George Maledon, from the 1898 book,
“Hell on the Border,” courtesy of
the Arkansas State Archives.
Fort Smith has a unique place in the story of the taming of the American West. The city’s history created legendary outlaws and lawmen, including a German native who became known as the most prolific executioner of the late 1800s.
George Maledon was born June 10, 1830, in Landau, Germany, and immigrated with his parents to the United States. The family settled in the Detroit area. As a young man in the late 1840s, Maledon headed west and first landed a job at a lumber mill for the Choctaw Nation. The work didn’t interest him as much as law enforcement, however, so Maledon traveled to Fort Smith, where he joined the city’s police force in 1857.
When the Civil War broke out, Maledon enlisted with the Union army in the First Arkansas Light Artillery Battery. After the war, in 1871, he became a guard with the U.S. marshals for the U.S. District Court for the Western District, which included western Arkansas and Indian Territory, or what is now Oklahoma. The next year, he became a deputy sheriff of Fort Smith. After serving a few years with distinction, he returned to working as a guard for the marshals.
In 1875, U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant appointed former Missouri Congressman Isaac Parker to the district court judge position. Parker’s jurisdiction was a well-known hiding place
s for outlaws, and his court
became one of the busiest courts in the West. The number of outlaws condemned
to death by Parker led to his popular nickname, “The Hanging Judge.” Although
Parker pronounced the sentences, it was Maledon who carried them out.
Maledon became the primary executioner under Parker, but his involvement with executions started in 1873, when he served as an assistant executioner to Charley Messler who was in charge of executions at the time. The first execution in which Maledon was involved was the case of John Childers, who was sentenced to death for the murder of Rayburn Wedding.
Wedding was a traveling salesman who rode a circuit through Indian Territory selling bacon and flour in return for animal hides that he sold in Arkansas. On Oct. 14, 1870, Wedding crossed paths with Childers, who demanded Wedding trade horses with him. Wedding refused because his horse was worth more than Childers’ horse. Childers, undeterred, overtook Wedding, murdered him and stole his fine, black horse.
On May 15, 1871, the grand jury indicted Childers for murder, and he was held over for trial in Fort Smith. His trial began in May 1873 and resulted in conviction and a death sentence. On Aug. 15, 1873, Childers stood on the newly built gallows and awaited his fate. The sky was clear and sunny, but as the executioner readied the noose, a dark cloud suddenly appeared. As the execution time grew closer, the dark cloud grew larger, and a light rain began to fall.
When asked for final words, Childers spoke for 15 minutes, detailing his life of crime and warning the audience to avoid consorting with dangerous criminals. As Childers spoke, he recognized other members of his criminal gang in the audience. He remarked that, even though his gang members all promised to aid each other, “they seem to be doing nothing for me now.” The hangman said he would spare Childers if he would identify the rest of the gang in the audience, but Childers declined and demanded the marshal pull the trap door to hang him.
The storm grew more intense. Maledon recalled, “Just as the trap was sprung, the keenest flash of lightning I ever saw rent the air, accompanied by a tremendous clap of thunder.” Seconds later, Childers was dead. Almost simultaneously, the storm ended, and the sky began to clear.
Over the next few decades, many outlaws would meet the same fate as Childers. After Maledon became chief executioner for the court, the number of executions he oversaw earned him the nickname “The Prince of Hangmen.”
When Maledon retired in 1894, he claimed he hanged 83 men but admitted he had not kept good records. The exact number of men Maledon hanged cannot be verified. As with so many Old West personalities, reality has been blended with myth.
After retirement, Maledon went on tour to talk about his experiences as a hangman in Judge Parker’s court. He carried with him pieces of rope and a gallery of photographs of outlaws who met their ends on the gallows. He drew large crowds wherever he went.
Maledon died in Tennessee at a retirement home for soldiers in 1911. Until the end, he said he was never bothered by his role as a hangman. A reporter asked Maledon in 1900 if he was haunted by the ghosts of those he hanged, but Maledon scoffed. “I sleep just as soundly as I ever did, and when I am awake, I am not bothered with bad thoughts,” Maledon said. “You can just say for me that the botheration of the spirits is not a factor in my life. I simply did my duty, and, as I have said, there was not a man sentenced to be hung by Judge Parker who didn’t deserve to be hung.”
For more information on the history of Fort Smith or Arkansas, visit the Arkansas State Archives at 1 Capitol Mall, Suite 215, or call 501-682-6900. Information is also available online at http://archives.arkansas.gov/. For information on the acquisition of U.S. District Court of Western Arkansas records, visit http://arkansasstatearchives.blogspot.com/2019/03/new-acquisition-announced-at-arkansas.html.