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Saturday, July 31, 2021

Special Submission: "Quest for Richard Parker"

I'm very pleased to publish this special submission on Judge Richard Parker, who presided over the trial of John Brown and his raiders in 1859.  In this particularly busy season, I am especially grateful to Trish Ridgeway for sharing her rich and expert research on this important figure in the John Brown story! --LD


I began my quest for the story of Judge Richard Parker in a courtroom where he practiced. As a docent at the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum, located in the 1840 Frederick County (Virginia) Courthouse, I often faced the question, “Were there famous trials here?” 

Richard Parker (Wikipedia)

I told them that there were no outstanding trials, but Judge Richard Parker held court here and explained that he was the judge in the 1859 trial of John Brown in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia). Fortunately, museum visitors did not ask for more details about Parker because I did not know much more about him.

Sources of Information about Parker

Noted John Brown collector Boyd B. Stutler (1889-1970) wrote the longest biography of Parker—a 1953 article in the Magazine of the Jefferson County Historical Society. Authors writing about the John Brown trial, who want to provide background information on Parker, cite this article. It is full of details about Parker’s life, drawn from his daily journals and other sources but provides no documentation. As a retired librarian and amateur genealogist, I was offended by this. Surely, I could locate more information.

Therefore, I began my search for primary sources relating to Parker. I discovered Stutler did not document his sources because he owned most of them. After Stutler’s death, the West Virginia State Archives acquired his massive John Brown holdings. In 1999, on the 140th Anniversary of Brown’s hanging, the Archives placed the majority of the John Brown/Boyd B. Stutler Collection Database online, and it is a phenomenal resource. The University of Virginia, the Library of Congress, and the Chicago Historical Society also have important Parker documents, and there are minor holdings in other institutions. Parker’s wife, Evalina Moss Parker (1821-1887), preceded him in death, and they had no children. His estate went to two nieces, who sold everything, and what items were not destroyed, either by Parker or the nieces, were widely dispersed among collectors. It was just the kind of challenge a librarian enjoys.

Richard Parker Discoveries

What have I discovered about Judge Parker? I knew that his father and grandfather were also prominent lawyers. Until I put together a complete genealogy of Parker and his wife, I did not realize how enmeshed into Virginia aristocracy he was. His ancestors married into prominent families. His sisters married into the noteworthy Milson, McCormick, and Crenshaw families. When it came time for Richard Parker to marry, he married Evalina Moss. Her great-uncle, Hugh Holmes (1768-1825), was a notable Winchester judge. Evalina’s aunts on the Holmes side married into the McGuire, Conrad, and Boyd families—all leaders in the community. Her sisters also married into prominent families. When Parker presided at Brown’s trial, Virginia Governor Henry Wise, U.S. Senator James Murray Mason, and prosecuting attorney Andrew Hunter were his peers.

Richard Parker, Harpers Ferry Paymaster—Some Shady Practices?

Rarely mentioned is that Parker served as paymaster and military storekeeper at the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry from 1838 to 1847. The job was a political appointment that brought many perks. According to Merritt Roe Smith’s work on the armory, many irregularities occurred in the administration of the paymaster’s office. Richard Parker was no different: 

One of the most mischievous practices consisted of paying armorers with depreciated currency. . .  While every incumbent from Lloyd Beall to Richard Parker practiced this ruse, it became especially prevalent during the 1830s. In November 1839, for instance, Parker exchanged two treasury drafts on New York banks for discounted bank notes and realized a profit of $1700. This sum exceeded his annual salary by more than four hundred dollars.1

Smith cites records of the Chief of Ordnance in the National Archives, which I have not had the opportunity to examine.

Parker: Undated gilt portrait,
Shenandoah Valley
Battlefields Foundation

When Parker left the armory, he strongly recommended his paternal aunt’s son, John Richard Parker Daingerfield (1817-1889), for the post of paymaster. I have not found any research that notes that the men were cousins. Daingerfield was appointed paymaster. On his way to work on October 17, 1859, he was taken by John Brown’s men and held with the other hostages. Daingerfield was a witness in Brown’s trial.  Current Virginia law does not require that a judge recuse himself when a cousin is involved in a trial. However, I think that today this relationship and Parker’s previous connection to the armory would lead a judge to recuse himself. In 1859, ruling-class members were tightly bound by family, political, and other ties. Therefore, Parker’s affiliations were probably of no concern.

U.S. Congressman Richard Parker 

Parker was active in politics during his time at the armory, attending Democratic Party conventions and coercing employees to vote for the party of the armory superintendent—another common practice. He practiced law for a time after leaving Harpers Ferry. In 1849, Parker won the nomination by the Democratic Party in Winchester for a seat in the U.S. Congress. It took sixteen ballots, but he was nominated, and subsequently won. 

One item that survives from his Congressional term is a February 23, 1850, speech he delivered on whether California should be admitted to the Union as a free or slave-holding state. He staunchly defended the right of Southern states to own slaves and to retrieve slaves from the North and stated that the North had no right to exclude slavery from the territories. He warned, “should aggression be accumulated upon aggression, and wrong upon wrong—it is not for me to predict what line of conduct Virginia will pursue.”2 He gave the speech nine years before the John Brown raid.

Judge Richard Parker

Parker resigned from Congress in January 1851 when he was appointed to be a judge of the General Court and soon after was appointed to the Virginia 13th Circuit Court. Ironically, he was following in the footsteps of his father, Richard Elliott Parker (1783-1840), who resigned from the U.S. Senate when appointed in 1837 to what is now called the Virginia Supreme Court. 

Judge Richard Parker, the arraignment of Brown and his men, 
and the Charlestown Court House as portrayed in contemporary
illustrated newspapers (Nov. 1859)

The district that Judge Parker served included Harpers Ferry. He was not selected to be the judge at the John Brown trial because of his political connections. By happenstance, Parker was the judge assigned to hear cases in the Jefferson County circuit court that opened at the county seat of Charles Town on October 20, 1859, two days after Brown and his men were captured. The November 2, 1859, New York Weekly Tribune described Parker at the trial:

"On an elevated platform at the rear sat the Judge, comfortably reclining in his chair, his legs resting upon the table before him, amid the chaos of law-books, papers, and inkstands, and holding upon his knees a volume bigger than all the rest. Judge Parker is a man of middle age, short and stoutish, and with a countenance singularly stern, by reason of the sharp lines about the mouth. His manner is mild and quiet, and there is dignity in his presence, notwithstanding the aspiring legs."

Parker’s handling of the John Brown trial is much debated. The trial proceeded at great speed, and Parker’s rulings have received much scrutiny; however, it is too full a topic to cover adequately here. 

Parker, a Traitor to the Confederacy?

Parker kept a journal during the Civil War. He does mention the war, but the journal is more centered on personal matters and trips to visit relatives. I was surprised that he was able to travel during the war. He mentioned that on July 10, 1863, he had difficulty returning from Richmond to Winchester, a distance of about 136 miles, when, “Found all public means of conveyances taken up by Conf. Govt.” He had left Winchester on June 29, two weeks after the 2nd Battle of Winchester. The Battle of Gettysburg occurred in his absence. By July 10, every possible means of transport had been commandeered to evacuate the Confederate wounded. 

Parker's Parole of Honor, Nov. 2, 1864 (see note 6)

Incidentally, he notes in his journal that while in Richmond, he called upon Governor John Letcher, Secretary of War James Alexander Seddon, Auditor of Virginia Jonathan McCally Bennett, State Treasurer Major John Strother Calvert, and Secretary of the Commonwealth George Wythe Munford.3

Those wartime trips to Richmond did not work out well. When he returned from a trip to Richmond on April 22, 1864, he was stopped at a Confederate outpost. He told the outpost commander, Captain Thomas Davis, a Maryland native, that Davis must not know who he was. Davis replied that he did, and that is why they stopped Parker. The episode is recorded in detail in a six-page letter Parker sent several days later to General John Imboden, the commander of the troops at the outpost. There had been many questions about Parker’s loyalty during the war, and Captain Davis seemed to know all of them. Imboden’s troops at the outpost appeared to lose interest in the affair. However, Parker would not let the matter rest and brought supporters from Winchester. He interrogated them about his fealty to the cause in front of another officer and was sent through to Winchester two days after he was stopped. Winchester saw over fifty different occupations of the city during the war by the belligerents.  Times were perilous for Winchester civilians since some supported the South and others, the North. Every action and word were scrutinized, and every previous wrong remembered.4

Parker after the War

Before the war, Parker was a friend of Francis Harrison Pierpont (1814-1899). Pierpont was an enemy of Virginia during the conflict because he was governor of the loyal (the Union) portions of Virginia and was instrumental in the formation of the state of West Virginia. After the war, Pierpont went to Richmond to serve as governor of Virginia. He appointed Parker to reorganize the courts in Parker’s old circuit. Both Pierpont and Parker were removed from office when the government in Virginia came under military rule in 1867.

Parker then returned to private practice and also accepted a small number of students to his law school in Winchester.  He had no public comment on the John Brown trial until he agreed to be interviewed for an article in the April 1888 St. Louis Globe-Democrat. The article described the 77-year-old Parker:

Judge Parker is not a large man. He is a little below the average height. He has a strong, compactly-built frame, a dignified bearing and a kindly manner. There is none of the tremor of age about him. His hair is thick, long and iron-gray. He combs it back over the crown. The stature, the massive head, the broad forehead, the square chin and the high complexion suggest in some degree portraits of Stephen A. Douglas. . . .

Parker stated that his main reason for allowing the interview was to set straight criticism of the trial, “that John Brown had a fair and impartial trial, just such as should be granted to all persons.” He made the assertion but provided little evidence.5

Parker obituary notices, 1893

In 1893, Parker died at his home in Winchester at the age of 84. I have located obituaries on Judge Parker from newspapers around the country. Except for local coverage, most of the stories were short and said in one way or another, “Judge Richard Parker, the man who tried John Brown, has died.”

My quest for Parker continues. I am working on a book that will discuss Parker’s life and reproduce primary documents about him. I hope it will become a reference work for those who seek information on Parker when writing about the John Brown trials.

Author's Biographical Information

Trish Ridgeway is a resident of Winchester, Virginia, although she has the good sense to winter in Florida. She retired in 2013 after twenty years as director of the Handley Regional Library that is headquartered in Winchester. She has written and spoken on many library and Civil War topics. Recently, she presented “Remember Me, Union Officer Graffiti from the Gettysburg Campaign” to several area Civil War roundtables. In 2001, with her husband, Harry, she helped establish a museum in Winchester, the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum. Her current projects include creating a library for the Shenandoah Valley Battlefield Foundation and writing a book on Judge Parker.  She is also working on an annotated copy of Boyd Stutler’s article about Parker, to be published in the Magazine of the Jefferson County Historical Society on the 70th anniversary of the article’s first appearance.


     1 Merritt Roe Smith, Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology, the Challenge of Change (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), 265.

     3 Trish Ridgeway, “Judge Richard Parker’s Civil War Diary, 1862-1864,” Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society Journal, 29 (2018), 24.

     4 Trish Ridgeway, “Judge Richard Parker’s Loyalty, the Parker-Imboden Correspondence, Spring 1864,” Journal of the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War Era, 3 (2010), 107-122.

     5 “John Browns Raid, Important Additions to the History of the Harper’s Ferry Affair. Judge Parker, of this City. who Sentenced the Liberators, Reveals Some Long Kept Secrets,” St. Louis Globe Democrat, April 8, 1888, 26-27

     6 Richard Parker Parole of Honor, Nov. 2, 1864, to Brig. Gen. J.B. Imboden, Judge Richard Parker Papers. Richard Parker, 1810-1893, Folder 3. Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Ill.