Irish Immigrant Likely Innocent in 1845 Rhode Island Murder

Story from CBS News, March 31, 2011:

John Gordon’s American dream ended on Valentine’s Day in 1845, when the 29-year-old Irish immigrant was hanged for killing a wealthy mill owner and became the last man executed in Rhode Island. Historians say he was probably innocent.

Now an effort to pardon Gordon 166 years after his execution has state officials revisiting a cold case from a darker time, when discrimination against Irish Catholics was a fact of life.

“My grandmother used to sing a little ditty about ‘Poor Johnny Gordon,'” said Ken Dooley, a Newport writer who wrote a play based on the case. “Gordon was executed because he was an Irish Catholic at the wrong time. As far as I’m concerned, they murdered that kid.”

Lawmakers reviewed legislation Wednesday that calls on Gov. Lincoln Chafee to pardon Gordon. Chafee, whose own ancestors had business ties with the mill owner who was killed, said he supports the idea.

“There are many grains of sand through the hourglass of time since then,” Chafee told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “But I think it’s appropriate as a symbolic gesture. There could have been errors. There could have been emotional issues at play.”

Gordon left Ireland to join his brothers Nicholas and William in Rhode Island in 1843, on the eve of the great potato famine. Nicholas had arrived years earlier and owned a general store and tavern near a major mill. Business was good.

Wealthy mill owner Amasa Sprague wanted the tavern closed. Too many workers showed up drunk. Sprague had connections: His brother William was a former governor and a sitting U.S. senator. Authorities soon closed Nicholas Gordon’s tavern.

Amasa Sprague’s body was found Dec. 31, 1843. He’d been shot in the arm and beaten hard enough to fracture his skull in two places.

John Gordon was arrested the next day. Prosecutors later said he and his brothers conspired to kill Sprague to retaliate for their lost liquor license.

The trial lasted nine days and included more than 100 witnesses. The judge told the jurors — none of whom were Irish — to give more weight to “Yankee” witnesses than Irish ones.

“Hindsight is 20/20, but this case was compromised from the beginning,” said Michael DiLauro, a public defender who has researched the Gordon case for years.

Much of the evidence was circumstantial. Pieces of a gun were found near Sprague’s body; witnesses said they had seen one of the brothers carrying a gun days before the shooting. A prostitute testified that she knew the Gordons and had heard one vowing to kill Sprague. But when asked to name the Gordon brothers individually, she couldn’t. Historians later discovered that she worked for the brother of one of the judges presiding over Gordon’s trial.

The jury deliberated for 75 minutes before finding John Gordon guilty. The sentence was death. Appeals to the General Assembly and the governor went unheard.

“Gordon clearly was wrongly convicted,” said Patrick Conley, a retired professor of history and law who has taught at Providence College and Roger Williams University. “It was the temper of the times. Bigotry, hostility toward Irish Catholics was widespread.”

Gordon was hanged on Feb. 14, 1845. Irish immigrants — who had raised money for the Gordons’ legal fees — protested throughout New England. Thousands marched in Gordon’s funeral procession.

Gordon’s brothers were never convicted. John Gordon was buried in a church cemetery in Pawtucket. The site of his hanging is now a downtown mall. Across the street is a tavern, designed as a replica of a traditional Irish pub.

The Catholic Church and the American Civil Liberties Union both support the call to pardon Gordon. Representatives from both groups told lawmakers Wednesday that Gordon’s trial shouldn’t be forgotten.

“John Gordon was put to death because he was Catholic,” said Father Bernard Healey of the Diocese of Providence. “It was Catholics in the 19th century. Who will it be this century?”

Chafee’s family has its own footnote in the story. After the Sprague Manufacturing Co. collapsed in the 1870s, Zechariah Chafee, the governor’s great-great uncle, was named a trustee. Chafee then became enmeshed in a legal dispute over his payment and the company’s assets.

Questions about Gordon’s trial prompted Rhode Island to abolish its death penalty seven years after the execution. The state reinstituted capital punishment in the 1870s before abolishing it again in 1984, but no executions were carried out.

Rep. Peter Martin, the lawmaker who sponsored the legislation to pardon Gordon, said some people tell him his bill is a waste of time when the state faces problems including a $331 million deficit.

“This was an injustice done by the state of Rhode Island by our predecessors,” said Martin, D-Newport. “We have a lot of responsibilities to the citizens of Rhode Island. Justice is one of them, isn’t it?”

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