Just a few days ago, the state senate of Rhode Island in the United States of America passed a resolution by 33 votes to 3 calling for the state Governor to pardon John Gordon, an Irish immigrant hanged in 1845 for the murder of a powerful local mill owner.
Amasa Sprague was a successful mill owner in Knightsville, Rhode Island. The Sprague family was powerful and influential,with a brother William a United States Senator.
The textile plant provided employment for many immigrants who flocked to the locality throughout the 1830s and 1840s. The immigrants, many of them Irish, were disliked by the Protestant ruling classes, not least because of their religion and because many of the earlier settlers who had arrived before the Famine refugees, had set up good businesses.
Nicholas Gordon had established a local store, having arrived from Ireland in the mid 1830s. The county from which he emigrated is not known. His business was doing well and he sent for the remainder of his family, including his mother Ellen,and three brothers William, John and Robert who arrived in 1843. Nicholas held a licence permitting the sale of alcohol. Amasa Sprague was concerned that his workers were partaking of alcohol that was interfering with their productivity. He and Nicholas Gordon clashed about this, but eventually Sprague used his influence to have the alcohol licence revoked.
Also at this time, there was political unrest in Rhode Island. A movement led by Thomas Dorr sought to extend suffrage to all white men and not the small number of wealthy property owners who had the vote. There was unrest in May 1843 with Dorr and his mainly poor Irish immigrant supporters on one side and the conservative ruling class, the Law and Order Party on the other. The unrest lasted several weeks, the Dorr rebellion was put down and, with the help of Amasa Sprague, Thomas Dorr was imprisoned.
When Amasa Sprague was beaten to death on December 31st 1843, suspicion fell on both the followers of Dorr and on the Gordon family. Both had apparent reason to dislike Sprague. Eventually however, 3 of the Gordon brothers were arrested. John and William stood trial in April 1844, with Nicholas Gordon’s trial set for later. Leading the defence was a supporter of Dorr’s movement, paid for by donations from the large immigrant Irish population. The prosecution was led by the Attorney General, leader of the Law and Order Party and the case was heard before 4 members of the state Supreme Court.
As widely reported, John Gordon was convicted of the murder of Sprague in a trial that was full of prejudice against the Irish and against catholics. The jury, as was the case at that time, consisted of landowners only and they were instructed to ‘give greater weight to Yankee witnesses than Irish witnesses’. The case for the prosecution was based on contradictory and circumstantial evidence. An appeal was heard by the same judges who had presided over the trial and not surprisingly, was rejected. On February 14th 1845, John Gordon was hanged. A huge crowd of Irish emigrants from Rhode Island and others from neighbouring states, protesting the verdict, attended his funeral. Sadly, the exact location of his grave is not known.
Nicholas Gordon was eventually released on bail, having been tried twice, each time with a hung jury. He died in debt in 1846. William was found not guilty.
Arguments that John had been wrongly convicted, by reason of racial and religious bigotry and circumstantial evidence, began immediately. Doubts over his conviction led directly to the abolition of the death penalty in Rhode Island, seven years later. Capital punishment was restored some years later, but no one was ever again sentenced to death and it was abolished finally in the 1980s.
The campaign to clear John’s name has run for almost 166 years. Hopefully it is now nearing the end and the last man hanged in Rhode Island will be exonerated.
Special Collections Publications paper 12. Accessed DigitalCommons@University of Rhode Island.ons.uri.edu/sc_pubs/12
Hoffmann, Charles and Tess. Brotherly Love: Murder and the Politics of Prejudice in Nineteenth Century Rhode Island. Boston, University of Massachusetts Press,1993.