"Story of a Hanged Man"

A review by Drew Desmond

It was around the turn of the century when author and Prescott historian Parker Anderson was reading an account of (Fleming) "James" Parker, notorious outlaw and subject of many wild west dime novels. It was an interesting account, but much to Anderson's chagrin, it did not include proper sourcing.

Perhaps it was at this moment that Anderson succumbed to a syndrome not uncommon to historians: he was bitten by the "dig-up the truth" bug. Little did he know that he would be embarking on a sixteen-year odyssey that included hurdles, difficulties, and an occasional dead end.

The James Parker story is one of a petty criminal who decided to step-up to train robbery with disastrous results. His unidentified partner was shot and killed in the effort. Then while in a Prescott jail, Parker escaped, shooting a popular by-stander in the process. After a long and tedious manhunt, he was recaptured, tried for premeditated murder and hanged.

Anderson's book is a readable account that is scholarly in its research. He writes: "I believe this to be the fullest, most detailed account of Parker's life and crimes to be published to this day." Indeed, the tailings pile of turned-over research rocks is most impressive.

In addition to the usual areas of research, (court documents, genealogies and the like,) Anderson added a gigantic chore to his list: he researched and discovered every single pertinent newspaper account surrounding the story and the rest of Parker's life.

The use of newspaper accounts in researching the 19th century Old West is something that historians have dismissed in the past due to their occasional inaccuracies and misidentifications.

Anderson "strongly disagree(s)", however, arguing that "while inaccuracy existed to a certain extent due to poor communications,...19th century newspapers are surprisingly detailed as reporters took great pains to seek out eyewitnesses."

It could be argued that when it comes to the particulars of Fleming James Parker, Anderson's research method is essential. Being such a famous case, a number of key documents were pilfered by souvenir hunters. When a court document is lost, the newspaper account of the proceeding must do.

Anderson's research diggings also unearthed several gold nuggets. No less than a half-dozen intriguing sources are brought to light for the first time since they were filed away all those years ago. Of these, the reviewer's favorite was "Parker's story as told by Parker himself." The terrible fo-net-tick spellings Parker used spoke loudly of his lack of education.

Also included in the volume are many rare images and photographs, twenty-three of which come from the author's own collection.

Anderson's desire to thoroughly scratch his itch of curiosity extended to researching what happened to all the ancillary characters of the story as well. Often it was found that their participation in the Parker case was their "fifteen minutes of fame" and they slipped back into anonymity. However, those that Anderson did find information on provide interesting biographies by themselves.

Anderson concludes with a chapter exploring the myths, legends, and unverifiable stories that have grown-up surrounding Parker and a chapter highlighting other writings on the subject.

Ultimately, by taking into account every newspaper report on the topic, Anderson is able to whittle the myth away from reality and offer a mosaic of the closest thing we will ever come to the truth. In so doing, he also proves the worthiness of his research methodology.

It took 16 years for Parker Anderson to overcome the itch of being bitten by the "dig-up the truth" bug; "Story of a Hanged Man" offers a complete inoculation for the rest of us!

Books by Parker Anderson

Story of a Hanged Man

Wicked Prescott

Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery

Cemeteries of Yavapai County

Elks Opera House

Here are some other great ‘local’ books you might like. 

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                                                                     © Michelle Young 2012