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Classification: Murderer?
Characteristics: Anti-immigrant hysteria against Irish Roman Catholics
Number of victims: 1 ?
Date of murder: December 31, 1843
Date of birth: 1816
Victim profile: Amasa Sprague (Yankee factory owner)
Method of murder: Beating
Location: Knightsville, Rhode Island, USA
Status: Executed by hanging on February 14, 1845. The last person executed by Rhode Island. Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee pardoned Gordon on June 29, 2011

John Gordon (died February 14, 1845) was the last person executed by Rhode Island. His conviction and execution have been ascribed by researchers to anti-Roman Catholic and anti-Irish immigrant bias. As a result, he was posthumously pardoned in 2011.

In 1844, Gordon was tried and convicted for the December 31, 1843 beating murder of Amasa Sprague, a Cranston textile factory owner. The murder occurred within the village of Knightsville, Rhode Island.

Sprague was a member of a prominent Rhode Island family. His brother William was a United States senator. Six months before his murder, Amasa Sprague had used his family's political influence to have Cranston resident Nicholas Gordon's liquor license removed by the city council. (Sprague's employees were habitually getting drunk at Gordon's premises.)

Nicholas Gordon and his brother John were Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland. Nicholas, John and William Gordon (another brother) were all tried for murder, but only John was convicted, a conviction based on contradictory circumstantial evidence. William was found not guilty and in Nicholas's case, held after John's execution, the jury was hung. John Gordon was executed by hanging in the state jail in Providence. The court justices, which included Justice Job Durfee, that were involved in all three trials acted as both trial judges and the court of final appeal. Included in jury instructions, Durfee "told the jurors to give greater weight to Yankee witnesses than Irish witnesses."

Seven years after Gordon's execution, Rhode Island abolished the death penalty. Although it was reintroduced in 1872, no executions took place before capital punishment was abolished again by the state in 1984. In the 1990s, when the Rhode Island General Assembly considered reinstating the death penalty, Gordon's case has been used by those against reinstatement to demonstrate the dangers of capital punishment.

Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee pardoned Gordon on June 29, 2011, following passage of legislation by the state's General Assembly urging such action. Chafee signed the proclamation of pardon at the Old State House, where Gordon's trial took place more than 150 years prior.


Judge’s old notes shed light on last execution in R.I.

By Scott Mackay -

May 25, 2008

SOUTH KINGSTOWN — It is a 19th-century Rhode Island legal case that has lived through the ages in the legal and historical psyche of Rhode Island: the 1844 murder trial that resulted in the hanging of John Gordon, the last time the death penalty was used in the state.

The trial came at a time in the state of anti-immigrant hysteria against Irish Roman Catholics, the first group to immigrate here in large numbers and threaten the hegemony of the Yankee Protestants that ran Rhode Island as their duchy.

Now, Christine King, a University of Rhode Island employee, and Scott Molloy, a URI professor and noted student of Rhode Island history, have identified original papers belonging to Job Durfee, the state Supreme Court chief justice who presided over the Gordon case.

King has carted the papers from one attic to another in a series of moves over her adult life. The documents came from her family home in Tiverton, which was once owned by Durfee. King’s grandfather, a dairy farmer named George Morgan, was proud, said King, “that he got the home of such a respected man, a judge, a rich man.”

In 1975, when her grandfather died, King took the Durfee papers, but didn’t think much of them for years. Finally she took a closer look at them and consulted Molloy, who realized immediately that the Durfee material would have historical significance, because the justice was involved in three of Rhode Island’s most contentious 19th-century trials. Besides the Gordon trial, Durfee was a judge in an 1833 murder trial that ended with the conviction of a Methodist minister in the killing of a female factory worker; the 1842 treason trial of Thomas Wilson Dorr, who led a statewide rebellion against the Yankee establishment that refused to enact universal suffrage or allow immigrants to vote; and the Gordon case and two related trials against Gordon’s brothers for involvement in the murder of Amasa Sprague, who owned a textile factory.

The notes of John Gordon’s trial are in Durfee’s cryptic and difficult-to-read handwriting. After a cursory examination, Molloy says, there “is no smoking gun there” that would provide more clues about Gordon’s guilt or innocence.

“But this is an unbelievable find,” says Molloy. “To be able to see the handwriting of a judge who was involved in some of the most important cases of the 19th century is unusual. It is especially unbelievable to have this kind of original source material surface after so long.”

The John Gordon trial especially resonates to this day. The questions surrounding his death by hanging have long been cited by opponents of capital punishment as evidence that it should not be used in the state’s criminal law. Every time there was a serious attempt at the State House to bring the death penalty back to the state — the last was in the 1990s by then-Rep. Antonio Pires, D-Pawtucket — Gordon’s trial is invoked and measures to reinstitute capital punishment are defeated.

On New Year’s Eve in 1843, Amasa Sprague, a Yankee factory owner, who at the time manufactured textiles in Cranston, was beaten to death. Sprague’s body was discovered in the snow; he had been bludgeoned so brutally that his face was barely recognizable, according to a 1993 book on the subject, Brotherly Love, by Charles and Tess Hoffmann, professors at URI and Rhode Island College, respectively.

Six months before his death, Sprague, scion of one of Rhode Island’s most prominent families — his brother William Sprague was a U.S. senator — used his influence to convince the Cranston City Council to suspend the liquor license of Nicholas Gordon, an Irish immigrant and brother of John Gordon. Nicholas Gordon ran a small store and pub near Sprague’s Cranston factory where workers drank during lunch breaks.

Blame for the alleged revenge killing was quickly put on Nicholas Gordon and his brothers, John and William, Irish immigrants all. A jury found William not guilty but pronounced John guilty after testimony based on contradictory circumstantial evidence. After John’s death, Nicholas went free after a hung jury refused to convict him.

“The justices assumed a dual role throughout all three Gordon trials; they acted as both presiding trial judges and as a supreme court of final appeal, having the power to decide points of law without further appeal except to themselves,” the Hoffmanns write.

Durfee gave instructions to the jury on how to interpret testimony and conversations during deliberations. In one of the most egregious lapses in judicial fairness, Molloy said, Durfee “told the jurors to give greater weight to Yankee witnesses than Irish witnesses.”

“The proceedings were riddled with prejudice against newly arrived Irish Catholics,” said Molloy. “Durfee upheld almost all of the objections raised by the prosecution while overruling most defense challenges.”

One Gordon prosecutor raised the specter of Gaelic solidarity to explain the murder, saying “the tie of kindred to an Irishman is an almost indissoluble bond.”

The Gordon trials were held in an atmosphere of bias against immigrants and Catholics. The Dorr rebellion had sent a shiver through the Yankee elite, who held Rhode Island in a tight grip by control of the ballot box, refusing consistently to allow immigrants and the poor to vote. By the 1850s, the Know-Nothing Party, an anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant political party, would control state government.

John Gordon walked to the gallows from his cell at the state prison, which in those days was located in Providence, where the Providence Place mall now stands. Sixty community notables attended the hanging, along with another 1,000 or so people — Molloy says they were most likely Irish immigrants — who stood on the outskirts of the prison but were too far way to see the gallows, which were in the jail courtyard.

The Rev. John Brady, a Catholic priest, shocked the elite observers by saying to Gordon before the hanging: “Have courage, John. You are going to appear before a just and merciful judge. You are going to join myriads of your countrymen, who, like you, were sacrificed to the shrine of bigotry and prejudice.”

Seven years after Gordon’s death, Rhode Island abolished the death penalty. It has never been resurrected, and today the state is 1 of only 12 in the United States without capital punishment.

The Durfee documents will be given to the Rhode Island Historical Society.

“This is a great addition to documents from a contentious time in Rhode Island history,” says Molloy.


Murder at the Sprague Mansion

Rhode Island's "Unsolved" Mystery

By Nicole Camarda -

Roger Williams was exiled to Rhode Island after demonstrating his then-radical beliefs on religious freedom to the settlers in Massachusetts. Williams openly invited all races and religions to live in peace in Rhode Island and aimed for peace among the white man and the Narragansett Indians.

Knowing that Rhode Island was founded on those ideals and practices, it is hard to believe that at one time Rhode Island was a state full of hatred toward immigrants. It is a sad truth to accept. Perhaps the most scrutinized and belittled group were the Irish, being the first of many nations' refugees to Rhode Island. It is especially hard for us to believe this after years of taking part in St. Patrick's Day parties and events. But there was time when the Irish were the subjects of discriminatiton - not celebration.

The Spragues were a prominent industrial family in Rhode Island. William and Amasa Sprague, brothers, ran a prosperous printing company. William Sprague, a governor of Rhode Island from 1860-1863, took a small cotton printing plant and made it into one of the great textile empires of the day. The mill was called "Sprague Print Works" and located in Cranston, Rhode Island, the administrative home of Cranston Print Works Company today. Access to waterways, new technology and natural resources made Sprague Print Works a thriving business until after the Civil War. The brothers were sitting on a gold mine, and business was only getting better. Then, out of the blue, on New Year's Eve day in 1843, Amasa Sprague's dead body was found in the snow outside his mansion in Cranston.

What happens next is part of the greatest trials and mysteries Rhode Island will ever see.

Suspicion in the town immediately pointed fingers at Nicholas Gordon, an Irish immigrant. But why Gordon? Nicholas Gordon was the owner of a small pub close to the print works factory. Sprague's workers would frequent Gordon's business on their lunch hour. As a reaction to his workforce drinking during work hours, Amasa had gone to the city council and revoked Gordon's liquor license. Because Sprague was such a prominent figure in the area he had the power to do this, and because Gordon was just an immigrant, he had no choice but to accept the revoke.

Before this had happened, Gordon had written his family in Ireland of the good news of his business and sent for the entire family to move to Rhode Island and live with him. So by the time of the license revoking and the murder, the entire Gordon family was already in Rhode Island. One can see an obvious motive for Nicholas Gordon to murder Amasa Sprague.

However, given the facts of these extremely biased trials, the answer to "who done it?" remains in the air even today. It is up to you to make your own decision about this case.

Police immediately arrested Gordon and anyone else in his family they could find. They even arrested his elderly mother and the family dog. The first trial put brothers John and William on the stand, as they were tried together before Nicholas even had a trial.

Because this was a capital crime, it was heard by the entire Supreme Court of Rhode Island at the then-statehouse on Benefit Street. There were some pieces of "evidence" but no real tangible proof that any of the Gordons really committed this crime. There were no eyewitnesses to the murder.

The main witness against the Gordons was a woman named Susan Field, a prostitute living in a brothel at 20 Benefit Street. She made all kinds of accusations with no solid proof. When asked to point out the brothers, she pointed them out wrong saying John was William, and vice versa.

Unsaid at the time, the owner of that brothel was a man named Samuel Staples whose brother just happened to be an associate judge on the Supreme Court. So it is difficult to say if there were other motives behind her testimony. John had no real alibi while William claims he had been out with friends.

The jury was made up of all upper class Yankee men, definitely a trial "by a jury of your peers."

Lots of trivial details entered the court room. A coat was found at the scene of the crime - some said it was Gordon's, some said it wasn't. There was a broken rifle found near the body and there were claims that a rifle was missing from the Gordon home. There was a footprint in the snow near the crime scene and prosecuting lawyers claimed it was Gordon's boot print and size.

It is hard to imagine "evidence" like this being used in court, but back then was a completely different world than we live in today. Without a doubt if this murder took place today, there would be scientific proof as to who committed the crime. But, in 1843 juries went with what was given to them and their gut instinct.

The prosecuting attorney even told the jury that Irish men are known to stick by their family, especially brothers. The judge also said to the jury that if they came across any contradiction in the stories, then to think of "the better half" of who testified. We can't even imagine a judge saying something like that today, basically telling his jury not to listen to the Irish.

The trial lasted nine days and it took 75 minutes for the jury to come up with a verdict. The Yankee jury came back with a guilty verdict against John Gordon, yet found William unanimously not guilty.

Nicholas had his first trial in October 1844, and this time there were about 100 witnesses to the same crime that earlier had almost no witnesses.

Gordon had brought an attorney from Boston down to represent him.

In addition to murder, Gordon was held and tried on conspiracy charges. He had valid answers for all questions asked. When asked why his rifle was missing, he explained that it was hidden because in Ireland it is illegal to own a weapon.

The jury came back split and a second trial was set for April, but John Gordon's hanging was in the meantime. The defense team sent a proposal to postpone the hanging until after Nicholas' trial, but there was a 36/27 vote not to postpone. John Gordon was hanged on February 14, 1845. This wasn't a public hanging, but about 60 Rhode Island elites were invited to attend. John marched up to the scaffold with a Catholic priest, John
Brady. It is customary to for Catholics to confess their sins to a priest before death, so it is not too presumptuous to assume that John Gordon told his priest the truth of what happened. But interestingly, the priest told Gordon, "Have courage, John. You are going to appear before a merciful and just judge. You are going to join other countrymen who have been sacrificed by bigotry. Forgive your enemies."

John Gordon died in 20 minutes at the age of 29. He was the last person to receive the death penalty in Rhode Island. It was abolished in 1852. His coffin was carried past the Sprague mansion, and the state house on Benefit Street. He is allegedly buried at St. Mary's Cemetery in Pawtucket.

Nicholas' second trial was held that April and the jury could not agree on a verdict. It was a vote of 9 for acquittal, and 3 for guilty. He was released on $10,000 bail. He was never convicted for conspiracy, yet his brother was executed for murder.

The justice system of the time was clearly unjust. This murder will forever remain an unknown in Rhode Island history.

Years later, after the collapse of the Sprague textile empire, the mansion was sold and used variously as a boarding house or foreman's residence. The threat of demolition in 1967 activated the Cranston Historical Society to acquire the property and it is now open to the public. The building houses furniture from the Carrington Collection of the Rhode Island Historical Society. As the center of one of the largest 19th-century industrial empires in America and the residence of Cranston's most famous family, the Sprague Mansion is the best known historic structure in the city.



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