territory, covering more than 74,000 square miles.”

Longtime Fayetteville actor Bill Rogers, now living in Colorado, says he didn’t know much about Parker until he was cast to portray him in Foley’s film.

“I knew a few bits and pieces, primarily through a few articles, movies and books like ‘True Grit,’ and his reputation as the infamous ‘Hanging Judge,’” Rogers says. “I learned that he served 21 years, presided over almost 13,500 cases, sentenced 160 to death — of which around 80 or so were executed.

Portrayed by Jennica Schwartzman, 19th century reporter Ada Patterson steps off the Fort Smith trolley in Larry Foley’s new film. (Courtesy Photo/James Brewer)

“Judge Parker was a fascinating man of many layers and, in my opinion, a good man who had a most difficult job.”

“Judge Parker is a complicated, complex and at times, contradictory personality,” Foley appends. “The city was so sick of his sordid fame as the hanging judge that the mayor ordered the gallows burned down following his death. But that wasn’t the end of the story. [In 2019] Fort Smith dedicated a statue in his honor, celebrating Judge Parker, the community citizen.

“The stories of Indian removal that resulted in the federal court, the outlaws and the marshals — they are all remarkably American,” Foley adds. “You always start with a good story, and I knew we had that — a treasure chest full of them.”

So Foley undertook his research “with what we academics call the ‘literature’ review.”

“I read every book, newspaper article and story I could get my hands on,” he recalls. “I poured through documents and web pages and archives. I scoured for old photographs and films. When I came across the St. Louis Republic story from Sept. 6, 1896, written by Ada Patterson, I thought, ‘This might be the hook.’ I found the entire story archived at the Museum of Missouri History in St. Louis; the museum sent the microfilm to the UA Library; and when reading it, I instantly knew, ‘Yes! This is it!’”

Patterson, says Foley, was a 29-year-old reporter “known for covering sensational stories.” During her visit to Fort Smith, she interviewed Parker’s hangman, George Maledon, a jailer, a guard “and other characters that must have been hanging around the courthouse when she was in town,” he says.

Bill Rogers portrays Isaac C. Parker, the 19th century Fort Smith jurist known as the “hanging judge,” and Jennica Schwartzman is Ada Patterson, a reporter for the St. Louis Republic who came to interview him on his deathbed, in Larry Foley’s new film, “Indians, Outlaws, Marshals and the Hangin’ Judge.” (Courtesy Photo/James Brewer)

“I decided to tell the story in first person, beginning with a reenactment of Ada Patterson interviewing the infamous judge,” Foley explains. “Both Parker and Patterson were gripping story tellers. It’s not by accident that I decided Ada Patterson should narrate the story in first person, using her own words, much like the fictional Mattie Ross narrates the novel — and films — ‘True Grit.’”

Foley sought out California actress Jennica Schwartzman, who has appeared in Arkansas-made films “Gordon Family Tree,” “The Man In The Trunk” and “Parker’s Anchor,” to portray Patterson.

“I had the joy and pleasure of reading Ada Patterson’s real words,” she marvels. “I just can’t believe how much history we get to experience with her news story. Reading Ms. Patterson’s words, wearing period-accurate clothing, riding the trolley, walking in her footsteps, taking a walking tour she wrote specifically for me over 100 years later — it was all pretty overwhelming and the richest experience I’ve ever experienced on a film set. Larry Foley’s dedication to historical accuracy as well as his commitment to the artists to bring that journey to life in our own time with his full support — he really is a treasure of a storyteller.”


‘Indians, Outlaws, Marshals and the Hangin’ Judge’

WHEN — 4:30 p.m. Aug. 14

WHERE — 5 Star Productions as part of the Fort Smith International Film Festival

COST — $30 VIP, $10 advance general admission

INFO — 806-939-3049 or

Categories: Cover Story